Summer of Self-Improvement

A river cruise from Amsterdam to Switzerland includes a stop at Cologne Cathedral for a group photo. From left are George and Barb Dodge, Jo and Jim Brown, Polly and Jim Myers, Diane and Cleon Stull, and Dean and Lynne Schneider.

By Adam Wade | Posted on 07.01.20

Every dude in the world thinks he’s The Grillmeister, protecting his fire like Master Blaster protecting his go juice  outside the Thunderdome. Unlike other hobbies or skills like fly-tying or medical horticulture, everyone cooks and they cook their food the way they like. This leads everyone to believing that the way they cook their steaks, veggie burgers and BBQ bacon-wrapped Old Bay crab-stuffed jalapenos is the correct way. Any suggestions to alternative culinary techniques are always met by scoffs or defensiveness. Imagine the stunned looks Chef Gordon Ramsey gets when he tells an overconfident cook that the chicken parm is dry, flavorless crap.

There is a difference between professional chefs and everyone else. The food at a restaurant tastes different than food that is cooked at home. It looks different. That’s not to disparage the soul-filling deliciousness of a home-cooked meal, but it just hits differently. Sure, most of that is salt and butter—and lots of it—but it’s also technique. Making sure a sauté pan is screaming hot before it receives a single shrimp or veal medallion. Using salt and pepper in steps to build layers of flavor, not just one-note seasoning at the end. Adding fresh herbs at the end of recipes that got cooked with those same herbs, so you get the flavors of both, like the Wonder Twins activating. Proper techniques are the difference between 3.5 and 5 stars.

Luckily there are lots of options for learning these days. Technology has probably been our saving grace lately, and luckily there are tons and tons of resources that were previously not available to the home chef. Want to learn how Thomas Keller (America’s most important chef) roasts a chicken? He made a video of how to prepare something that almost every cook has attempted, and he makes it look so simply perfect. It is perfect.

Lots of other chefs are creatively bringing us ways to improve our skills. A quick Ask Jeeves search will show chefs that are making meal kits with pre-measured ingredients and explicit instructions. A friend in Chicago sent me video of a meal kit he got from Alinea, one of the most forward-thinking restaurants in history. The package had 74 different 2-ounce plastic cups filled with various sauces, foams, infusions and reductions. It had instructions for cooking and detailed plating schematics. That is as close to working with a chef of that caliber that most will ever come.

Of course, there are also cooking schools and chefs that are doing private online classes or in-person instruction in your home. YouTube and the ’Gram are action-packed with instructional videos from famous chefs showing you how to make everyday meals but tweaking and refining your technique. This means you’re not pulling overly marinated meats out of Ziploc bags full of salty brown liquids anymore (please stop doing that) but ensuring you are adding more salt to your pasta water (for reals, like ocean water … but like Maui ocean water, not Ocean City).

Everyone loves to cook, but some of us would never get the chance to improve our kitchen skills. Now, we can easily get that knowledge that will ensure The Grillmeister will be able to just hand out plates of perfection. Not a cloud or culinary suggestion in sight.

Frederick Magazine