By Pat Meisol, A student, who recently completed For the Love of Food’s How to Think Like a Chef Series.
It was the title that lured me to cooking school: How to Think Like a Chef. I’d always wanted to free myself from cookbooks, and finally I had the time to learn how. My journey took shape on a country lane. I followed it through woods in search of Diane Bukatman, a former pastry chef who runs a company called For the Love of Food. Her house is a mile off the lane. I walked a lighted stone path into her house and past a small living room into her kitchen, which is marked by a poster-sized advertisement of Diane’s school and a resin pig in chef’s hat holding a sign: “Welcome Chefs!”
Diane stood between the stove and the sink, near a pull-out garbage drawer, dressed in a white chef’s dress shirt and dark plaid pants. Her curly reddish hair was tied in a high pony tail, her sparkling green eyes set off by dangling silver earrings. Chatty, but not flighty, artsy but organized, authoritative but friendly, all these things I heard in her voice. She had a certain set of facts to impart and she got them in, plus a story or two from cooking school. And since her first lesson was in knife safety, she showed us the scar between her thumb and forefinger. When she enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America 25 years ago she was instructed never to dry a knife with the blade side in the palm of the hand. She did precisely that, slicing her skin deep enough to warrant 12 stitches. It was the first day of school.
That night, it was not so much the chatting that impressed me but Diane’s chopping: She rarely glanced down at the celery as she told us her stories. We were preparing vegetables for vichyssoise. Leaving on the hairy root of the onion or leek helped steady the vegetable for the dicing step, I learned. Three turns and a few whacks in the right places and I had diced a whole onion without crying! We tried celery, tomatoes, grapefruit, and apples. I vowed to send out my Henckle knife for sharpening.
Chefs themselves, must make do with what’s in the cupboard. Running to the store for an ingredient or, heavens, a prepared meal, is out of the question. Substitute!
Diane might use parsley instead of thyme, if she had some, or Red Bliss potatoes instead of her favorite, Yukon Gold. Even on paper she was a free thinker; the soup recipe called for “one-half to one cup of celery, diced – if you feel like it.” (Italics added.) The soup needed two cups of milk, and the recipe suggested half and half. The only milk in Diane’s refrigerator was soy and that would suffice. On the positive side, soy milk has fewer calories and more protein.
While the veggies “sweated” in a stock pot, we worked on the soup’s “presentation.” Beautiful food tastes better, sure, but who has time to peel and seed a tomato? That night I learned how easy it is: Boil them a few minutes, and let them cool. Slash an X on the bottom of each, and peel off the skin in four parts. Voila! Cut each tomato in half, hold it upside down over a bowl and squeeze the seeds right out! They’re ready for dicing.
Those tiny red bits of dice, tomato concasse, would be a pretty finishing touch on our light green vichyssoise.
Vichyssoise is traditionally a cold soup. Diane preferred it hot, which is how we ate it. The sample she sent downstairs to her husband elicited a shout in return: “The best soup I’ve had!” xxxx
When I returned to class after a two-week absence, I brought an apple. I’d forgotten how to core it Diane’s way, and I wanted a second demonstration. My apple gave Diane an idea; we would roast them for dessert, to top an evening already devoted to roasting - fish, Delmonico steak, potatoes and veggies. She put me in charge of coring and slicing a dozen of them. An apple, I can now report with confidence, is best cut in half through the core. Then, as Diane showed me, you rotate the half of the apple in the palm of your hand as you cut out the core, using only the tip of the knife and taking care not to slice through to your hand. Finally, slice each apple half thin or thick, as you wish. We mixed our apples with grapefruit – yes, grapefruit, since it was all Diane had – and sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar before putting them in the oven. Delicious!
The next class I arrived in Diane’s kitchen with a grapefruit. How did she produce the pith-less tiny sections we had mixed with apple? I asked for another lesson in “supreming” fruit. Diane obliged, laughing.
The night we learned the difference between pan roasting on an open flame and oven roasting and how to check for doneness without stabbing the food with a knife, I realized that this class would cost me a lot more than $340. I had a list of minor kitchen things to buy, and to this I now added a gas stove.
We began by roasting a hunk of red snapper in a pan on the top of the stove. Diane’s cheap cast iron fry pans were great conductors of heat. The gas under the burner was high, and those pans were hot before Diane put in any oil. She used vegetable, since it has no taste and wouldn’t interfere with the lemon- butter- thyme basting sauce we made in the pan.
I returned home to try mahi mahi on the stove for Sunday dinner. It took longer to cook – the heat on my electric stove needed to be higher, she would explain – and didn’t taste as juicy in my expensive All-Clad pan. All week I thought about heat. Electric stove tops take time to cool. When the recipe said to lower the heat, I needed to move the pot to a new burner rather than wait for the one I was using to cool down. Suddenly I understood why oatmeal on my stove bubbled out of the pot, making the lid whistle, long after I had turned down the heat. Adjusting the temperature instantly mattered.By the third week of class, I had begun to examine Diane’s kitchen, looking for evidence of how her brain works. Her freezer, for instance: She kept bags of peeled garlic and boxes of spice there. And her pots, which hung above the island: A sauté pan, a sautoir, with its standup sides, a saucier, with its gently sloping sides. Now I knew why it all mattered. There were different sized pans, too; a pan couldn’t be too large or the food would burn, or too small that the food touched, causing it to steam and loose its moisture. Diane had a braiser, which I would soon own, now that I knew how to cook those lesser cuts of meat I turned up my nose about. Braising spare ribs in Diane’s kitchen brought to mind the delicious bits of lamb I’d eaten in cheap little restaurants in France. So that’s how they did it!
A gas stove improved things, but you could get around that if you understood the principles. The temperature of the food when you put it into the pot, the pot, and the oil, everything about cooking depended on temperature. Fish or chicken or meat had to be wiped dry, or the hot pan would sizzle, removing the moisture, for instance. And you waited until the pan was hot to add butter or olive oil. A sauté was always on high heat, a pan roast, medium. If you mastered understood the principles and mastered the techniques, you could make even frozen fish taste good.
There were a few techniques my mother taught me, like making roux for my father’s favorite dish. But hers was the first generation of women unleashed by frozen foods to work outside the home, and except for a casserole she named for our hometown - a mix of pasta, marinara sauce, and greasy ground beef - she didn’t invent dishes.
My experimentation in the kitchen as a kid was limited to a hard, yellow cake that resulted from a lack of baking powder. After that I relied on The Joy of Cooking to bake an apple pie and Pierre Franey to produce a quick gourmet meal. I began studying cooking principles myself only a few years ago when I discovered Cook’s Illustrated The Perfect Vegetable.
In Diane’s kitchen, though, there were no cookbooks. When somebody asked her to name a favorite book, she merely nodded at the titles offered by others. “I read cookbooks,” she said, “but I don’t follow them.” Instead she recommended chefs in New York and San Francisco whose dishes she had eaten and whose work she had incorporated into her own.
To a chef, cookbooks were for learning, comparing, inspiration; maybe the same way people with great style read fashion magazines. Once you knew a little about color, taste, shape, hot and cold, texture, you could rummage through your closet and make a style to suit the day. Fashion or food, why should someone else dictate?
Failure occurred continually in the kitchen. Diane called herself the Queen of Burnt Nuts, and on her first day at a new job as a pastry chef, she told us with a self depreciating roll of her eyes, she whipped the heavy cream back into butter. Everybody laughed.
There is nothing else to do about burnt nuts or too-whipped cream. But if you watched Diane revive a beurre blanc sauce after the one we students reduced to nothingness, you’d see that thinking like a chef often means fixing the sauce instead of throwing it down the drain. She let us cook a Hollandaise sauce too long, too, so we could see it break down and learn to fix it. Principles, and more principles.
So, maybe there’s more than mastery of the rules. There’s risk, or improvisation. A cook, OK, that’s someone like me who has always followed a book. A chef has mastered the rules, and then, like other artists, chucked ‘em. It’s the same stage possible to reach in a skill as different as playing tennis, which you realize when the pro says to forget all the rules you learned in clinic and respond to the play at hand.
I’m not there yet, but I’m headed in the right direction. The weekend before our last class, I invited some neighbors for dinner. I planned sautéed chicken in a port wine sauce with dried cranberries, but I forgot to buy cranberries. I found a bag of dried cherries on my shelf and used them, instead. My backup would have been the fresh plums on my counter.
My guests were already sipping champagne, so my chicken was necessarily chilly (but at least dry) when I dropped it into my Teflon coated pan. A real chef would never use Teflon, of course, since it inhibits those flavorful cooked bits in the pan bottom that form the basis for a great sauce. I compensated by deglazing the pan with a great port. Everybody loved it!
Now only the last class remains. We students are each supposed to make up a sauce. Diane has already told us about the student who created one from white wine, chicken stock, horseradish and, at the end, watermelon! She loved it on chicken, but Diane said it would be fabulous on fish.
The dried figs on my counter taste awful as a snack. In a sauce, would they taste better with white wine, or red?
Call Chef Diane at 443-865-0630 for more information on Cooking Classes -or-