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Chefs and cooks are striving for excellence every day in the kitchen, and if they’re not, they probably shouldn’t be there. All will say that attention to detail is key to perfection: from the flavours, to the cooking, to the presentation, to eventually, how it's presented to the guest. This is what sets a kitchen and a restaurant on the path to greatness.
Chef Paul Sorgule, whose musings on the psychology of the kitchen over on his Harvest America Ventures blog we feature regularly has identified 11 steps to ensure excellence in the kitchen. Do you agree with this list? Let us know over on our Facebook page.
Chef tips: 11 steps to excellence in the kitchen
1. START WITH EXCELLENT RAW MATERIALS
Excellence in a kitchen begins with the development of a solid rapport and understanding of expectations between vendors, farmers, fishmongers, cheese makers, and chefs. Quality of finished dishes begins with exceptional ingredients and an understanding of the role that vendors and producers play in the process.
2. RESPECT FOR THOSE INGREDIENTS
Every exceptional cook and chef must not only understand how important it is to buy the right ingredients, but must then understand and practice respect for those ingredients once they arrive. Proper storage, rotation of product, appreciation for respectful handling, and knowing how to complement the flavours and textures of ingredients through the cooking process are all critical steps leading to excellence.
3. KNIFE CUTS
Most chefs would agree that an essential skill for all cooks who are focused on excellence is great knife handling. Knowing how to select the right tool for the right job, caring for those knives to ensure that they are able to perform at peak levels, and mastering all of the critical cuts is paramount. Furthermore, excellent cooks and chefs understand that the role of well executed knife cuts points to how they cook, how they taste, and the perceived value of a dish through its appearance. Precise work in this regard does matter.
4. FOUNDATIONS OF SOLID COOKING
There are no shortcuts to excellent cooking. Although the approach towards cooking does evolve, there are certain steps that are time tested, that result in consistently excellence products, that if disregarded will produce sub-standard or mediocre results. Excellent cooks and chefs respect and practice these processes – always.
5. BUILDING FLAVOUR PROFILES
Cooks who sweat the small stuff are always looking for ways to develop and enhance the flavour of a dish. This requires a serious commitment to building a personal palate, understanding the ingredients and how they change based on season, soil, and care; and building an encyclopaedic knowledge of seasoning with a goal of building towards the desired flavour.
6. FOCUS ON CONSISTENCY
What is even more, or at least as important as flavour profile, is the ability of a cook or chef to consistently reach that goal. This requires that deep understanding of ingredients and how to adjust due to the hundreds of variables that exist. The guest expects this and a restaurant’s reputation will depend on achieving this goal.
7. FINISH COOKING AND FLAVOUR ADJUSTMENT
Although much of the cooking in a restaurant is addressed during advance prep, it is the ability of each and every line cook to understand that end flavour goal and adjust a ‘la minute to that goal. This is quite a task and a serious commitment given the stressful nature of working a busy line.
People eat with their eyes, so cooks and chefs who are serious about excellence take the necessary critical seconds to create beautiful food that gives a guest pause. Plating should never be haphazard no matter how busy a restaurant might be. The goal should always be to create plates that guests stop to admire before they pick up a knife and fork.
9. HOT FOOD HOT AND COLD FOOD COLD
The first rule of thumb in restaurants has always been this: make sure that if a dish is designed to be cold then it must be – including the plate or vessel used in the presentation. If a dish is meant to be consumed while hot, then the same applies.
10. SIGNING THE PLATE
Those cooks and chefs who never accept mediocrity are always happy to sign their work. This is not likely to be a literal process, but will involve that last look at a dish before it hits the pass, or the chef or expeditor’s moment to clean plate edges and strategically place a fresh herb on the plate. This is a signature that says: “I am proud of this plate – it is a symbol of my commitment to excellence.”
11. COMMUNICATING THE EFFORT
The last step in that commitment to excellence, the desire to always sweat the small stuff – is in the hands of the service staff. Servers should be as proud of the food that they present, as are the cooks and chefs who signed it in the kitchen. Taking the time to properly place the dish, as is designed, in front of a guest; taking that brief moment to re-introduce each dish and the primary ingredients; and smiling with approval of the quality food coming from the kitchen is the final step in stating to each guest: “This is it; our product, the food that our kitchen staff has committed to, the food that began with a farmers commitment to caring for the ingredients, and the food that represents our very best effort. Enjoy.”