A glimpse into the world of professional cooking.
We'd rather have dinner with you!
One of the things that Bess and I hear far too often is “we’d invite you over to dinner but, well, that’s intimidating.” This is always a bummer because we like to go to people’s homes for dinner. We enjoy the people, their homes and it's just plain lovely to be invited to break bread with them. I always want to say, “It’s not a contest; there are no winners or losers. It’s just dinner!” But then I check myself and realize it’s only human nature to measure ourselves against others. I wouldn’t show my sewn pillows to a professional dressmaker. When a UC Davis Master Gardener and professor came to visit, I nearly crawled into a hole because a few of my apple trees had scab disease. I wish we didn’t but we all measure the things we do by others who are experts. So here are a few simple truths about every professional chef I’ve ever known:
They get tired of their own food. Of course, they love to cook in their work and in their homes but, like every job, they prefer not to do it 365 days a year. Dining at the home of a friend offers comradery, potential inspiration, the savoring of varied flavors, the joy of no responsibility and just plain a break from their work.
In a restaurant or other professional cooking environment, chefs are ruthless, period. Those who are responsible for the food in restaurant or catering environments make food for a living. To another professional, such people had better be damn good at it or, well, let's just say, slack will not be cut. They loathe paying for lousy food and no, they won't be quiet about it. I had to get accustomed to this with Bess but I see her point. I hold my CPA to a different standard than I hold my friend who can balance his checkbook. I don’t expect the guy at the bar to be able to tell me about their beers, I do expect it from the Kelseyville Brewing Company owner, down to the details. Why would food be any different? If you are going to “show,” be ready for the show!
On the entire flip side of that coin, the joy chefs feel sitting around your dining room table and enjoying your Iowa Lasagna or your Mom’s Meatloaf is nothing shy of delight. There are, literally, no expectations because you are not a professional cook. You have made them food, with love, and that is all that matters. Well, and that we can bring the wine!
Cooks often want to discuss a certain dish. “I have a recipe for blankety-blank that’s so great.” “I make blankety-blank all the time.” What separates professional cooks from good or even great home cooks is not a dish, not even the ability to cook that dish extremely well. What makes someone a professional is that they must and do consider every single aspect of what it takes to earn a living making THAT dish every day, no matter what, by the dozens or even hundreds. Here are a few of the things they must consider:
The timing. The level of knowledge and ability required to get six elements on a plate, each of them cooked to their absolute individual perfection, at basically the same moment is fairly astounding. Warming drawers are great for home cooks to hold one dish for a short period of time while you finish the other. I do not know one chef that would even consider using one.
The quantity. As a fairly good home cook myself, I can make one stellar dish or even serve four. Could I make 500 of them? No way!
The demand. Home cooks make what they want even when cooking for family or friends. Professional cooks make what other people want all the time, every time.
The look. We eat with our eyes first. Every chef I know cares almost equally about the flavor and the beauty of a dish. This is why Bess makes biscuits and gravy only because she loves me. If she didn’t, she would never ever make such an ugly dish – and yes, I’m sorry, it is delicious but it is also ugly.
Not making people sick is an obsession. Of course, no one wants to make people sick with bad or badly cooked or poorly refrigerated food but for chefs, it is their reputations and very livelihoods on the line. Being food-safe certified matters. Because we eat food all the time, I think we forget that food can kill people – people with compromised immune systems, our young children and our elders. Food can also just make people feel slightly crappy the next morning and they don’t really know why. Making people slightly sick happens far more than folks realize because they just think they are having a bad morning. I’m always amazed that so few people ask us for a copy of our kitchen/catering license and food-safe certification. In a restaurant, you can be reasonably sure the staff is certified. As for catering, people really should ask. It was the same in our B&B. The city of Austin was entirely bent out of shape about the stability of the toilets, I suppose thinking someone might fall off, but didn’t check food temp in the fridge even once!
The cost. Chefs want to stay in business. To do that they need to make money. For a chef, that means they can look at a recipe or plate of food and calculate both the actual food costs as well as the labor to produce the dish. The only questions that matter to a chef are will people like it/be impressed by it and how much will it cost to make.
Professionalism. Perhaps the most important thing I know about chefs is that they care about being professional. This is not their hobby or sideline to another business, it’s their career and livelihood. They care that their hoods are clean, that the correct number of cases of asparagus are coming and the spears won’t be the diameter of your thigh. They care that their kitchen is licensed and that their staff is paid a fair wage. They care about making enough money to cover their health insurance and that every plate that leaves their realm is as perfect as humanly possible. In short, as a professional, they care about a million things way beyond a recipe or a dish.
So the next time you think about inviting us to dinner, please do. We’ll bring the wine, you don't need to worry about any of the above and, for a night, neither does Bess.