The No Recipes Fantasy

I often hear people express an opinion that being able to cook without recipes is the ultimate skill of a chef.  This seems like nonsense to me.  Do you think the best chefs really never look at recipes for inspiration or are not using something they have done many times and thus memorized (which is really no different than using a recipe)?  Thomas Keller is famously precise, I have seen recipes from him calling for 1/16 of a tsp of salt.  Yet it seems impossible to be precise unless you have a baseline standard, i.e. a recipe.  I mean at a restaurant multiple people have to be able to prepare the same dish in a fairly consistent manner which means a recipe.

The real skill is adaptation and of course creativity.  If you watch Top Chef they are constantly tasting the food and adjusting the dish or if they are not they usually go home for it.  This is a bit remarkable and certainly not something I can do yet, but I also have the luxury of not being on Top Chef with all its ridiculous challenges.  But these chefs don’t usually operate like that either.  Read a restaurant cookbook and you see that they spend many iterations to perfect a dish.  They wouldn’t do so only to abandon that template when service starts.

I think the aspiring home chef just needs to be smart.  Think of each recipe as teaching you something and not as something to slavishly imitate.  I am about to make Moroccan chicken stew and if you gave me the recipe for the particular spice mix I could probably fill in the rest of the blanks because stews always follow similar procedures (brown meat, cook aromatics, add spices, etc.) that are, after only a few months of cooking, pretty familiar.  Similarly, adjusting based off what you want and what you have and where you can cut corners or even improve the dish is a lot of the fun of cooking, IMO.

You really don’t want to be that commenter on essentially every baking recipe claiming that it is bunk because their brownies, for instance, were rock hard.  They probably don’t know their oven’s actual temperature and probably left them in the oven for the recommended time, which in baking is never the actual time.  Or something else criminally stupid and rectified with just a modicum of effort and thought.

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One Response to The No Recipes Fantasy

  1. 90cm says:

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