What It Means To “Cook With Love”

This blog was established under the guise of a piece of advice I received from my first Sous Chef, in my first week of my first full-time cooking job:  “Two things should go into everything you ever cook:  salt, and love.”   I’ve been at it twelve years now, and the magnitude and importance of those words grows seemingly more poignant and poetic by the day.

To address the first essential element of cooking, I’ll defer you to reading my post about salt.  But, the “Cliff’s Notes” version here is that salt is the most important ingredient in the culinary world.  Second only to water, I’d argue sodium chloride is the most important chemical compound on the planet.  Love, on the other hand, does indeed require its own essay to explain its importance, or even its place at all in the world of professional (and also, seriously passionate, home) cookery.

Let me start by saying that the mention of love, when applied to cooking food, is universally understood by professionals — but I’d bet my tool-bucket water** that nine cooks out of ten can’t explain what it means.  Luckily, I won’t be chugging any salmonella water today…and neither will you.

**this is a reference to a common disciplinary tactic that old-school chefs would employ when it came to regularly changing out the water in small containers in which you kept your tools (spatulas, spoons, tongs) for service.  If the Chef came by and deemed that the water in your tool bucket was too dirty, he would make you drink it.  The idea being that if you wouldn’t drink the water your tools were sitting in, why would you even conceive of feeding guests food that was prepared by tools from that same water?  It was also an effective training tactic, as your own desire to never have to drink your tool-bucket water again, inspired you to refresh it often.**

Any time a person engages in the act of preparing food for others, there is any mixture of two things that might be happening:

1) The person cooking is focusing on how they are displaying their ability and prowess when it comes to preparing a meal.

2) The person cooking is inescapably thinking about the satisfaction of whomever will be served the food they are making.

Cooking involves a lot of repetitive tasks.  Chopping, whisking, mashing — these are all tasks that involve a certain amount of technique, repetition and rhythm.  Of these three elements though, lies what differentiates the competent cooks from the good ones, and (as would typically follow) the “good” food, from the food made with love!

Anyone can follow a recipe.  Anyone can also give instructions and walk away. 

Let’s say, for example, that a cook is instructed to peel five pounds of potatoes.  This is a very simple task, that just about anyone reading these words is capable of executing.  But it’s exactly this type of task that will most-quickly show the amount of love a given cook will put into their work.

The quality and result of the task is what we’re focusing on.

Let’s say that cook peels the potatoes.  Most of the potato’s exterior has indeed been peeled off, but many of the potatoes still show brown, rust-colored streaks of neglected skin.  There are little dots of the same color, showing the little divots (or “eyes” as they are known) that were neglected as well.  In the end, these potatoes will make their way into a pot to be boiled and mashed.  Then cooked, whipped and seasoned as correctly as Escoffier could have done himself. But, there would be a few guests in the dining room who’s order of mashed potatoes would include the rough, bitter undertone that potato skin brings when put against the delicate, silky backdrop of properly made mashed potatoes.

Then on the other hand,  maybe the cook would take the time to love his/her food, and in painstaking attention to detail, ensure that all that wasn’t pure white on the potato was removed thus creating a pile of pristine white elliptical figures, that once mashed and whipped, resemble a heavenly pillow of simple flavor, unadulterated by the incongruities in texture and in flavor that a neglected fleck of skin might impose.

I agree, I’m getting a bit dramatic; but this is the inner monologue of someone who cooks with love.  And it isn’t limited to those who cook professionally.

When you think about it, the person cooking for their family is way more likely to take extra care of the food they’re handling to see that every bite of their meal is one taken with joy.  This is why my first chef imparted a brilliant standard I’ve lived by ever since: 

When I asked him if a particular piece of produce which was borderline usable, could indeed be used.  He looked at it, looked at me, and asked, “Would you serve it to your mother?”

Typically, I find myself talking about the concept of cooking with love in casual conversation. The illustration I find myself using is demonstrating how to properly strip thyme.

Thyme is a very integral herb to cooking. Not only is it used in making stocks but also in soups, rubs and dressings.  It has many tiny leaves running up and down the stem.  Unless you’re passing something through a fine chinoise, you need to be sure to remove every bit of stem from the leaves, as thyme stems are brittle and unpalatable.

Taking thyme off its stem is arguably the most arduous and annoying task a cook can do, regardless of being a home cook or a pro. Thyme knows no occupation 😉

Why? A lot of professionals will tell you it’s hard, but it isn’t.  Fine-dicing fifty pounds of carrots with a dull oyster knife is hard.

Stripping thyme just sucks.

Similar to the potato analogy, thyme is a great barometer for how much someone loves their food because most people when tasked with stripping thyme, quickly realize first-hand how time consuming it is, and therefore decide how much effort they want to put into the task.  Upon this realization, they cut corners.  Their end product is then a pile of thyme that has indeed been removed from its central stems, but little clusters of 6-8 leaves exist on their smaller stems.  This is unacceptable to most great chefs.

On the other hand, a person whose ingredient is love, will take the time to strip thyme making sure there isn’t a damn bit of stem in their pile because the entire time they were performing that task, every movement — every pinch of their fingers, length of the draw, placement of pressure — was a slave to the master, that is the level of love that a cook has for his/her food.

Once, I was tasked with roasting vegetables and duck bones for brown stock.  I had never done this for this particular chef (who was indeed particular), and I wound up adding chopped leeks earlier than I should have.  This is significant, as the thin, tender flesh of a leek lends it to cooking (and ultimately burning) faster than carrots, onions, or celery.  The result was a rondeaux of beautifully roasted vegetables and bones, with flecks of black, burned leeks.  Once my chef pointed this out, I only imagined two options: throw it all out and re-make it when more duck frames arrived yesterday (which I didn’t see him going for, as he didn’t throw anything out if he could use it to make money), or make the stock with what we had, and do it better next time.

Well, he actually went with a third option that I hadn’t considered: I spent the next hour picking through the mish-mosh, by hand picking out the tiny pieces of black, burned leeks.  Obviously, there were other factors that went into his decision to have me allocate that type of time to that process, but the love he had for his food is what didn’t allow him to consider the option of making a stock that might be tinted with a bitter, burnt aftertaste.

So, next time you’re cooking, focus.  Make sure each and every task, motion, or movement is accounted for, and done up to standard, and done with the purity of the final product in mind.  Once you do that naturally, and  without thinking about it, you’ll be cooking with love.

Just add salt and you’re done.

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