Friday, December 19, 2008

Back to Basics

Do I know how to cook?

That was the question I’d been asking myself the last few weeks. On the surface, it would seem almost facetious. I mean, I write a freaking blog about the foods I make and host numerous self-catered gourmet dinner parties. But, through one of my characteristic self-assessments, I asked myself if it were not for those recipes, would I be able to cook?

Let’s start from the beginning.

Recently, there was an audition for “The Next Food Network Star” held not too far from my office. More than a few of my friends heard about it, and began encouraging me to try out. Now, while I don’t LIKE Food Network, or the show itself, I considered it. At the very least, the ego boost of being on TV would be an unmatchable experience. I watched some clips of competitions and began to get this inexplicable knot in my stomach. I said no to trying out for the Food Network show. But still, that knot was there…

The knot came back while I was watching the first episode of the current season of Top Chef. Inspired by the nickname of this season’s host city, New York, the chefs were forced to use their basic knife skills to peel and dice apples, and ultimately create an awe-inspiring dish out of those same apples. The loser of this challenge was sent home after just arriving. Typical New York – go hard or go home crying.

I found myself wondering if I would have been the one sent home. The knot in my stomach returned with a vengeance. I realized I would have had no idea what to do in that scenario. What would I have done with apples? How could I possibly have come up with a dish that would have impressed the judges so soon after arriving?

I took a long, hard look at my cooking abilities, and after reading and meditation I realized just what was missing. I find that while I can execute a recipe well, my problems tend to come mostly from conceptualizing outside of my abilities. I am limited in my knowledge of HOW to do certain things, like poaching or properly oven roasting certain meats, and because of said ignorance, I am restricted in the number of options I mentally iterate through when evaluating what to cook. All too often I find myself standing in grocery aisles holding produce and thinking “what can I do with this”, when often times the culinary greats I know would be saying “this would be good if I did this, or this, and maybe even this”.

I decided it was time to admit the gap in my own abilities and experiences, and get back to basics.

I designed a self-directed cooking syllabus, complete with readings, video tutorials, and homework tasks, that should cover all the chef basics from knife skills to sauce making to poaching. To test the efficacy of this course, I have recruited a close friend who has interest in learning how to cook, but never had the exposure or time to learn. If effective, she will be able to cook basic meals with confidence and inspiration upon completion of this course, and I should emerge with the fundamental understanding of a much broader spectrum of techniques that I can continue to build upon as any culinary graduate would.

Will I emerge a chef, deserving of a kingly jacket and command of minions? Or come home still just a cook looking for a recipe?

-The UE

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