Since I’ve been working in kitchens- whether professional, my own, or in school- I’ve slowly been accruing a lot of adages- little nuggets of wisdom that have, frankly, served me well. Tonight, I figured I would share some of these with you. Some are punchy, some are pointed, and some are just plain common sense that we all pretend we don’t have sometimes.
Like previous lists, this one is NOT definitive. I’m not done baking yet, and therefore I have plenty more to learn, so please do not assume I am some grand high all-knowing pastry guru.
That would be some dude living in France.
The BHB’s Words of Wisdom
I learned this way later in the game than I should have. Instead, I picked it up from the continually excellent YouTube show, Extra Credits. This is the absolute cornerstone of wisdom for anyone who works in any kind of creative field. As soon as you have an idea, start putting it together. Don’t wait for the perfect idea- it will not appear. Make test batch after test batch after test batch and take notes on every part of it. This is how you make something great- there is no shortcut.
Products taste better than ideas, but nothing tastes better than memories.
This goes hand in hand with Fail Faster, and folds two important ideas into one. Pitching a new dessert or dish with words is difficult. You can’t taste words. The person you are pitching them to knows how THEY taste those things. Fail Faster, and present your idea along with a test batch to put under their nose. If they hate it, work on it. If they love it, marvelous- work on it later. The second part is important for anytime someone asks you to make something they had “long ago” or “like their mom/dad/grandma/etc. used to make.” Saying you can is a death sentence and a lie. You cannot. The memory they have is pristine and perfect, and you have NO chance of comparing to it. The best you can do is offer what you have, and ask if that’s close.
The big night is not the time to try something new.
Some common sense that I was reminded of the hard way, more than once. I’ve gotten… less than stellar marks on final exams because I was overeager, overproud, and really wanted to show off how clever I was by doing something I’d never done before, and- predictably- did it miserably. Experiment and have fun when you have the time and lea-way to do so. For a big dinner, a big contract, or a big ANYTHING, stick with something you know inside out, backwards, upside down, and can do in your sleep- and do it perfectly.
Simplicity, with elegance.
I mentioned this in a few other posts- this is my personal mantra for creating desserts. A simple dish, done uncommonly well, can mean more and have greater impact on a dinner that the most extravagant plated work.
Classics are classics for a reason.
Once again, simplicity. Classic combinations and desserts have stood the test of time for a reason. People love them. They work together. Yes, every diner has New York Cheesecake with fruit on top, or apple pie a la mode. Yes, chocolate and mint go well together. Shake them up if you want, or turn them on their head. Deconstruct them, reconstruct them, or de-re-de-re-de-reconstruct them- when when it comes down to what people know and love, these are your standbys. Speaking of which….
If you want the fruit off the tree, take care of the roots.
The old saying goes “You can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” Any artist who has bold new ideas and creates the novel and exciting is well-steeped in what has come before. Their mental galleries are vast and well-curated. They have a deep and profound love for everything that came before them- and that is what they build one. You cannot but do the same.
Proper prior planning prevents poor performance. (a.k.a., The 6 P’s)
Heard everywhere, in many situations and fields. It’s still true. Clean your kitchen. Make sure all your equipment is clean and functional. If you are going to multi-task, know your timeline, and for the love of all that is holy, MISE EN PLACE, MISE EN PLACE, MISE EN PLACE.
Use all 5 senses.
When you bake, this is an absolute must. Pay attention, and your product will talk to you the entire time, so your final result isn’t a surprise. Does your batter feel to liquidy? How about that crust- is it not as brown as it should be? Hmmm.. the smell of baking cookies- they must all be done. The hollow thump of a tap on the bottom of a bread load tells you it’s done.
Don’t assume everyone you work with does their job right/ all the time.
If you work in a professional kitchen, it’s a team effort. You will have to work with, around, and alongside others. You will depend on the work of others, and vice versa. Just because something isn’t your “job,” however, doesn’t mean you don’t do it. One person slipping up can send the careful choreography of a kitchen into chaos if the rest of the team doesn’t catch it. Count on others, but be aware of them as well.
Why kill yourself?
Rhetorical question. Whoever said that doing things the hard way builds character clearly had spare knees and spines at home and a death wish. There ARE somethings where using a more difficult method (hand mixing instead of using a stand-mixer, for example) can lead to better results. In general, though, culinary arts is an extremely physical field, and will put your body through the wringer if you use it wrong. Set up your station with a mind to how your work will “flow”- from materials to end result. Keep everything close, or at least in arms-reach. Look for small ways to make your manual labors faster, easier, and more fluid.
If you’re standing in the kitchen doing nothing, you’re either forgetting something, just visiting, or trying to get fired.
THE big piece of advice for any professional kitchen. There is ALWAYS something to be doing.