Working in professional kitchens, I work with a lot of people from varying degrees of experience. I was reminded of this the other day when I walked out of the walk-in and fell into stride with a co-worker, who looked at what I had in my hands and asked what it was for. I said it was for a particular beur blanc I was making to go into the morel dish. He asked, “what’s a beur blanc?”
At the time, I was a bit hurried and um… chef-like, for lack of a better term, and I think because of this, I didn’t feel I had the time to be snarky or condescending (which would have been my default mode of reaction to a question about something so basic that a co-worker of mine wasn’t familiar). Instead, I answered the question the way I would have if anyone had asked it: “So beur blanc, is French for ‘white butter.’ A garden variety beur blanc is reduced white wine with shallots down to almost nothing, then gradually whisk in butter until you achieve a rich, silky consistency.”
He responded with a head-tilt/pullback, and “oh! Cool.” Which, in hindsight, was exactly the correct response one should have when learning about how simple many cooking techniques are (although maybe not when one is a paid professional cook), after only extolling them from the outside looking in, as nothing short of magic.
This post started off as one to help anyone trying to make a proper French butter sauce (see above.. yep. That easy), but it seems as though it’s morphed into a topic I’ve found myself musing about lately – that cooking is real magic.
I’ve always enjoyed making stocks, soups and sauces for as long as I’ve been cooking. The first kitchen I was working in, I ended up there by happenstance. But while there, I realized I wanted to make a career out of cooking, and I asked the chef there what I should improve on and learn about. First he barked out: “knife work!” to which I replied that I thought my knife skills were decent. He then looked at me with a gloriously un-amused look, while he chopped several mushrooms at about 6-slices per second, asking, “yeah? Can you do this yet?” All without breaking eye contact with me.
I watched in awe with a blank stare and shook my head. “Then your skills are not good enough!” It seemed intimidating and far-fetched at the time, but I’ve since realized he was absolutely right. Chopping onions, mushrooms, or anything stable and malleable enough to freely chop like that, should be that fast, that easy and so possible to do without looking at your cutting board. But it still seems like a street magicians trick to the untrained eye. Like, the stabbing a knife between your fingers really fast trick? Trick or not, every good cook can do it and doesn’t think twice about it. Every bad one is stoked they can do it at all.
Once I got beyond the knife skills, I asked this same chef, “what next?” He said, “work on your stocks and sauces.” I had no idea how to make a soup/sauce/stock from scratch and the whole prospect seemed incredibly daunting. Whether he felt this on his own to be my feeling on the matter, or if I made some similar allusion (I don’t remember), he lent me his copy of the first edition CIA book: The Professional Chef (essentially the American culinary bible, for whatever that’s worth), 1986. I took it home and I started to read it from page 1.
Once I got past all the things I knew that I knew (this is a chef’s knife…Two cups equal a pint…Flour is not the same as corn starch), the first chapter about actual cooking, started with stock. That’s where I fell in love with cooking: realizing, “Hold on. You’re telling me, if I just take these three vegetables, cut ‘em and cook ‘em a bit, and throw them in a pot with some herbs and a shit-load of water, apply heat, and in a few hours, I’ll have fucking vegetable stock? And if I throw in some animal bones, then it turns it into a chicken stock?” It was both simple and magical at the same time.
But unlike magic tricks, it all made sense to me: of course you want a larger cut of vegetable to simmer low and slow for a long period of time, but a small cut for a higher temp., shorter cooking time: I’ve never been able to explain the physics or logistics of it, but something about the surface area: total volume ratio, being linked to severity of cooking conditions just always seemed to make sense. It’s manipulation in its most splendid form: knowing how to treat something the right way, and it will dance and sing just how you want.
That never detracted, however, from how I felt about how cooking was able to ostensibly transcend a flawed rule of physics: that the whole can never be greater than the sum of its parts. I’m sorry, but take a bite that consists only of bits of carrot, onion, celery, thyme, bay leaf, peppercorn (and maybe parsley and/or garlic), and swish it around with some water, you will not taste the flavor of a wonderfully made vegetable stock… that’s all that’s in it though.
Tap a steak on a hot pan, and the red meat will turn a dullish brown color at point of contact. Leave that meat there, and eventually it will turn a dark, rich brown color, and the flavor and texture will change dramatically.
Start off with the whites of four eggs in a bowl, and all you have is a clear mucus-like glob. But if you took a whisk and stirred it like a mad-man for fifteen minutes and added some powdered sugar, you’d have cake frosting.
In short, cooking is magical, but also very accessible, and far simpler than any magical trick or illusion. All you have to do is learn and understand the process of what you’re trying to do.