I have cooked professionally for several years now, and here, in no particular order, are the things I’ve learned:
- Making a mayonnaise-based sauce is not about technique. It is about art. Some people have it, some people don’t. I have it. You have to treat mayonnaise the same way you would drive a stick-shift car, because the balance between the eggs and the oil is very much like finding the equilibrium point that moves the car forward. The other thing that will help is to add more egg than you think you need, and less vinegar. That is because the egg will bind extra oil and will give you a little more wiggle room before the sauce breaks altogether. If it starts to derail, add a fourth cup of water and keep stirring. It also helps to be as Zen as you can, because invariably, one of those times, a sauce will break and you’ll want to beat yourself with your own whisk. Most people don’t make mayonnaise by hand anymore. I only do it to show off.
- I never measure anything unless I’m baking (at home, that is). Here’s how to get to a point where you can cook without instructions.
- Get a basic cookbook that teaches fundamentals without fancy recipes. Then, read it like a book. Note recurring themes and flavor profiles. If you spend a few weeks doing this, you’ll learn which cooking methods are natural extensions of each other, such as searing a piece of meat in a skillet and then transferring it to the oven to braise. Eventually, you’ll learn the rhythm of making things taste good.
- If you get frustrated after all of this, please just use recipes. People think it’s cool to throw things together, but if you don’t have the palate for it, use someone else’s. Taste, especially making your food appeal to more people than just you, is especially hard. I got lucky in that I’m naturally good at it, but many people aren’t and feel like failures in the kitchen. Don’t sweat it. Every time you want to make something, look it up on FoodNetwork.com. People that come to your house to eat will think you thought up an incredible meal, when in reality, all you did was execute a recipe perfectly. Executing a recipe is just as important as taste. Don’t feel bad because you need some help in the flavor department.
- Knife skills are overrated
- People like to watch me when I’m chopping, because I’m extraordinarily fast. However, I am not in any way accurate in the slightest. Because I have monocular vision, my knife doesn’t ever connect to the cutting board in the same way twice. It’s one of the reasons I’m a great pub cook but suck at fine dining. I know that since I can’t correct my problem, you might think that my advice is coming from that place. But no. If you’re cooking at home or in a restaurant that cares more about french fries than plating, just get the mis en place DONE. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to get the perfect julienne or batonnet. It will take you far more time than it’s worth. Believe me. In an extreme case of loss-of-confidence, I once spent 45 minutes on three carrots. Was it worth it? The salad was perfect, but it took 45 minutes!
- Make foodie friends
- Learn to cook well for free! Dana was trained at Cordon Bleu. I was not. I got a $20,000 education taught in my own home. Surely you have a friend that can show you a few things… like a perfect mayonnaise, julienne, or batonnet. 😛
- Bring food into your conversations. This will often lead to your friends telling you what they made for dinner. You can always file it away for later.
I am sure that I will come back and edit this document as I think of more things to say. But here is a pretty good start.