Batali, Colicchio, Ruhlman, and technique

I’ve been cooking for about 25 years now, but for about the first 15 of those years, I was a slave to recipes. I was a decent cook, and was capable of putting impressive meals on the table, but I methodically followed recipes, with little originality or creativity infused into my cooking. I had a good sense of which recipes would work (because many will NOT), but I was pretty limited without a trail map to follow.

About 10 years ago, when our kids were babies (and we were somewhat housebound), I started watching the Food Network, especially Mario Batali’s show, Molto Mario. What made the show unique was Mario’s emphasis on technique, rather than recipes. I began to learn fundamental concepts like sauté, braising, properly dressing pasta, and working with various vegetables and cuts of meat.

I received a copy of Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef” as a gift, and it provided a written complement to Batali’s TV show. Roasting, braising, sauté, blanching, and combining various in components to create complex dishes are discussed in detail, with illustrative recipes to practice your newly acquired skills.

As my knowledge expanded, I became progressively more interested in professional cooking.  The more I read and learned about professional cooking and the restaurant business, the more certain I became that I wanted no part of owning a restaurant! However, I still aspired to elevate my cooking to the level of a professional chef.  Somewhere along the way, I acquired a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s “The Making of a Chef” which details his experiences as a student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

Ruhlman’s book, in turn, led me to his blog, which I have referenced numerous times in my posts.  It is called “Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen”, and it perfectly captures where I am trying to go with my cooking.  I know this post has rambled somewhat, but my point is to grow as a cook, you have to learn technique.  Recipes are great, but creativity is borne of understanding fundamental techniques.

One pleasant ‘side effect’ of a better understanding of technique is less waste.  I can’t begin to calculate how much food I threw out over the years because I didn’t have all the pieces I needed to fit into a familiar recipe puzzle.  I find that I view our pantry and fridge more like a restauranteur these days, constantly planning and strategizing to make sure that nothing goes to waste.

The point of this whole discourse is that Ruhlman has written a new book, called “Ruhlman’s Twenty“.  It promises to be a detailed study of twenty essential techniques, along with recipes that illustrate them.  For once, I haven’t run out to buy it myself, but put it on my wish list for Jennifer, so I can’t wait to see what’s inside.

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