Pro chef lessons for home cooks – or travelling cooks if you’re cooking in a holiday house or apartment rental kitchen – is a subject I’ve been mulling over, so I thought I’d write the occasional post on cooking tips I’ve picked up from the experts, starting with a lesson about precision.
Over the years, during the course of our work as travel and food writers, I’ve spent a lot of time with chefs in their restaurants, observing them at work, photographing their food, sitting down to do interviews, and even cooking in their kitchens.
I can’t recall who was the first chef we got to chew the fat with, because chatting to chefs after a meal was just something that Lara and I found ourselves naturally doing, often over a glass of wine or three, well before we began writing professionally about travel and food.
But some stand out: the chef in Jordan who ended up taking us on a street food tour of Amman; an afternoon spent with a Zen vegetarian chef in the calmest Michelin-starred kitchen ever in Milan; the night our fly-in-the-wall reporting at Reflets in Dubai resulted in me cooking dinner for chef Pierre Gagnaire (and learning the secret to his Côte de Bœuf); and a couple of days spent with Rene Redzepi and his chefs Beau Clugston and Thomas Frebel in the kitchen at Nahm, Bangkok.
I’ve always left those experiences and interviews, informal or otherwise, with a few pro chef lessons for home cooks that have stayed with me – expert tips that I’ve been able to put to use in our various home kitchens over the years.
I thought it time to share some of those pearls of cooking wisdom with you, starting with a lesson in precision in the kitchen and why size matters from chef Dan Hunter, one of the finest chefs cooking contemporary Australian cuisine.
Pro Chef Lessons for Home Cooks – Precision in the Kitchen and Why Size Matters
Increasingly in recent years, as part of a growing global movement to go organic and reduce food waste, both in professional and home kitchens, we’ve seen a return to using ‘ugly produce’, the imperfect vegetables of our childhoods, from a time before the supermarket giants decided every potato and carrot should look perfect.
I’ve also noticed a parallel trend in the food media – a shift away from following recipes by, somewhat ironically, recipe site editors who in their weekly newsletters encourage time-poor readers to whip up dishes with whatever’s in the fridge and throw together meals, tossing ingredients into a pressure cooker or chucking a chicken and vegetables into a roasting pan.
The image of the dish in their magazine or on their website is always of a big glistening chook surrounded by colourful rustic-looking vegetables, varying in size. The vegetables always look mouth-watering but how do they taste? They are probably unevenly cooked.
One of the things that distinguishes a great professional chef from a good home cook is precision – which goes against this trend, yet it is a perfect way to handle those imperfect ingredients we love so much.
When chefs make a mirepoix (in French) or a soffritto (in Italian), they painstakingly ensure that those finely chopped onions, carrots and celery are precisely the same size, because what that means is even cooking time for the ingredients. In the case of the soffritto, the ingredients virtually disappear in a ragù.
Which makes me think about how we cook ingredients more generally. Are those steaks or fillets of fish that we bought at the supermarket or market exactly the same size? And what about the vegetables, which, unless they’re genetically modified, probably won’t be the same shape or size.
We get some great pork here in Siem Reap. The chops are butchered with just the right amount of fat so that you can rest the chop upright on its bone end and render the best fat ever. There are a million uses for pork fat, too, such as helping to finish off the roasted potatoes that often accompany them.
Lara never likes to order pork chops in restaurants because they’re invariably overcooked. It’s true, because the window of temperature where the pork goes from being undercooked to becoming dry is quite narrow. As a result of my brining technique and experience at getting them just right, Lara asks for my brined pork chops almost as often as she asks for my ragu alla Bolognese.
With an order of pork chops for dinner from Lara, I often make a side salad of baby potatoes, rocket, and a classic vinaigrette dressing, along with some finely chopped pieces of fresh chorizo that I’ll also toss through the boiled potatoes, which I’ll finish cooking in a pan.
I tip the bag of baby potatoes into a colander and notice that they vary in size, so much that some of the spuds are no longer ‘babies’ – a few are the size of marbles, others closer to golf balls.
Immediately I think back to when we spent a few days with Australian chef Dan Hunter, when he was helming the restaurants at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld in the Grampians region of Victoria. These days Dan has the wonderful Brae, one of Australia’s best restaurants, which he opened in the Otway hinterland, 30 minutes from the coast and an hour and a half from Melbourne.
Back during his Royal Mail Hotel days, chef Dan had convinced the owners that they should establish a kitchen garden. This wasn’t just a little row of herbs in a window sill for garnish to be snipped just before service that we see a lot of these days – often the idea of a restaurant PR keen for a ‘kitchen garden’ talking point to promote a chef. This was a real kitchen garden concept that Dan and his team have taken much further at Brae.
The chef had already left a deep impression on me over a couple of days of master classes on Hamilton Island and a gala dinner we covered before staying and eating at the Royal Mail Hotel. I imprinted numerous gems of Dan’s on my memory that weekend. See this video from the weekend for a taste of how the chef works.
“Put your vegetables in your refrigerator and you’re already killing their natural flavour and mixing it with whatever other flavours are circulating in your modern day ice box,” he had said during the masterclass.
It was a revelation, and it was true. But how many of us can afford the acreage and have the time to grow a kitchen garden to be able to just saunter out at 5pm and pull up some carrots for dinner that night?
A restaurant like Brae can, because growing vegetables, fruit and herbs is part of the business model of the restaurant. It’s accounted for in the price of the menu because of the enormous amount of farming and gardening they do to serve these amazing ingredients in the beautiful dishes placed in front of you.
Back at the Royal Mail Hotel, I scanned the menu after setting up my camera in preparation for shooting the new seasonal menu. Dan had a dish on there that caught my attention: a ‘degustation’ of carrots. At the time, I thought he was of unsound mind. Who else, apart from Bugs Bunny, wants to eat a plate of carrots? On. Their. Own.
When the carrots arrived in the kitchen straight from the garden, the sous chef began sorting them and placing different sized carrots into different prep trays. I asked Dan why they were being separated.
“Because they take different amounts of time to cook,” he said, with a withering look. It was the kind of look I recognised receiving from chef David Thompson that conveyed that this was probably the stupidest question he’d ever been asked about cooking in a professional kitchen.
Later that night during dinner, the dish of carrots was a revelation. The plate was beautiful and these funky carrots with their different shapes, sizes and colours were cooked and seasoned to perfection.
I found myself scanning the room to observe the reactions of other diners when the dish arrived. Not long after looking quizzically at the dish in front of them, they had devoured everything on the plate and were sitting back with a smile. Just like Bugs Bunny.
Fast forward to my Siem Reap kitchen and staring at the baby potatoes in the colander. I know what I have to do. I get three kitchen trays and divide the potatoes by size. I boil a pot of salted water and put in the largest potatoes. I set a timer for seven minutes then plop in the smaller potatoes, and then set the timer again for five minutes, after which I slip in the marble-sized potatoes.
If you have a hungry family to feed and you’re going to make some mashed potatoes or throw some spuds in a slow cooker for a casserole, you’re not going to weigh each potato and calculate and monitor their individual cooking times.
But separating and timing different sized vegetables for a dish such as Dan Hunter’s plate of carrots is one way to let that delicious albeit imperfect organic produce you bought at the farmers market really shine.
That precision and level of detail is one significant factor that sets a professional kitchen apart from one at home and it’s one of those pro chef lessons for home cooks that will stay with you forever.
Although as I set the alarms on my iPad, I’m still not sure whether to thank Dan or curse him for it, but of course he’s right.
Have you learnt any pro chef lessons for home cooks that have stayed with you? Whether they’ve come from chatting to chefs, doing a cooking class or watching a cooking demo or show on Netflix, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share tips in the comments below.