By Walter Trupp, Chef
Train your Taste
One of the most important keys to being a successful cook is to understand and learn when something tastes right.
At the beginning of your journey with food and its preparation, almost everything new to you will taste amazing. Learning about food is easy, and the process can be sped up by paying attention to the food you consume every day and by asking as many questions as possible. Go out and try different types and styles of food at markets, food festivals, cooking schools, exhibitions and restaurants. Experiment at home via the Internet, books and magazines. Cooking at home, in my opinion, is the most exiting adventure; as your inner alchemist can explore countless new cooking methods and techniques, flavour combinations, textures and presentation styles.
During my career, I went through stages where I would favour particular ingredients or cooking techniques. Often with a single ingredient, I would try countless methods of preparation and cooking, as well as flavour combinations.
I naturally gained knowledge and confidence by exploring markets and talking to people in the food industry like producers, processors, farmers and importers. To this day I still explore, ask and (most importantly) listen when it comes to food. I also constantly train my taste memories through conscious tasting and chewing (almost similar to wine tasting), where I explore the differences between the elements in a dish and also ask myself questions such as:
Are the textures and flavours in harmony, or do they disturb one another?
Does the dish work as the perfect ‘all together’, or do the ingredients not marry with each other all that well?
Is there something missing, or is there too much of a certain ingredient that overpowers the other flavours?
Is the dish incomplete, half-finished or overworked?
And if you’re pairing wine or beer, does your choice compliment your dish in its textures and flavour?
Before you try a new recipe, study and analyse it beforehand by visualising the cooking process in your mind.
Start with easy and simple methods and presentations using recipes from well-established cookbook authors, as they tend to be more accurate.
At first glance, most recipes appear quite simple, although in many cases it is the preparation and the cooking technique that makes them tricky.
The more recipes you study and practice, the more knowledge you will gain on different ways of approaching an ingredient or cuisine and be able to incorporate any changes to a recipe if you consider it more suitable. So after a while, you will be able to develop your own style and learn to follow your intuition.
Be hard on yourself and don’t fall for compliments from people you cook for, as you are the best person to judge the quality of your style and technique in the dishes you produce. Be in harmony with what you cook, as it is a reflection of your knowledge, experience, belief and talent.
Do not avoid procedures that you are afraid of or don’t appeal, as they might turn out to be a mayor key in achieving results, and may even become one of your favorites. Remember that the more you try, the more knowledge and confidence you will gain. Over time, your cooking will become more relaxed and be an accurate reflection of yourself, not to mention a great topic of conversation.
When cooking a dish, coordinate cooking times so that each element is perfect.
Consider that each ingredient has a perfect cooking point and avoid unnecessary techniques and preparations. On the other hand, follow all the necessary techniques and preparation methods you need to optimise your dish.
If you plan to serve an impressive menu where each dish consists of several elements, it pays to be well prepared. Choose dishes that you are confident with and that you can cook and plate quickly and at the same time. Never try new dishes on your guests, as a disaster is almost guaranteed.
Try to practice every day to improve your speed and technique and work as quickly as possible. Don’t just prepare food; keep your working environment clean and organised by washing your dirty dishes as you go. Plan at least one step ahead; as this will keep you out of trouble and train your skills in speed and organisation. Tools should be kept within a reachable distance. Nothing is worse than running around the kitchen looking for things, while in the meantime your fish, for example, overcooks.
When it finally comes to plating the food, avoid unnecessary presentations or garnishes and leave the dish natural. Learn to love and enjoy the plating process, where you face the final result of your work, as it is probably the most critical moment for a passionate cook.
Start cooking for small numbers of guests and increase slowly as your confidence grows. If you stress too much during the plating process (because of too many guests or overly complicated food), you will lose the enjoyment of it all.
Accept eventual mistakes and try to avoid them the next time. It is only through mistakes that you will learn, improve and understand the product and it’s characteristics better.
Only purchase kitchen equipment that you really need. Your kitchenware should allow you to use modern and traditional preparation and cooking methods to achieve a satisfying end product.
When using appliances, first think if it is worthwhile to do so, as sometimes you might end up chopping something in a blender that you could have done by hand in the same amount of time. Not to mention that you end up spending more time cleaning and dismantling the food processor!
Realistically, you don’t need much electrical equipment. A pasta machine, mortar, and blender is more than enough, but great additions would be a juicer, grain mill and flaker and maybe an ice cream maker for frozen fruit purees.
Food processors for chopping herbs, vegetables or mincing meat and fish are not all that necessary at home. Your money is better invested in some good working tools like a wooden chopping board, glass or metal bowls and containers, some good knifes and most importantly, a good stove and oven. Avoid purchasing plastic utensils.
Study produce and use it seasonally. This gives you the best available quality at the cheapest price.
Low quality ingredients turn even the best chef into an average cook. On the other hand, good quality products can help the average cook produce fantastic dishes.
With dry goods, don’t only trust brand names. It pays to study quality regulations and labeling guidelines, so that you do not to end up with expensive products that aren’t exactly what they claim to be (some brands that produce balsamic vinegar, truffle oil etc are guilty of this).
For fresh produce, only trust yourself and do your own quality control check when purchasing. Ask plenty of questions and if you are satisfied with their answers and the quality of the ingredient, add this seller to your network of ‘trusted suppliers’. This network helps when you pre-order rare products, where an established relationship almost always guarantees quality.
Spend time speaking with a trusted seller and gain an understanding of their opinions or concerns about what they’re selling (or not selling!). He or she will often have a greater understanding of produce and their inherent characteristics, and this gives you a better idea of when and how to best use them. Keep in mind that this should not stop you from doing your own research about individual ingredients.
Maintain your own personal recipe book (which could one day be published) and take notes on everything from how a certain ingredient cooks, to combinations and seasonality. This is probably the most important tool of all.
Though it might sound like hard work, once you have your system up and running, you will know where to find quality produce with surprising ease. All you need to do from there is to add the ingredients together in the best way you know how.
Such an understanding from your side and from your supplier network will make cooking at home very easy and enjoyable indeed!
Most food fashions come and go and every trend has to be considered very carefully. Some leave behind useful new developments which will have a long-term impact on our daily cooking, but it is often forgotten where they actually came from.
When it comes to following trends, try to stick to simplicity and be mindful of the authenticity of the produce.
Avoid adopting fashions at the expense of quality. Maintain and express the personality and seasonal identity of a product. Use contrast, textures, temperatures and flavours logically so that the natural qualities of the different elements work harmoniously and marry well with each other, not to mention with food’s partner, wine.
Don’t fall for current trends. I’m personally very skeptical about a few of them, such as the unnecessary plastic coating in the sous vide method, where you bombard your food with highly toxic plastic hormones*. Some molecular recipes use an enormous amount of food additives that often exceed the daily recommended intake of those ingredients by as much as several hundred times. Short-term adoptable trends are used for spectacular creations, but the originality of our food suffers.
Other current trends are concerned with the way a dish looks. The food plated appears impressive, until you find out that it has been cooked using very basic methods and the quality (especially temperature) suffers because of its difficult presentation.
On the other hand, cooking is a creative process. What is new today might be old tomorrow. You have to keep your mind open for new trends – study, explore and discuss them – as you might find some amazing new flavour combinations, techniques or ways of doing things. They certainly will expand your knowledge, so take the best out of each and use it if it suits you, but do not let yourself get carried away by them.
Do not get scared
Dicing, whipping, chopping, peeling… Most beginners get scared about the enormous amount of work and it might all seem to be too much in the early stages.
When you become more comfortable with cooking, things will start to become easier and it might turn into a form of relaxation. It is often regarded as a type of meditation that allows you to escape from your daily routine.
Of course there are many easy recipes such as risottos, salads and so on, but you do not want to cook them all the time. When you start to experiment with the more complex recipes that demand more precise preparation, timing, confidence and the controlling of several factors, that’s where you might start to struggle. The key lies in avoiding as many mistakes as possible. You also need control of cooking times and be able to balance flavours.
In the beginning, the simplest jobs might take you hours. Start early, do not fear complex challenges, and give yourself enough time to try and discover new techniques. Through learning them, the more complex recipes will seem easier to follow and understand. By being well prepared you have nothing to fear. Try to do everything in a dish, even the complex jus’ and sauces (which you can freeze anyway). Do not compromise. It will make you feel so much happier and confident in the knowledge that “I can do this and I also know how to do it several different ways”.
It is sometimes difficult to stick to a recipe. The availability of certain produce, seasonal problems and quality of what is on offer will often dictate this. You might just buy a perfect piece of fish, or find some ripe tomatoes and strong flavoured herbs and feel like making something out of that.
So you will have to improvise or ‘be creative’. Many recipes use ingredients that are often out of season and represent the author’s taste and style. Sometimes it is just impossible to find all ingredients for a certain recipe in top quality at the same time.
With a trained taste, good basic knowledge and confidence in your cooking abilities, you will be able to improvise, develop and slowly create your own style. That’s precisely how any creative and successful chef started his or her career.
To do so, you will need a good back up of different style cookbooks (for reference), a good understanding of different vegetables, spices, herbs, oils, vinegars, sugars and frozen stocks that you could add or change, improve and balance if needed.
Be cautious and grow slowly in those early stages, do not fall in love with your creative flights, the chance of being successful can be very close to fluke or disaster.
To be a good cook you will need a healthy dose of self-confidence, but be careful not to overestimate your skill or close yourself off and repeat the same methods again and again.
Do not over-interpret compliments or ignore critical words. Try to be creative and perfect with every detail. Keep learning, improving and trying new ways of doing things. Repeat what you learn over and over, until they are a part of your cooking routine and menu combinations. Set yourself a target to optimise the quality of each element in a dish and menu.
Be self-critical and judge yourself harshly but honestly. Know your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and that way you will quickly become a better cook.
If you are not happy with certain things in a dish but only you know of or recognise these issues, don’t mention them, as it serves little purpose other than to draw attention to what would otherwise be a perfectly acceptable dish.
If something really did go wrong, just see it as a reflection of your current skill level and learn from it. Set yourself goals and slowly lift the bar higher and higher. Do not accept that you’ve reached your potential – just keep practising.
Sometimes cooking seems like skiing. You queue to get on the lift for a while, then it takes you up the slope (for quite a while) and all that time spent waiting is a fraction of what it takes when you finally descend. The time it takes you to prepare a menu, in comparison to how long it takes you to eat it, is mostly skewed towards the former.
Additionally, if good produce is used, cooking at home is not all that cost-effective. To prepare a menu with top quality produce, it might cost you the same as eating in a decent restaurant. Cooking is not a cheap hobby. Sometimes you might feel you just wasted a lot of money and time, or you might feel like you cooked for the wrong guests. When having these thoughts, simply think about the healthy food you ate, how much you learned and how much you improved.
Be a pioneer! Think of all those dishes that restaurants can’t provide because of time pressure and customer demand. Realise that cooking at home allows you to experiment with different (especially slow) cooking methods. Whole roasted poultry and large roasts, braising dishes that are cooked to perfection for hours and slow baking soufflés are just some of the things that you can do at home much easier than can be done in a restaurant environment.
At home, you can also match your food perfectly to wine. This allows you to enjoy rare and expensive wines which, when consumed in a restaurant, would cost you a fortune.
*Refer to Trupps’ Wholefood Kitchen for more information.