Thursday, November 1, 2012
Chef John Foster: When you love something, like cooking, that love comes shining through
I was asked recently by a group of visiting middle “scholars” not what I liked to eat the most, but what I most liked to cook. That question is, on its face, a very odd one. No one really likes to have to cook; we would all like a personal chef a la the celebrity. But we soldier on, snipping coupons and planning meals, hoping for an occasional night out where we do, indeed, for a brief span of time have a private chef of sorts.
I, of course, am a chef, so it stands to reason that I like to cook. I cooked for a living, and now I teach others to cook, so any thoughts to the contrary are just plain wrong …. well, not quite. There have been plenty of times, after a long week/weekend of work that I would just as soon have a bowl of cereal and wish my family would do the same.
There are many true stories of famous chefs who favor a fast food burger on the fly to grinding our own at home. In the end, though, I do prefer to cook and eat what I cook, and I hope my family enjoys it as well. So, the question stumped me only for a moment, and I had to switch gears from talking about what I like to eat to what others around me prefer or recognize as my favorite things to cook.
As I wrote this, I was actually cooking two of my favorite items: pasta and brownies (not together, mind you). Pasta of any kind, because of its diversity and blank palette, is always a joy to cook because it takes the pressure off what’s for dinner. It can be with or without sauce, with vegetables and protein, or just a nice carbonara. I favor fresh over dried but in a pinch I’m not picky. And in the end, it’s popular with kids and adults alike. I can even go as far as customizing a dinner to fit my family of four; a little of this for you, a little of that for you. Pasta also tends to be cheap and, while I don’t generally care about that and don’t see it as a reason why I love to cook pasta, I guess inherently the starving artist values pasta for what it can do in all cases – sustain.
Brownies on the other hand present a challenge for me and so I enjoy the thrill of the hunt and the attempt at complete mastery of the dish. That is why I love to cook brownies. I will run with a certain recipe until it bores me with its ease, and then I go in search for another. Ask me which kind of brownie I love to eat and the answer doesn’t vary much. Can’t stand the “fudgey” brownie, it reminds me to much of fudge (imagine that), and I can’t abide fudge. Cake-like is OK, but if it’s too dense and dry then it sucks the moisture out of my mouth and leaves only desolation. Somewhere in between, where the chocolate is not too sweet and a thin line of darkness cuts through the center like the mother lode, that is where my heart lies.
You may wonder if I have wandered off course. If you came down to the previous paragraph first you might think I was writing about what I love to eat, not to cook, and therein lies the rub. You see it’s almost impossible to separate the two. Really good chefs have to be able to cook things they don’t like. If it’s on the menu, it must be bias-free.
But when you truly love something with your whole being, then I truly believe that the love comes shining through. Much like the character of Tita in Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel Like Water for Chocolate food comes alive in people who are passionate about it. When a chef loves the product and the process and is invested in the finished dish, that is when food is transformed from good to ethereal, and that quality is what all aspiring chefs should strive for.
I ‘m done with dinner: chiocciole pasta tossed with peas, reduced chicken broth, butter and parmesan reggiano. Now I’m onto a brownie and milk, Cocoa Brownie recipe from the Food Network, milk from Horizon Organic. This was a meal that was a pleasure to cook and even more so to eat. Now off for a walk with the dog on this chilly evening, got to pay for my loving somehow!
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster 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, and a restaurant owner.