I had been in a depressive slump for a few days. Life for me was less a series of deeds and events than a monochrome shamble from one checkpoint to another.
But when I got home to a quiet house with my wife taking an afternoon nap, I knew the fog was lifting- because I wanted to make some pie.
I weighed out the flour and cut the butter. A small measure of iced tea was poured for the liquid. Regardless of my state of mind, my hands still had the skills. The ancient wisdom still flowed through them, and they knew without my correction how to create something good. It was the quiet, meditative serenity of letting my hands move while my mind watched and convalesced- shaking off the lead cloak Depression had thrown over it.
Reconnecting to something simple, delicate, and pure.
This is the space where I think people show their true skills.
There are classic kitchen legends about young cooks who want to work for a certain chef, and the chef asks them to make something (deceptively) simple- an omelette. From the way the cook handles the eggs, the pan, the seasoning- everything- the chef can apparently tell the cooks character and ability, making a decision about their career after a simple taste.
Supposedly, the Saint Honore Gateau was developed as a demonstration piece for aspiring French bakers. In order to make one perfectly, an apprentice baker would have to master pate au choux, creme pastissier (pastry cream,) laminated dough, and caramel- all staples of French pastry. If their mentor was impressed, it meant they were ready to set out on their own.
Is that really true? Well, I bet in some French restaurants it is- but hiring like that is hardly universal.
Does the idea hold water, though? Can making an apparently simple dish, or demonstrating an apparently simple process, really demonstrate someone’s skill, character, personality, and passion? In my opinion, absolutely.
I’ve said before that the reason I love pie so much is that it’s “honest.” Pie is honest because- whether you made a pie perfectly or screwed it up royally- it’s all right there on the plate. There’s no way to disguise an overworked crust, a soggy bottom, or undercooked filling. There’s no “add more salt,” or “mix the dough less” after the pie is baked and served.
Pie is simple. It’s a series of simple techniques and preparations that must be done well in order to create a good dessert. That is why the whole “make me an omelette” thing makes sense- you show your skill not in how many tricks you’ve learned, but in how well you do something apparently simple.
“Simple doesn’t mean simplistic.”
I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes I get my head a bit far up my ass over kitchen philosophy, so I check myself by asking the same questions to other chefs and cooks. Earlier today, I went on to the “Pro Chef U” Facebook group and asked a question:
“If you had a cook come to you for a job, what one preparation or dish would you have them make to demonstrate their skills?”
A few chefs had some interesting ideas and answers to test not just culinary skills, but their efficiency of motion and ability to work in a kitchen:
“Let them pick something to make. That demonstrates creativity, ability to think on the fly, and they can’t be unfamiliar with the dish.”
“A full English Breakfast. That’s 9 items, all with different cooking times. If they finish and everything is hot- including the toast- they’re hired.”
“A three-course meal of their choice, prepared in a set amount of time. Even better, have them on the line for a shift first so they see what there is to be used.”
Most of them, however, picked dishes that were deceptively simple:
“Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. See if they can cook pasta, and it’s easy to screw up if you burn the garlic.”
“French Onion Soup.”
“Mille Fuille. Puff pastry is the most challenging thing to make from scratch and lamination is a sought-after skill. Can they stabilize pastry cream with gelatine? Is the royal icing detailed?” [There were similar responses for croissant, kulibiaka and bread.]
“Hollandaise or pastry cream from scratch, by hand.”
“Got to be a steak. Protein is still (mostly) the star of a meal. Cut, spices, rub/marinade would be up to them.”
“Give them one sea scallop to cook. If they only sear one side and then try to finish it in the oven, they don’t get hired.”
All staples. All apparently simple. All offering a myriad of unconsidered skills to demonstrate in one small package- timing, technique, patience, willingness to cut corners.
For myself, my bakery doesn’t let me tell stages to make something off the cuff. Instead, I try to select a series of tasks for them and we give them a rough time limit. Usually it’s completing a recipe (demonstrates their ability to follow a recipe, scales, and their familiarity with techniques and the kitchen.) I’ll also give them something repetitive but detailed to do, like piping almond cream or cutting fruit (demonstrates diligence, the ability to focus, and attention to detail.)
In my dream, future bakery though- any baker that works for me will need to make a pie. I’ll look for the flaky crust that denotes patience in managing the butter temperature, the ability to roll a crust evenly, and the speed they work at. I’ll look at the filling, which will tell me the flavors they favor. How they cut the fruit will tell me their tastes, and any seeds or peels demonstrates willingness to cut corners. Did they bake it in a hurry? Do they know what done looks like? When I take a bite, do they show confidence and pride in their work?
More importantly, as they work- do they seem disinterested? Is this drudgery to them- just a formality for a job they need, but don’t want? If that’s the case, I don’t care how skilled they are.
If Basics Confuse You, the Complex is Beyond You
To quote Tom Collichio, “Simple does not mean simplistic.” If a cook comes to me and rattles off their fascination with sous vide, molecular gastronomy, activated charcoal, and futuristic techniques- but they can’t manage a basic preparation well- I don’t care how well read they are. It’s all words on a page- a familiarity with theory at the expense of practicality. If they need fancy tools and machines to make excellent food, I’m not sure I would trust them on my clock with a vegetable peeler.
On the other hand, if they come to me with interest and questions, but they show love and attention to making something simple- if they can execute the simple perfectly, with as much attention as any new fad can muster… I’ll happily train them in anything I can.