Having just finished up a four-month culinary course, I thought I'd share some of the best kernels of knowledge I've acquired before I forget them myself.
What follows is ten different concepts, tricks or just plain sense that culinary school has taught me so far:
Number Ten: Mis en place. For chefs, this means having an organized kitchen after five hours of non-stop action. For lay people this means finally doing that major cleaning and overhaul of your kitchen's utensils, spices and food so that you know where everything is. The desired results are the same. When a culinary emergency arises, say a pie needs to come out of the oven now!, you're not frantically opening up drawers looking for the one with the oven mitt in it. It's all about making cooking go smoothly.
Number Nine: Ignore meat thermometers. There are better ways to
accurately judge the doneness of meat, without resorting to the amateur
way of cutting into it or trying to use a thermometer. My
teacher at one point said to throw out your meat thermometers because you'll only ruin the meat by using them.
It's all about the touch and how much give
a steak or a chicken has when you touch it. Next time you're grilling,
try it -- you'll notice the meat is firm and doesn't have much give when
Number Eight: Don't be intimidated by fancy names. Almost
everything in cooking has an obscenely fancy title. Just because a recipe calls for carrots bâtonnet
doesn't mean it takes years of training to make. All it means is the
carrots are cut up into sticks like the ones you used to carry in your
Also, don't be impressed with a restaurant just because
it has thousands of French terms on the menu. Beurre just means butter,
fromage just means cheese and if you ever see Saucisse de Francfort on a menu you'll know the place is really trying to pull the wool over your head: that's French for a hot dog.
Number Seven: Buy a knife sharpner or a steel and learn how to use it. You
can have all the kitchen gadgets in the world but if your knife is
dull, cooking is going to be a pain in the arse. It takes less than a
minute for even a beginner to really put a nice edge on a semi-sharp
blade and it will save half an hour and a lot of muscle strength over
the course of prepping for a meal. Also, a real chef can nearly do every single task using only a sharp chef's knife. If you're going to have one knife in the kitchen make it a chef's knife.
Number Six: Salt and pepper are your frenemies. No matter if you're
making pasta or chicken or even a dessert, always taste it and always add salt to bring out the flavor. Doesn't mean you should add a ton of salt, but there should be some. Salt is best used frequently but sparingly. You can add more salt to a dish but you can't take the salt out.
As for pepper, make sure you know the strength of the one you're using. A fine-grade pepper will give the same amount of kick to a food even if it looks to be only half the amount of a medium-grade pepper. Fresh pepper is more potent than pepper that's been on a shelf for a year.
Never be afraid to ask for salt and pepper at a restaurant and don't be offended if someone asks for it at your restaurant. Everybody's taste are different and restaurants that don't have shakers on the tables are just kidding themselves that they are pleasing everyone.
Number Five: Ratios. It's worth committing these to memory: one
pound pasta for one gallon of water. 2-1 ratio of water to rice or 3-1
ratio for brown rice. 3-1 ratio of olive oil to vinegar to make a classic vinaigrette dressing. 1-1 ratio of flour to butter in a classic roux
with 8 ounces of each for a gallon of water. Also a 4-1 mixture of
vegetable oil to olive oil is virtually identical in taste to olive oil
and much cheaper.
Number Four: Always. Unless a recipe specifically calls for salted butter,
always use unsalted butter. Always use chicken base with chicken not salt as the
first ingredient. Always put the presentation side of meat first on the
grill (except for fish). Always put a hotel pan underneath your cutting
board to catch liquid if you're cutting something moist. Always cook
vegetables al dente. Always peel asparagus to make sure it cooks
Number Three: Never. Never put live oysters in tap water, the chlorine will kill them. Never eat any shellfish in which the shell is open before it's cooked. Never place an alkaline and green vegetables together. Never store sugar and salt right next to each other. Never test whether a fryer is hot by spitting into it.
Number Two: Be an expert on cooking methods above all else. When people ask me what area of cooking I've most improved in because of culinary school, I don't say knife skills or recipes or proper sauce making. Instead I tell them that it's given me the confidence to look at a piece of meat and know whether braising, sauteing, frying or some other method will be best to cook it.
The way you cook something is just as important as the food itself and unfortunately there are no hard or fast rules. Take something like a chicken breast. Depending on the size, age and desired taste of the breast, it requires different ways of cooking. The first step to really master cooking is learning the ins and outs of moist heat and dry heat.
Number One: Don't pay too much for culinary school! No matter what your
degree says, if you're new to the industry, you're going to start out on
the bottom rung at a restaurant, making bottom rung prices. My class at
Johnson County Community College was less than $200 and the entire
two-year chef accreditation program at JCCC costs a fraction of what
one semester would cost at The Culinary Institute of America or The
French Culinary Institute. (The FCI recently cut the price of its nine-month-course price by $5,000 but it's still $29,000 a year.)
If you're interested in cooking, don't spend money on classes to decide whether to make it your career -- get experience. I'd rather have a
week doing dishes at a four-star restaurant on my resume than most culinary degrees. The real money doesn't come until you start your own restaurant and every restaurateur I've ever talked to says there's no class or experience that can prepare you for owning
your own restaurant -- except to do it.
— Owen Morris