Home cooking and changing the world

A group of nine chefs, including Ferran Adria of El Bulli (but perhaps not Heston Blumenthal) put their names to a ‘G9’ statement this week. The sense of it was that they committed, as a group, to improving the environment and people’s lives. This was fairly quickly seized on as being a somewhat hypocritical statement made by a group of chefs for extremely high end restaurants, who often have guests that fly in specially, and who themselves had flown into Peru for the conference at which the statement was made.

More disturbing than the hypocrisy was the impression they could and should influence a significant part of the world’s eating and cooking. Trish Deseine, an Irish food writer based in France, where her books are very successful, commented on this statement, and Jay Rayner’s critique with a discussion of what chefs have to do with home cooking.

I have a lot of sympathy with this view. I am as interested in El Bulli as the next gastronome, and have enjoyed the videos of the Harvard series on Science and Cooking that Ferran Adria and many other molecular gastronomes have lectured at (more coming in the autumn – you can get the audio and videos on iTunes University). However, I’m more interested in the science than the cooking. What any of these restaurants and chefs have to say about home cooking is fairly minimal.

It often surprises me that most people, even those who eat regularly in restaurants (or especially them), have little idea how a professional kitchen works, and how different it is to a home kitchen. I think most people have this slightly romantic idea that when they order a dish, the chefs start from scratch, chopping ingredients, making sauces, and then putting the whole plate together. This view of the professional kitchen is as a scaled-up version of a home kitchen and a dinner party – but this is not at all what happens.

A restaurant needs individual portions of protein, that can be portioned in advance, and then cooked to order in a short time. This will usually be things like steaks, chicken breasts, lamb chops, although the technique of sous-vide cooking makes it possible to cook tougher items like short ribs for a long time, and then just reheat them briefly before serving. All the accompaniments will be prepared as far as possible before service even starts (the mise en place) up to and including making all the sauces and keeping them warm. It’s easy and sensible to keep things like veal stock on hand, as it can be used in many different dishes, uses up leftovers or cheap ingredients that the kitchen might otherwise waste, and can cook all day (or overnight) in an out-of-the-way place. The restaurant needs to consider the margin of each menu item, how to use leftovers and scraps, and how to minimise waste and the time between order and service.

This way of cooking is completely different to a home kitchen. Having worked, albeit briefly, in a restaurant kitchen, I understand a little of the rhythms and resources that they work within, and I know they are completely different to a home cooking set up. When I reflect on the things I learnt at cooking school, I often think that what it did was to simplify the things I cook at home, not complicate them. I don’t even want to try and replicate that very different environment at home. I would rather do the things that home kitchens are good at, and get the most out of those.

At home, the important things are making a quantity that can serve many people (or over many nights) rather than individual portions. The time you get to cook is more likely in small chunks at the end of each day, and larger chunks at the weekends. Dishes like chilli and curries that can be cooked in a large batch, and that develop additional flavour when left in the fridge, are especially useful to a home cook. Baked dishes of beans or pasta, and roast joints of meat, that are portioned at the table as soon as they are done are much harder to do successfully in a restaurant. At home, you can cook something for a long time, and serve it precisely when it’s done. When was the last time you had a really good Yorkshire pudding in a restaurant? It’s really hard unless you serve it immediately.

There are good reasons to try and replicate restaurant food. Carol Blymire has progressed through the entire French Laundry cookbook, and is a long way through the Alinea cookbook too. In preparing these incredibly elaborate, multi-step recipes at home, she has learned so much more than I have about cookery, and added quite a few recipes to her home cooking repertoire. I have incredible admiration for the way she takes on these projects as a way to stretch her cooking abilities, but she never pretends that this is everyday cooking (nor do the authors of those books).

The sad thing, as Trish points out, is that we all want to be chefs. We watch Masterchef, and revere restaurant cookery, even if it’s just finding out what the chefs cook on their days off. Plain home cookery is a little out of style – perhaps with the exception of Mary Berry, flying the flag for home baking in an admirable way.

There is one major exception I would make to the general rule of keeping restaurant practice out of home kitchens, and that’s knife skills. I watched someone on the Great British Bake Off this week wielding a chefs knife while they made pork pies, and I winced. Learning to use a decent size (20cm plus) chef’s knife properly is an incredibly useful skill that will reduce the effort you make, and save your fingers. Find a course, or ask a friend who knows what they are doing to show you. It will make much more difference to your cooking than knowing how to make, say, a buttery biscuit base.

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