By John Foster
“Chef, when was the last time you used a recipe?”
So started my Advanced Techniques class last week. I had to think hard to come up with an answer, and I’m sure by the look on the student’s face it wasn’t a very convincing one. It’s not that I don’t use recipes, or that I don’t like cookbooks, or food shows or food magazines for that matter. But at this point in my career, a recipe is much more and less to me than it is to a less experienced cook. That was the answer I gave and judging by your reaction I was right, it wasn’t a very satisfactory answer.
It got me to thinking about recipes, cookbooks and a cook’s development. We teach from the very first Basic Skills class that recipes are important. They are a guide, a roadmap and a way for anyone to cook.
While that is our premise, it is not entirely true. As the student progresses through the program, the recipes become more extensive and convoluted, but they still achieve the same end; the dish is created, served and judged. Only when we get to Advanced Techniques do the recipes disappear, because I make them … the recipe has accomplished what we want the student to learn; organization, ingredients recognition and procurement, and a little thing called “mise en place.”
Mise en place is a cooking term that the cookbook Larousse Gastronomique defines as “The French term for all the operations carried out in a restaurant prior to serving the meal.” While this does not expressly talk about recipes, they are an integral part of the operations. By guiding the student through four quarters of recipe work we are preparing them, through repetition, to be prepared for service.
It might be confusing, then, that when I get them in Advanced Techniques I stress that they devour cookbooks that interest them and food magazines that catch their eye or that they watch the 24/7 food opera that is the Cooking Channel and Food Network. Who needs those? We can’t use a recipe!
In fact, they are using recipes every day from some very good cookbooks that our library seems to have a million of, or out of my stash of my very favorite ones that I keep in my office. They eventually realize they have learned to cook, from the basics through the finished techniques. Recipes helped to hone those skills and from this point on they have a template to guide them forward. They create dishes based on recipes they have read. They are inspired to try a different approach to a classic they did in Garde Manger (the production of cold and hot appetizers and the reapplication of food in creative and substantial ways). The recipe is the catalyst for their creativity and they’re free!
Once they are out in the industry they will be counted on to produce daily, and in that day-to-day they will find themselves back to reading recipes. Standardized recipes are the backbone of cooking. Think about why you like a particular restaurant’s food, and invariably it can be traced to consistency, which can be tracked to standardized recipes. But they will also learn from good chefs that there is room for creativity, and if they prove their mettle on the line, a smart chef will feed them ingredients and ask them for specials. There is the epiphany; the magic of cooking comes at creation, but even at creation there had to be some structure: recipes.
I have come to rely on a few cookbooks, truly deep and well-researched books that never fail. I have collected many, over 150 in my home kitchen alone. If I had to choose a few they would be “Larousse Gastronomique: The French Laundry Cookbook” by Thomas Keller, “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee, “Culinary Artistry” by Dornenburg and Page, “Food by Waverly Root,” and many more. But any cookbook you admire could be the one that inspires. If you feel the energy to cook without a net, make no mistake that somewhere down below there is probably a recipe to catch your fall.
Oh, and just a side note: I cooked a dish at the Incredible Food Show last weekend that was based on a recipe I learned years ago. Below you will find…my recipe.
Ragout of Local Mushrooms and Heirloom
Tomatoes with Lexington Pasta Gnocchi
1 large oyster mushroom thinly sliced
1 large shiitake mushroom thinly sliced
2 heirloom tomatoes, skinned and chopped
½ clove of garlic thinly sliced
¼ large onion thinly sliced
Sprig of basil, and thyme
Good olive oil
Of course, try to get everything local and assemble it just before you want to eat. Warm the olive oil in a sauté pan and drop in the garlic and onion. Get some color and then drop in the rest of the ingredients. Cook the sauce until the juice from the tomatoes is at it greatest and then drop an order or two of the cooked pasta in the pan. While the pasta is heating it will release starch and together with reduction will finish your sauce and pasta. Top with grated local sheep’s milk cheese and you will not need salt or pepper.
John Foster, a New York native, has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, a restaurant owner, and a college instructor. Currently, he heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus.