Purchase good quality knives and keep them sharp.
Believe it or not, you’re more likely to hurt yourself with a blunt knife than with a sharp knife. A dull blade requires more pressure to cut, increasing the chance that the knife will slip, whereas a sharp knife ‘bites’ the surface more readily. And if you do cut yourself, a sharper blade leaves a cleaner cut, which heals a lot quicker.
Looking after your knives is the hallmark of a good chef, and keeping them sharp is just one part of it. First of all, of course, you need to part your hard-earned cash with some. You don’t need a lot of knives. A good cooks knife, a paring knife (vegetable knife) and a bread knife are all you need. If you like to get your fish whole, for instance, then a filleting knife will more than likely come in handy. Head to your local catering wholesaler and try a few out. Hold them in your hand, feel the weight of them, and see which one you find most comfortable for you. Be prepared; you’re going to pay a lot. Good knives are expensive, but look after it, keep them sharp, and they will last forever. You’ll need a sharpening steel to keep a sharp edge. And a wet stone, in case you need to get the edge back. Never put them in the dishwasher. Wash with warm soapy water and dry immediately. The old adage is true, look after your knives, and they will look after you. My knives of choice are Global Knives.
Salt, salt + more salt
One reason home cooking doesn’t tend to taste like restaurant cooking is our liberal use of salt. Salt makes everything better. Of course, using too much salt in your cooking can be awful, but used correctly, it will enhance your cooking tenfold.
When cooking with salt, it’s important to layer the seasoning. Let’s take a stew for example if you don’t season during the cooking and then only season at the end the resulting flavour will be acceptable but not exceptional. The salt won’t have had the time to do it’s work, to develop into more complex flavours, and the resulting flavour may end up being too salty. Seasoning at the end of the cooking process should just be tweaking the flavour only, checking that it is perfect. Instead, layering the seasoning by adding a little salt at every stage is the way forward. Season the meat before sealing, season the vegetables when sweating them off. The result will be a well balanced, perfectly seasoned stew.
Don’t forget to season your desserts with a little salt too. Yes really. A pinch of salt in your ice cream, brownie or pannacotta mix, will bring out the sweetness of the dish. Add a pinch of salt to your next sweat creation, and you’ll see what I mean.
Use more butter
Butter is, without doubt, is one of the most used products in any kitchen, we use tonnes of the stuff. Chances are you’re not using enough. I know what you are saying — the health implications, but it’s not like you eat at restaurants every day, and this article is, ‘How to Cook Like a Chef’ and chefs cook with lots of butter. If you are sautéing a steak, for instance, add a large spoonful of butter to the pan and using your spoon continuously baste the butter over the steak. We call this napé. Made a delicious sauce using bones? Stir in a knob of butter (monté au buerre) which makes the sauce luxurious and delicious.
Mise en place — everything in its place
Mise en place is what cooks live or die by. It’s all of the ingredients that we need to cook with and dress our dishes during service. Without our mise en place, we are nothing. A whole service can hinge on whether your MEP is ready because the last thing you want to be doing during a busy service is finely dicing some banana shallots. We write lists to stay organised as we usually have multiple jobs to do in a short space of time. If you are cooking for a group of people, you should work this way too. Write a list of everything you need to do, have everything prepped and weighed out so when you come to cook, it will be a whole lot easier. Prep certain things ahead of time like we do in professional kitchens. As I am sure, you are aware most of the meal that you eat in a restaurant is pre-cooked, like purées, sauces and vegetables, so when we receive your order, we only need to reheat and finish things off. If we didn’t, it would take hours to get you your meal. Of course, we cook all meat and fish to order. If you follow this advice, you’ll get to spend more time with your guests and make cooking for friends a lot less stressful.
Never waste anything
Good chefs hate waste. In a well-run kitchen, anything in the bin should be wholly unusable. Keep fish heads, and bones for a fish stock, any carcass for that matter. If you don’t want the chicken skin on the breast, cook it between two trays in the oven for the most delicious chicken crackling. If you are cooking with small fish, like a sprat, save the bones, dredge them in flour, and deep fry them for a delicious snack — trust me, I was dubious at first, but they are sensational. In a nutshell, waste nothing. We owe it to the farmer, or producer to do our very best with their product — all of it.
I recommend reading ‘Nose to tail eating’ by Fergus Henderson.
When you taste something memorable, it’s because the flavours are balanced. Too much acidity and the dish will be too sour. Too much salt and it will be too salty and so on. It’s about making sure all of your flavours are harmonious with each other. Fatty pork belly, which is sweet and rich, needs something tart to contrast like tart granny smith apples. Bitter chocolate with a pinch of salt is a match made in heaven. A sour rhubarb crumble paired with sweet custard, or ice cream is divine.
The five basic tastes are sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. If everything is balanced, it makes for a great all-round flavour and delicious dish. If one of them is overpowering, the dish won’t work.
Acidity is key
Out of all of the five basic tastes, it is salt and acidity that have the most impact on your cooking. Utilising acidity is your food will enhance your dishes. A drop of vinegar in your gravy will improve the flavour dramatically. If you are crisping up some pork belly in a pan, add a drizzle of balsamic at the last minute to glaze, and it takes the pork to a whole new level.
A simple squeeze of lemon juice or a drop of vinegar can enhance the flavour of most things. As a chef, you are trying to get the most flavour out of your ingredients, and acidity can help massively.
Taste, taste, taste — everything
Chefs taste everything all of the time. It’s so important to make sure it’s seasoned correctly. At every stage of the cooking process, you should be tasting and tweaking the balance of the dish.
Clean as you go.
A kitchen should be clean, spotless in fact: dirty kitchen = dirty food. At a Michelin starred restaurant I worked at I was on the fryer section. We used to pané (breadcrumb) croquettes, sheep’s tongue etc. to order. After one busy lunch service, my bench was messy, as was my apron, covered in the detritus of breadcrumbs, egg and flour. The sous chef grabbed me by the apron yanked me towards him, called me a dirty fuck, and said if I want to work like a pig, I could piss off down the road and work in the pub. He was entirely right, of course. If your section is dirty, you cook dirty, meaning you can quickly lose the clarity of the cooking process.
Utilise the cheaper cuts
As chefs, we are always looking to make our GP (gross profit) meaning we work out how much each dish costs us to create and work out what price we need to charge for the plate of food. Where I work, we work towards a 65% GP. With cheaper cuts, which often have more flavour are a great way to go as you get so much more for your money. Parts of the animal that have to work harder during their lifetime, like legs and shoulders are more flavourful due to the presence of fat. However, these cuts are generally chewier and take longer to cook, due to the collagen which takes a while to break down during the cooking process.
It’s also the mark of a good chef that can turn an unloved, and cheap piece of meat into something exceptional — anyone can cook a fillet steak and make it taste nice.
Go for beef shin, oxtail, pigs cheeks and lamb breast. All of these cuts taste wonderful after long and slow braising. Chefs will always favour a rump steak over a fillet, and so should you!
Less is more
Less is more is the best single lesson I have learnt. Young chefs seem to feel the need to over-complicate their food when it is so unnecessary. It takes a very skilled hand to make multiple flavours and elements work on the same plate. Instead, stick to three of four and concentrate on making them the very best they can be. A dish with fewer, perfectly executed ingredients has better clarity and is much more enjoyable. You also want to be able to taste everything that is on the plate. With too many elements, things can get lost in the chaos. If you only remember one thing from this article, then remember this one — Less is most definitely more.