"Us" vs. "Them"



A book, or article, or blog I've always wanted to write (and may yet if I can figure out how to retire) is an in-depth study on the differences between home cooks and restaurant chefs. Aside from the obvious (formal training), what do they know that we don't? Michael Ruhlman took a good stab at it, trying to bridge the connection between home cook and restaurant chef, offering an education on the process in snippets, but I think there's more information to be had. What - in one sentence or even word - do they do or have or know that we don't?

This elusive "thing" was what I wondered about first as I began to really discover food. An ex-girlfriend, a former chef in San Francisco at Square One and Stars, was the first to enlighten me. As she would cook even a casual meal, I'd study and question every move, cut, grind, amount, and method; as if even obvious maneuvers held secrets.

She did clear up a few things, but there weren't really any big mysteries involved. She first taught me to trust my instincts, and experiment. Those moments, when you're afforded the uniquely-human opportunity to provide food for someone else offers inspiration and an opportunity to do what restaurant staff take for granted - practice.

1. Practice

A writer writes, a painter paints, a photographer photographs, and a cook cooks.

Restaurant cooks have something going for them that is both good and bad - repetition. I think most home cooks look at a gleaming restaurant kitchen, clad in stainless steel and copper with long slabs of white marble as the purest expression of a space dedicated to the task of cooking. It's hard not to romanticize what it's like to cook in that environment.

However, unlike home cooks, these people aren't cooking what they want for dinner, they're cooking what you want for dinner, and they're cooking the same thing over and over and over. They rarely get a chance to "wing it" or are given carte blanche to make up their own dish (though I'm sure it happens.) A bit like a fighter pilot, they must use a massive piece of equipment for a single task rarely dictated by them. They're trained on how to use it, but only occasionally get to "cut loose" to have fun with it.


2. Eliminate Variables

The ingredients, one could argue, are the same, so what does a restaurant kitchen do with, say, a carrot, that home cooks don't? They boil them in the same kind of water (water doesn't stray too far from the 2-parts Hydrogen to 1 part oxygen recipe), and steam it in the same kind of steam (ditto on ingredients for steam). Where are the other variables? Now we're getting somewhere.

It's tempting to blame the equipment. Missing BTU's (though this is true in a wok), the benefit of making 15 gallons of stock at a time, access to a salamander, flash freezer, blowtorch (easy enough to put in a home kitchen but it generates odd looks from my housekeeper), having someone else to do prep for you, and an endless supply of clean pans - all within easy reach. All of these contribute to a better end result (trust me), but there is more to it.

They cut carrots to the same size, every day. They have a pot of boiling water, into which they might plunge those carrots for the same amount of time, every day. They measure sauce for a plate the same way, every day. You get the picture.

3. Keep it clean

They do this thing I've never quite mastered; "clean as you go". If anything will keep me from being a chef (aside from the pay), it's this discipline. My ideal kitchen would have a moving conveyor belt where I could trash one part of it, press a button, and that part would be whisked away to reveal a clean surface.

Experience obviously helps, and formal education means having been taught the right way to do things from the very beginning. It's hard to "unlearn" bad habits (if you've always typed with one finger, chances are good you always will.)

The formula began to make sense.

But when a chef strays from the norm and begins to break rules thought to be universal, I begin to wonder why. Feran Adria, and the rest of his molecular homies (at first glance) might seem to be straying just for the sake of novelty. Who needs a deconstructed version of any dish? Who needs a laser to cook with? Tony Bourdain's documentary with Feran Adria, brilliant overall, had a 3-second segment that stuck with me - their test kitchen doesn't have a gas stove. I think the quote is "forswears flame"; that's quite a statement. Those that cook on electric coils long for the caress of blue flame under and around a pan. The fact that he shunned it not only struck me, it downright HAUNTED me. Short of emailing him and asking why, I had to figure it out myself.

Four thousand miles away, another ingredient geek was installing a $20,000 coffee maker at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco (Jim Freeman and Colleen Donovan - though I have a hunch this was more Jim's idea than Colleen's). Yes, there are similarly-priced espresso makers, but the primary device here doesn't even do that. In fact, the core of the device is just a really bright light.

Yup. That's $20,000 worth of heatlamps on dimmers. (There's a bit more to it than that, but not much.)

It's a sexy gadget, to be sure, and that sex appeal has brought people from far and wide to taste coffee made by this arsenal of 400-watt lights aimed at the ceiling. Seriously, the thing is beautiful... and, yet, the notion of someone spending this much money on a sideshow gadget didn't sit well with me. Yes, restaurant (and certainly coffee) sellers will do wacky things to get your attention (never, fortunately, rivaling the zaniness of used-car salesmen), but this didn't add up. There had to be a reason, and I suspected it was linked to Adria.

I had to see this thing in person. Then, I had to buy the "home version" to play with (minus the heatlamps). As I watched my home-version make coffee differently than the ones at Blue Bottle - the water bubbled into the upper chamber faster, and was vacuumed back down faster, I got curious. I watched a video online, showing how they make coffee at Blue Bottle as well as in vacuum coffee bars in Japan, again to verify, then repeated the experiment again. And then, it hit me.

4. Control

That was it. In both cases, the reason for straying from the norm was control. They asked, "What if we cooked this slower?" and "What if we slowed the vacuum rate down?" (Well, if they didn't ask it, I did.)

This is not to diminish the power of repetition, nor of innate talent, but it clears up why someone would pay $20,000 for bright lights.

If there is one primary element or process or concept that separates a home kitchen from a commercial one, it's control; over temperature, time, rapid access to heat and cold, instant access to equipment and ingredients, and - above all - a team of people surrounding you all doing their individual tasks.

I don't think home cooks need to envy restaurant kitchen staff; it may very well be a case of "the grass is always greener". Or perhaps it's the "lettuce"...

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