The world’s best restaurants are built on creativity and innovation at the core of their model, but that doesn’t mean they forget kitchen traditions, in fact most, if not all, keep one foot firmly rooted in what came before them.
Many people feel that tradition is a burden, but used correctly it can be the spring board for wonderful progress – just look at Massimo Bottura.
With the idea of tradition in mind, one of our favourite online writers Paul Sorgule has compiled a list of what important kitchen traditions we should never forget: 13 points that he believes are important food traditions that every restaurant worth it’s weight should partake in, from the classic boiling of stock pots to baking great bread.
Be sure to visit Sorgule’s Harvest America Ventures blog for more.
1 - THE STOCKPOT AND ROASTING BONES: To some, making stocks is an old school process. Stocks take time, are not cheap to make, and actually do require some talent. Some cooks don’t roast bones – I do. I like the flavor and color caramelization creates. More than anything else, a simmering stock in a kitchen says something about a cook’s commitment to making things from scratch. The smell of a stock in a kitchen always tells me a great deal about the chef and those who work there.
2 - PEELED CARROTS, POTATOES, AND ONIONS: Every kitchen where I have worked always made sure that there were buckets of freshly peeled carrots, onions, and potatoes available for cooks to use. More often than not it was a idle dishwasher who was given this daily task and in some cases this was the first step in transitioning that dishwasher to a prep cook, breakfast cook, and on to a rewarding career in the kitchen.
3 - THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CHEF’S UNIFORM: There is a tremendous amount of history behind the uniform and what it represents. The crisp white chefs jacket is a symbol of a professional, a person who works clean, and a person who is proud to demonstrate to others what he or she does for a living. Yes, it is true that the uniform does not guarantee that the person can cook, but it is a tradition that pays respect to all who came before and to the honor of the profession. It is the same pride that the military instills in soldiers who represent something larger than the individual.
4 - RESPECT FOR THE KITCHEN CHAIN OF COMMAND: Kitchens function well when there is a mutual respect for the chain of command and the role that every person plays in how the kitchen operates. This chain of command, first developed by Escoffier, delineates responsibility and accountability and as such is important for efficient operation. You don’t need to like the person who holds a position, but you do need to respect the role that this position plays in daily operations.
5 - CRACKING EGGS VS. POURING THEM FROM A CONTAINE: It may be silly to point to this, but there is a level of respect for the role of the chicken when a cook actually cracks an egg. There is recognized convenience associated with buying cracked and whipped eggs in quart containers (open and pour), but something is lost in the process (not to mention the ascorbic acid that is added to try and keep the eggs fresh and of the right color).
6 - MAKING DRESSINGS FROM SCRATCH: There is an assumption that most customers have when they invest their hard earned dollars in a restaurant meal. One assumption is that everything is made from scratch. Maybe this is naïve, but simple processes like making your own salad dressings is not that difficult and they help to maintain uniqueness about your operation.
7 - MAKING IN-HOUSE ICE CREAM: There are plenty of quality ice cream products on the market, but making your own demonstrates a desire to make this restaurant staple unique and special. Modern equipment makes the process incredibly easy, so there is literally no excuse. This is how it once was! I remember during my apprenticeship working with a pastry chef who had me poach and peel fresh peaches in season for an unbelievable Georgia Peach Ice Cream. Once you have developed this skill and the palate for home made, there is no turning back.
8 - BAKING FRESH BREAD: To me, this is the first indication of a great meal to come. Great bread, not just good bread, is the price of admission for a truly exceptional food experience (regardless of price point). Bringing back this tradition in restaurants is one of the most valuable things that a chef can do. Yes, it takes skill, space, good equipment, and time, but this tradition can and does separate average restaurants from exceptional ones. A tradition that once was the standard.
9 - DEVELOPING KNIFE SKILLS BEFORE THE FOOD PROCESSOR: Convenience and speed can easily get in the way of skill development. Convenience and speed can only be appreciated by those who have developed the skill to do the task by hand first. A calculator is a tool that has value after a person knows how to compute without one. The same is true with food processors and knife skills. The other reality is that once a cook knows how to consistently work with a knife he or she will find that the convenience of a processor never truly matches the quality of work done by hand.
10 - KNOWING HOW TO BREAKDOWN A CHICKEN AND SUB PRIMALS OF BEEF AND PORK: Chicken breasts that arrive in layer packs or 10 pound bags of random size have real value. It takes time to breakdown a chicken, yet until a cook understands how to do this he or she cannot understand how to respect the chicken, how to design a menu to utilize everything the chicken has to offer, and how to value those times when portioned items make volume work more affordable.
11 - USING FRESH, WHOLE FISH WHENEVER POSSIBLE: There is nothing better than fresh fish. Purchasing fish in the fillet form without the ability to check the cavity, eyes, and gills for freshness and without the skill to slide a sharp fillet knife from the tail to the head, takes away from that same level of appreciation for the fish that applied to chicken, beef and pork.
12 - USING PRODUCE THAT IS IN SEASON: We can buy whatever we want, whenever we want it, delivered within our time frame. This is one of the advantages of the centralized processing and incredible distribution system that has been developed over the past few decades. Chefs know that as important as this system may be, the tradition of buying what is in season from a farmer who lives and works in close proximity to the restaurant will always yield the best products and create a bond and appreciation between chefs and farmers. This is a tradition that should not be lost, regardless of how convenient the current distribution system might be.
13 - SAUCE WORK THAT PAYS HOMAGE TO THE PAST: Restaurants may have drifted away from the Mother Sauces, but the process by which a stock transitions from water, bones and mirepoix to a glace de viande or demi-glace is remarkable and incredibly flavorful. Yes, restaurants can buy products that are quite good having gone through a similar process thousands of miles away, but to eliminate this traditional process from a kitchen translates into a loss of greater magnitude – a loss of a traditional, valuable skill. This is a chance for a restaurant to write their signature on a part of the meal that accentuates the importance of flavor and talent.