Last year, I was thinking about “what I want to do when I grow up” (post-baby version. I’m sure you can relate, parents!). One of the things I did was a stint as a stagiaire (fancy name for a kitchen intern) at Split Pea Seduction with chef Christian Noto. It was an eye opening experience for a home cook like me and I recommend it for anyone, moms and dads included, with some free time and a passion for cooking. If it’s something you’re considering, the most important thing is to team up with someone whose approach to food excites you and who is passionate about sharing their knowledge. It’s gotta feel like a learning experience, not free labor. Did I mention that you get to use cool tools like a giant Hobart stand mixer?
While I’m continuing to explore my interest in food in lots of other ways (including this blog), I do go back from time to time to help out which is a fun change of pace from the daily routine. I spent some time in Christian’s kitchen this week, so I thought I would share 5 takeaways that have followed me back to my kitchen at home.
- Cooking with All Your Senses. The amount of smelling and tasting going on in a professional kitchen was a big revelation for me. From taking the time to get a good sense of your ingredients before you start cooking to evaluating your flavors as you go (vs. making all your adjustments at the end). One favorite tip I picked up is making sure to taste vinaigrette on a piece of lettuce (or ideally whatever you’re serving it with) to get a true sense of its flavor before making your final tweaks.
- Component-ize Your Cooking. It turns out one of the most valuable cooking skills is plain old organization — a skill you get to practice a lot as a parent! When I spend just a little time on my game plan, I can usually find a way to knock out a few cooking tasks for most meals in advance. I also keep a running list of my favorite homemade pantry items (stock, tomato paste, customized spices, etc) which I work on when I can. All this means better food and less stress during the dinner time rush.
- Season Individual Components. Taking a few seconds to season the greens on a sandwich (a little squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt) makes a huge difference. Salting your pasta water (“it should taste like the ocean” — yes, taste pasta water!) makes for flavorful pasta, which makes anything you put on your pasta taste more amazing.
- Cook Like You’re Working in a Small Space. It’s impressive how much food can be prepared in a small space. Working neat is not one of my strong points, but now I have first hand-experience that it’s possible, so I keep trying.
- Composing. Experienced cooks like Christian seem to do this by instinct, but juxtaposing flavors and textures is something I still need to remember to think about. I like to look for ways to pair something soft and crunchy; slow cooked and fresh; sweet, salty, bitter, sour — making for much more interesting eating and cooking
Lastly, I learned that if your chicken just doesn’t have that “certain something” of your favorite restaurant, they probably seared it in duck fat. Somehow that makes me feel better. Blame it on the duck fat!