This ain’t about what you think… it’s about cooking and when you stink up the place, it means you’re cooking some damned good food.
My father, may he rest in peace, didn’t tell me a lot of useful things when I was a boy but one of them was, “Boy, don’t marry a woman who can’t cook!” He went on to explain that depending on a woman to feed me wasn’t a good thing. The one thing I got out of that immediately was I needed to learn how to cook – why it was a bad thing was figured out later. Indeed, one of the jobs my father had was as a line cook at a popular downtown restaurant, which did two things: Inspire me to learn how to cook and gave me a taste for caviar.
After my mother had to toss him, I spent a lot of time learning from her and my father’s mother; by the time I was 15, I could do more than just scramble eggs. Years later, I went into the Job Corp and formally learned how to cook. After my stint in the Air Force, where I was introduced to computers, I had a couple of jobs as a cook at three of Wilmington’s most popular places to eat as a line cook and, in one place, I was the number two chef in the kitchen. And it was fun being able to take raw ingredients and turn them into food that would make people nut on themselves. That’s also about the same time when Dad’s other warning became very clear: If I couldn’t cook – and depended on a woman to do it for me – I’d starve.
I gave up cooking for a living to get back into computers – but I never lost the love for it. I could not only cook classic stuff, like steak Diane, but because times were hard – and dollars for food were scarce – I took a page from my musical training and learned to improvise with ingredients to feed myself and my family. Today, I watch “Chopped” on TV where they give chefs baskets of weird ingredients and they have to produce first class meals from things that, normally, no chef in his right mind would combine. Ah, big deal; I was doing that before there was ever such a thing as the Food Network…
I watch the cooking competition shows, like Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef; Hell’s Kitchen’s Gordon Ramsay brings back memories of working the line in a busy kitchen with his yelling and cursing and his eye on food perfection. Top Chef, well, that show’s interesting but kinda bothersome. First, you have a bunch of bright, up and coming chefs competing for prizes and they all come bringing considerable skills, most of which eventually doesn’t meet with the judges’ approval. That the competing chefs argue and have really shitty opinions of each other brings back memories, too. They are confident, cocky, and arrogant; in any other profession, they’d never get hired but in cooking, those are some of the best attributes to have as a chef.
What I know is that me and the judges would be fighting. I was watching Top Chef reruns and in one segment, a team of chefs were about to cook their halibut when the electricity failed on the plancha they were using. The guy cooking the fish cursed, told his partner what the problem was, and his partner said, “Man, we are screwed!” which is the kinder version of what I said. They knew, like I did, that once you start cooking fish, you can’t stop and start over again. They get the meal finished, serve it, then faced judgement.
Of course, the judges all complained about (1) the choice of fish used, (2) there was no crusting or sear on the fish and, (3) the fish was overcooked. The guy responsible for cooking the fish explained that (1) he knew it would be overcooked and (2) it was because the power failed when he started cooking. Well, one of the judges, Food Network’s Tyler Florence, jumped all over the guy for making excuses, saying that chefs have to know how to recover from such things. While Tyler was right, the chef he chewed out – and myself – copped an attitude. He wasn’t making an excuse; he was explaining why the fish was overcooked and Tyler Florence does know that if you start to cook fish – then have to stop and start over again, you’re gonna overcook the fish.
It’s not I watch these shows to learn new recipes; I can go to the shows’ websites for that. I watch them because, well, I used to be one of them, attitude and all.
To date, I think I’ve only been with one woman who’s ability to cook wasn’t all that; well, compared to me, none of the women I’ve ever been with can cook – but I don’t say much about that. Having been classically trained, I know shit about preparing and even selecting food that most people learn by trial and error – but I suppose everyone who learns to cook by any means learns that. Linda and I get into some interesting discussions about cooking. One day, she asked me why I used high heat to cook certain things; I looked at her like, duh, you don’t know? I caught myself and realized that, no, she actually doesn’t; she prefers to sear stuff on low heat over a longer time. You can do that but, depending on what you’re cooking, you’re going to overcook it almost every time. The only real advantage is that cooking over low heat is less messy – but if you cook, you can’t do it without making a mess.
Like a chef on Chopped said, “If you’re not making a mess, you ain’t doing it right..”
While I have the skills to cook professionally – I even wouldn’t mind attending the CIA or another place to get my skills up to today’s standards – I know I don’t have the mindset to cook the way they cook today. Well, yeah, I do, because I’m a perfectionist and a stickler for doing things well and right… maybe I no longer have the patience for it. It’s very hard work and it’s a profession where working smarter and not harder is difficult to apply. There’s no slack time in a kitchen – there is ALWAYS something to do, which is the second thing you learn about working in a kitchen. If the staff is standing around doing nothing, something’s wrong.
I found that even though I no longer cook professionally, I still use the same skills and knowledge I learned way back in the day, mixed in with things I’ve picked up watching cooking shows as well because like any other profession, you never really stop learning how to do what you do. People drive me nuts doing things like using the wrong knife – and not using sharp knives; one of the first thing you learn in the kitchen is a dull knife is a dangerous knife. Not only will it mess up whatever you’re using it on, it’ll mess you up, too. Cooking is a science and, well, I’m kinda good at things scientific. I do it so we can eat… but I still love doing it. Following recipes is easy but, after a while, you just know when something’s done without having to look at the clock on the stove.
When I watch, say, Iron Chef America, I often grimace at the way some foods are prepared, like cooking certain meats rare. The rule used to be that poultry of any kind should never be cooked rare or medium; if it was pink inside, you might kill someone. So, when I see duck breast being cooked rare, well, it gives me chills. I do love it when Morimoto cooks; he’s one of the original Iron Chefs from the Japanese show and, Jesus, he is truly a master chef and artist – I’d give someone’s right arm to train under him.