Base: How low can you go?

by Chef Jeremy Abbey, CEC, CEPC, CCE, CCA

Add one tablespoon to eight ounces of water. There you have it, a liquid full of umami (tons of sodium and other stuff as well) that is used in kitchens throughout the country. Base — the short cut used to save time, money and all the while lowering the skill set necessary to elevate the culinary craft. While consistency, financials and skill set are all important to keep in mind in professional kitchen operations, it is important that we not lose focus of the fundamental skills necessary for any cook.

ACF Certification is prime way for our industry to maintain the focus of skills that are imperative to our industry. It’s important that we do not lose sight of the fundamental skills to master in an industry that is constantly looking for ways to save time and money. There are fantastic ways to practice skills on the job and continually develop your craft. Practical exams contain multiple skill assessments but every single exam has fundamental skills that must be used in order to achieve a great score. In the words of Auguste Escoffier and Eric Ripert, here are the skills that should be developed to mastery:

“The most skilled cook in the world cannot attempt anything if given nothing and it would be totally inconsistent to expect him to produce work of a high standard from imperfect or insufficient ingredients.”

Why not start with the best? You have practiced and prepared and now you are ready for the exam. Seek out the best possible ingredients you can find. Starting with the very best, will result in a better end result.

It is important to take time to learn the skills necessary to be able to identify the finest ingredients. I’m surprised at how many times I’ve been to a grocery store and find more and more ingredients that weren’t there ten years ago. Transportation and agriculture have come a long way in our food system making a plethora of ingredients available to us at a higher quality than ever before.

If you are able to shop for a practical exam at a farmer’s market, why wouldn’t you? Seek out the freshest and finest. Talk to the folks working at farmers markets and ask questions on how to determine which product is best. No one has more knowledge of vegetables and produce than the people growing it.  Find the best products for the exam and if you aren’t sure which the best is, ask the questions.

“Indeed, stock is everything in cooking. Without it, nothing can be done.”

Every practical exam requires stock in some way of another. Just like the produce, meat and seafood you bring to the exam, why not bring the very, absolute best stock possible? Escoffier’s quote about stock has been stuck in my head since before I went to culinary school. Not only is stock-making a skill to master, it is a skill to be developed over the years.

With every stock that comes to a simmer, there are subtle nuances that need to be accounted for. The amount of cartilage and gelatin in the bones, the depth of color from the beta carotene in the carrots, the sulfur level of the onions all need to be recognized and adjustments may need to be made. It excites me every time I make stock at the development of flavor that occurs and the culinary challenge of recreating the flavor profile consistent with the last batch. A lot more fun than dissolving a paste in water.

As a foundation product imperative for flavor development, stock and stock production is a crucial skill to continually work on mastering.

“Having sharp, great knives will enable you to cook very precisely. Knife skills are essential in cooking.” – Eric Ripert

Knife skills cannot be stressed enough in the foundations of cooking. Not only do they enhance the presentation of the finished product but they ensure proper and even cooking occurs. Taking the time to practice knife skills in day to day tasks will elevate your craft to the next level. During a practical exam, strive to master knife skills to the point where you don’t have to think about how to complete them.

When developing the program and menu for a practical exam, attempt to incorporate as much skill as possible focused around knife skills. How will that tomato be presented? What will this carrot look like on the plate? Would this potato cook quicker and more evenly if it was cut in a tourne?

Fundamental knife skills are an important part of any kitchen. As we modernize production methods in commercial kitchens to save time and cost, we cannot lose focus on the essential skills of knife work. Developing knife skills can lead to higher quality product that will set you apart from the competition.

“Fish without wine is like egg without salt.”

Almost half of the score on practical exams is focused on flavor development. Of all the exams that occur, this seems like the single most overlooked category. Candidates appear to be focused more on achieving the bare minimum requirements of knife skills and cooking methods and often forget to build maximum flavor. Food is all about flavor and showing skill in developing flavor must not be ignored.

Every cook should strive to master developing flavor from ingredients and ultimately the dish they are preparing. As a cook, consider the consumer or the diner. How will they experience the plate? Is there a good balance of flavors? Is there enough acid? Does the flavor overwhelm and outshine the main ingredient? As menu development occurs, these questions should be at the forefront of the mind.

During the three hours that make up most practical exams, candidates must remember to utilize as much product as possible. The best way to utilize ingredients is to demonstrate to the evaluators that you have an understanding of flavor development. Adding a touch of wine to a fish course, finishing a plate with fresh herbs, mounting a sauce with butter all add flavor and show a skill and an understanding of flavor development.

Continue to focus on flavor development throughout your day to day cooking and suddenly you may notice opportunities to build flavor.

“Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness”

In a world of convenience products, it is our responsibility to uphold the foundations of cooking. Certification provides the opportunity to focus back on skills that might not be used every day in modern kitchens but must not be pushed aside. Whether you’re preparing for a practical exam, getting ready for a career move or just want to improve skill set, foundation skills are a continual quest to master.

Cooking with the best ingredients, building great stocks, knife skills and flavor development cannot be forgotten in today’s culinary world. These concepts and skills have formed our craft and are utilized in every kitchen. How can we continue to enhance the focus and better ourselves through focusing on these skills? Practice. Every day, practice and soon these skills can be mastered.

12 Skills That Will Never Fail a Cook

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

As cooks, we never stop learning. So, where does one begin — what foundational skills do chefs expect of every cook? Is it possible to narrow down the vast array of kitchen skills into a few essential, universal ones?

We should begin by saying that a restaurant chef will always mentor a cook in an effort to ensure that menu items are consistent and presented with the flavor profile and visual appeal that defines the operation. But to be able to accomplish that, there must be a solid, dependable skill set that serves as a blueprint. From my experience, the following skills and aptitudes are critical. These are the skills that solidify a chef’s confidence that a cook has what it takes:

  1. A COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE

Every task, no matter how small, should be done with passion and an eye on perfection. Whether it be dicing onions, caramelizing a mirepoix, slicing or snipping herbs, shucking clams or blanching pommes frites, everything is done with a commitment to excellence.

  1. A DESIRE TO LEARN AND IMPROVE

Professional cooks are hungry to build their portfolio of skills and strive constantly to improve the quality of their work.

  1. SOLID KNIFE SKILLS

Almost above all else, the best cooks are perfectionists when it comes to using their knives. They are precise, efficient, and fast.

  1. A COMMITMENT TO SANITATION AND SAFETY

Chefs expect that every cook hired works clean. They understand the importance of sanitation and practice proper procedures to keep their work area tight. Cooks need to work to eliminate cross contamination, function within the parameters of time and temperature, effectively wash and sanitize work surfaces, and always prepare foods with food safety in mind.

  1. ORGANIZATIONAL SKILLS

Mise en place is second nature to professional cooks. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. Sufficient prep work is completed to ensure that his or her station does not run out of product mid-service — this is an expectation that leads to trust and confidence.

  1. DEPENDABILITY

Good cooks are where they need to be when they need to be there. They are always ready and able, as a result, to problem-solve if need be.

  1. A TRACK RECORD OF PLAYING WELL IN THE SANDBOX

Chefs expect that teamwork is a given — that every cook is focused on complementing other members of the team. He or she will rise to the occasion when necessary, is supportive of others and is able and willing to ask for help when the time arises.

  1. SPEED AND ACCURACY

Speed without accuracy is wasted effort and accuracy without the ability to meet the demands of time will always fall short.

  1. PRODUCT KNOWLEDGE

Knowledge of ingredients, how those ingredients interact, how to properly store and work with those ingredients, and which items can serve as a substitute for others is essential in the kitchen.

  1. COMFORT WITH THE FOUNDATIONAL COOKING METHODS

Kitchen communication depends on a cook’s ability to understand and practice the steps involved in all of the primary cooking methods: sauté, grill, broil, poach, roast, braise, fry, and poêle.

  1. KNOWLEDGE OF THE LANGUAGE OF COOKING

We speak our own language in the kitchen, filled with French, Italian and Spanish terms along with a significant dose of slang and acronyms. Any cook who is able to integrate into a kitchen must be adept at understanding and using this mixed dialect if he or she is to survive.

  1. THE ABILITY TO ACCEPT CRITIQUE

Chefs are beginning to learn that harsh criticism is not the best form of positive communication in the kitchen. Yet critique which points to areas that need improvement with the addition of mentoring and training is essential if the operation is to function, provide consistency, and strive to improve. Successful cooks must be able to delineate between criticism and critique and accept those opportunities to learn from their mistakes.

  1. YES, CHEF

As has been pointed to numerous times before, a successful cook understands the importance of the chain of command in the kitchen, respects the need to accept direction — especially in the heat of service — and works to maintain the semblance of order and efficiency that comes from the response of “Yes, chef.”

Skills will grow, abilities will improve and confidence will increase exponentially over time, but any new cook must begin with a focus on those critical foundations that are the expectation of every chef in any type of food operation.

How one club used data to satisfy the menu preferences of (almost) all its members

by Chef Lawrence McFadden, CMC

When it comes to substitution and menu change requests, finding a balance between “yes,” “no” or “not available” can be tough. Young chefs can become frustrated when members deconstruct their dishes in the middle of a busy shift. Welcome to the menu problems of the private clubs throughout America.

In 2015 our club had a Food and Beverage committee with a mission to review menus on behalf of the clubs’ population. The group’s meetings were scheduled once a month, during which the chef would present several dishes while the sommelier poured wines. To include more members, we suggested doing a special quarterly “menu change tasting dinner” in place of those meetings.

We invited 30 members to sample six to eight menu items free of charge. The guest lists consisted of Board or standing committees, members who dined in the Grille restaurant often or new members who needed culinary exposure. Banquet-style round tables created communal seating, so participants could share their thoughts.

Each place setting included a customized menu with a rating sheet and few lines for comments, generating data on member likes and dislikes. We followed up with an online survey to measure broader questions like overall enjoyment, which gave us additional data on menu engineering and, most importantly, the menu development process. From all this, we gained new perspective: individual member favorites are not to be confused with “club favorites.”

From the beginning it was a hit. After eight dinners, 200-plus members have participated, and a strong culinary voice emerged.

The Food and Beverage committee disbanded after about a year, moving on to other interests. Two years later, when we changed to our current Executive Chef, our quarterly taste panel dinners turned into a weekly Friday night community table. Now guests buy in to the table, eat with friends and dine on what our chef found in the market that week.

As a General Managers, our challenge is always providing what members want while balancing our chefs’ desire for creativity. Taste is legendarily subjective — without data it’s just an opinion. Making it happen is easier said than done in a member-owned establishment, but trying is safer than doing nothing.

Don’t lose sight of solid cooking

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

A chef chops some meat at ACF ChefConnect Newport Beach.

There are many exciting, innovative things happening in the field of culinary arts from ethnic fusion to sous vide and experimentation with molecular gastronomy.  To young cooks in particular, this is the sizzle that inspires them to jump into the field and stir their enthusiasm. Any industry that stands idle and fails to embrace new, creative thought will fall short, and any player within that industry who stands in contrast to those new ideas will surely suffer the consequence of an “also ran” operation. To this end, it is important that we pay attention to what is going on, what is on the horizon, and how customers are responding to trends and groundbreaking technique.

On the other hand, behind any true innovator in the kitchen lies the groundwork of classic technique — an understanding of what has and continues to work, and why reliance on those techniques remains essential in every restaurant.  Those foundations that focus on how to handle a knife, the mathematical dimensions of vegetable cuts and why they are important to a dish, the steps used to produce a robust stock and the critical steps involved in every traditional cooking method will serve a cook well throughout his or her career.  These are time-tested methods that produce consistent, anticipated results and remain as “bulletproof” methods which can be built upon.

“I tell a student that the most important class you can take is technique. A great chef is first a great technician. If you are a jeweler, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you.”

-Jacques Pepin

Cooking is considered by some to be an art form and in other cases referred to as a science. Some refer to the uniqueness of a cuisine from the standpoint of the “heart and soul” that are responsible for uniqueness.  Some may infer that without an understanding of the history behind a culture, the complexity of the people who live that culture, and life experience with the conditions that were the source of that special cuisine, it would be impossible for a cook to re-create authentic food.  All of this is likely true, but as you push aside the smoke and flames from the pan you will almost always find a respect for foundational technique.

Technique and the foundations are the universal starting point. They’re the common thread, the platform that allows cooks or chefs to express themselves, adjust and move food in a variety of directions. The foundations allow a cook to move beyond the cookbook and know what needs to be done to create a good dish, how to approach a basket of ingredients and build a plate of food into something that demonstrates understanding and passion.

“Once you understand the foundations of cooking — whatever kind you like, whether it’s French or Italian or Japanese — you really don’t need a cookbook anymore.”

-Thomas Keller

If there were one very important advantage to a culinary degree it would be the time spent on developing an understanding and regimen of foundational technique.  Knife skill drills, multiple experiences with making a proper stock and formal critique of the use of cooking methods such as braising, grilling, sautéing, roasting, and poaching tend to yield a cook who appreciates the significance of technique. When a technique becomes a habit then it is less likely that a cook will waver from that foundation.

“You don’t go to school to become the best chef in the world right after you graduate. School is always a starting point so what people forget is that you go to school to build a foundation, and you want to build a foundation that’s not going to crumble.”
-Roy Yamaguchi

When a chef trusts that his or her cooks understand and are committed to execution of solid foundations then it is possible to move a restaurant’s food in nearly any direction. Whether French, Italian, German, Brazilian, Chinese or Ethiopian — all cuisines begin with an appreciation for foundations. In many cases those foundations are universal in nature.

If a cook is intent on building his or her repertoire, creating a significant brand that sets the stage for growing opportunities and is enthusiastic about building confidence that he or she might adapt well to any kitchen environment, then a commitment to the foundational techniques of cooking is an essential starting point. Strong technique is valuable. A restaurant may never use a hollandaise sauce but every cook will likely have an opportunity to create an emulsion. A restaurant may not offer braised items on the menu, but every cook must understand how to prepare traditionally tough cuts of meat in a manner that truly enhances flavor, texture and presentation. A restaurant may never find a need for brunoise or allumette vegetable cuts, but every cook must have strong, consistent and efficient knife skills.

“A jazz musician can improvise based on his knowledge of music.  He understands how things go together. For a chef, once you have that basis, that’s when cuisine is truly exciting.”

-Charlie Trotter

Chefs and cooks may want the opportunity to be creative and take cooking to a different level, but the foundations provide a road map to get to where they want to be. Improvisation is not a thing unto itself. Improvisation stems from a stable beginning — it is a variation on a central theme. For a chef, improvisation allows him or her an opportunity to place a signature on the dish being developed. But when asked, those same chefs will talk extensively about their beginnings and the foundations.

 

Resistance to Change Can Paralyze a Culinary Culture

by Chef Lawrence McFadden, CMC, COO, the Union Club of Cleveland

When I arrived at the 140-year-old Union Club of Cleveland, institutional traditions were front and center. Regardless of the new boss’ expertise — I’ve been in the culinary industry since 1982 and a CMC since 2002 — , there will always be a certain group asking, “Why now?” or “Why are you the orchestrator?” or saying “We don’t do it like that here,” or “That might have worked at The Ritz or Four Seasons.” These are the realities for anyone in a position of making changes and improvements. 

Our club had club food, but never a culinary culture like Duquesne, DAC, Bohemian, Cherokee, Everglades, The Country Club or endless other legendary locations. Our past Executive Chef may have viewed his position as a job, not a career — which is fine, but not what we needed.. Culinary technique needs to be the fabric of the chef’s DNA long before the Executive Chef title is assumed. We had to find someone new.

Of course, we knew change wouldn’t come without some push-back. In the words of Paul Prudhomme, “Food is a very powerful emotion,” and honestly, everyone has an opinion. More importantly, no one likes to change, and certainly not longtime members of a well-established club. But an experienced executive knows that excellence doesn’t come without movement, doesn’t exist without challenging the norm or venturing out of the comfort zone. 

Before we could change that culinary culture, we had to create support from various other departments including finance, human resources, membership and marketing. Some needed to be convinced, while all deserved to understand the plan — or else paranoia sets in. If you don’t have the departments on board, all the talent in the world will be wasted.

Any great chef needs tools to do his or her job: environment, technology and salary structure for a shared vision. For our club to become a place that would attract a high level of talent took two years of creating, lobbying, and strategically funding various channels to produce a healthy balance sheet with solid membership growth. Once that was established, we began a search for the next culinary leader with the desire to place the club on the gastronomic map. While some believe in the phase, “If you build it, they will come,” we certainly had to exercise patience.  

Our previous chef wasn’t known in the city, schools or community. How could the club brand be a model of culinary excellence if no one knew who was at the helm? Our city has a population of 200,000, yet most residents had never even heard of the club. While that was by design in the 1950s to 1990s, it can’t be part of the mission in the new millennium or membership is simply going to decline — which is what I inherited. Our club only has three key attributes; Food and Beverage, Fitness/Spa and Lodging, so it was important that culinary be visible so it could be used for awareness and member recruitment.

Our advertising has been organic. As with most private clubs, the public can’t enter so media channels are reluctant to write about us. We had to rely on word of mouth. In addition, management can get caught up in cost versus revenue generation but in reality, most members will pay for an experience and a unique story and our club needed the talent to create that dynamic.

We finally did find the right chef. Most members think we just hired a great technical cook. We really got leadership, persuasion, ego, emotional intelligence, mission and a long list of other skills that are propelling the Food and Beverage department and ultimately, the club forward.

We’re now eight months into our strategy. Slowly, ever so slowly, everyone is beginning to see that our changes were for the better. (It brings to mind the Stephen Covey statement, “I seek your greatest good, I mean you no harm.”) While they don’t say it, we hear it in their voices. Pictures are being taken at the tables, menus are opened to see the weekly specials and members are telling business colleagues, “You must try this.” Local restaurateurs are asking our members about the new Chef at the Union Club, creating pride, joy and value in their membership.

Four lessons in hiring a Master Chef can be taken from this story. One, he will not do it the way you would have done it. If you want to intervene, why hire him in the first place?

Two, talent is a challenge to manage but rewarding if you can allow yourself the confidence to support it when others waver.

Three, membership needs to be patient in the quality journey. Understanding a “change mentality” is important and members must trust that the new direction is the right direction.

Lastly, get out of their way. Don’t micromanage the small stuff.

In closing, change can only take place if membership, ownership (in some cases) and employees are all being considered. If one of these are disproportionate or out of balance, revisit the original value proposition, keeping in mind that it is easier said than done, especially when it comes to the daily requests of individual members. After all, members are the ultimate customer.