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Recipe Jockey or Chef?

I’ve frequently been told I’m an amazing gourmet chef by non-CH friends, relatives and acquaintances. This is somewhat embarrassing to me (however it IS gratifying to have my efforts acknowledged) because I know that really I’m just an amazing recipe jockey. By that I mean that I can and do follow the majority of the recipes out there to successful conclusion. I know many people strive for this skill level but it makes me feel like a fraud – because there’s "gourmet cook" (a.k.a. recipe jockey), and then there’s "gourmet chef".

I’ve been watching food shows and cooking for most of my life so I have the techniques down. I’ve taken various cooking courses and classes. I know the importance of high-quality ingredients and will go out of my way to procure them. I strive for the best taste and appearance possible. I am willing to devote the time required to making each dish perfect. But….. what I lack is the ability (or is courage? or creativity?) to develop my own recipes from scratch. Sure, I can take a recipe and augment it based on a good understanding of the function of the ingredients….but I am by no means original in what I cook.

My question to you is – how does one go from being a Recipe Jockey to a Chef? Once you have the skills – is it just a matter of figuring out how to compose the food profiles? Is it something that you’re born with or can it be learned? As a CH can you be happy just being good at executing complex recipes or do you strive for that next level?

Please discuss.

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  1. To be perfectly honest - and this is just my opinion - you will never earn the title of "Chef" unless you are the one who is in charge of the BOH (Back Of the House) in a restaurant or similar business, i.e. catering, etc. Being accomplished at cooking at home just doesn't cut it. I waited tables for a time when I was in college and in my limited experience - outside of the fact that you have to be running what I can only describe as a complete zoo (BOH) - a Chef has to be able to improvise at any given moment.

    I do okay cooking at home, although I don't watch cooking shows and haven't taken classes - just trial and error. Sometimes I'll follow a recipe but most of the time I change things - add other ingredients, amounts, etc. Someone I know who is a Chef once gave me this advice - "Play with your food". He is right. Of course, I've had failures doing that (I just love the look on my wife's face when I tell her I'm making something I've never made before). I really don't think that there are many "original" dishes out there that are not a variation of what has been done before, but I'm not in the business and that is just my opinion.

    I think the ability to properly blend flavors in what you do is most important. If you do not have it, buy the book "Culinary Artistry" by Andrew Dornenburg & Karen Page.

    1 Reply
    1. re: scotth

      Right. Chef doesn't mean "really good cook." It's a title in a restaurant.

    2. I believe the OP is discussing the difference between being a creator(chef) and a RE-creator(recipe jockey). This reminds me of the Tin Man's search for a heart.

      Let's review:
      You have impeccable kitchen skills that allow you to serve food that people love.
      You have the palate to choose recipes that people love.
      You have a passion for food and cooking for people.
      You strive to use the best ingredients possible in order to achieve the highest attainable quality.

      Most would agree that a good chef should have all of those qualities. Now consider TV shows like Iron Chef America and Top Chef. How often do you hear a chef say, "This is my version of..."? ALL THE TIME!!!!!!!!

      So... experiment, take risks, accept that you may fail sometimes, and have fun. Choose a 'secret ingredient' and make a dish without a recipe. If it sucks, throw it out and try again. Choose a HungryLetsEat signature dish.

      Back to the Tin Man. The wizard may have given him a heart-shaped clock from a second-hand store, but the truth was that he had a heart all along, he just never used it until it really mattered.

      2 Replies
      1. re: El Puerco

        I agree with El P. You can learn to create. All you have to do is do it. You can take baby steps by changing a recipe that you like until you get to the point where you are ready to "create". One distinction that I make between being creative and being a "chef" is consistency. I don't really think winging it makes you creative. If you make something fantastic but don't remember how to do it again, well you just got lucky. I have my own black binder that's filled with my favorite recipes from others and my own. But personally, I don't think there's any shame in being a recipe jockey.

        1. re: El Puerco

          What a lovely answer. Usted no es puerco en mi libro!

        2. Sounds like you are ready to throw off the chains of bondage and stop being a Recipe Slave! At least a Jockey is in control. You have the ability but you may just lack the courage to strike out on your own.
          You have a thorough understanding of techniques and ingredients. You know what will enhance a dish or ruin it. Food speaks to you. Listen to it. Not to someone else's recipe.
          One of my favorite food comments of all times was from Jacques Pepin who said that you can give the same recipe to 10 cooks and they will produce 10 different results. They will buy different versions, qualities, sizes, etc. of the ingredients, use different equipment, cook the dish more or less and finish it to their individual tastes. So in a sense, you are already creating.
          I heartily agree with the recommendation made by Scotth to buy Culinary Artistry, an invaluable book. It is a list of foods with methods of preparation and compatible flavors and serves as a blueprint for creating recipes. I use it all the time for starting from scratch to use whatever I find that looks the best in the market that day. Mostly now, I just know what goes with what and what to do with it. I get ideas from everywhere - music, the weather, the news, friends, CH - edit them down, and trust my instincts.
          I'll never be a chef but I consider myself a very good home cook - and my family and friends agree. Sure, I miss sometimes but that's a learning experience. I've eaten some real klunkers by chefs that cost a lot in fine restaurants so I'm in good company.
          Just do it. No more Recipe Slave. You can do this.

          1. You are probably being too hard on yourself. To paraphrase The Bard, there are no new recipes. Almost everybody is riffing off something.

            In any case, I have three suggestions:

            Read a lot of recipes for the same dish but don't follow any particular one. That is read a bunch of recipes for the dish you want to make. Figure out what the essence of the dish is and then cook it without checking on the recipe for every step. By reading a bunch of recipes you will get a solid idea of what the point (or lack thereof) of each step is and then the recipes will transform from a list of required steps to a sequence of results.

            My next suggestion is to cook extremely simple dishes. Roast chicken. Omelettes. Steak. Pork loin. Learn how to prepare really simple really good food. As you imply, a smart monkey can follow a Trotter recipe and get great food but only a good cook can make a really, really good omelette. Figure out what makes one steak better than the other and learn what makes a big difference and which things are important (hint: salt).

            The third thing I suggest is to make lists of ingredients that are similar in some way then use the list to figure out riffs on recipes. Make lists of foods that share an attribute (acidic, sweet, rich, whatever) without thinking about anything other than that attribute. Then, when you want to change a dish look at which lists a particular ingredient falls on and think about what other ingredient on those lists might fulfill the same purpose. Every ingredient serves a purpose, or at least it should. So, if you can duplicate that purpose with something else, you've created.

            In my experience I initially started cooking really complex things and felt like anybody could have done it - and they were really good dishes, but I felt I lacked the true craft of it. Then I tried the basics and found it much harder, but also much more satisfying when I nailed it. The same people who love your foie gras creme brulee with strawberry confit will be equally or more impressed with your absolutely, perfectly crusty, perfectly cooked ribeye with mushrooms.

            Good luck.

            5 Replies
            1. re: rotochicken

              A Chef is someone who works as a professinal cook.
              You may be an excellent home cook, but it's not the same thing.
              As an ex chef, I always love when people tell me "oh my wife is a chef as well."
              And by that they mean a home cook. Sure & secretly every hobby I'm good at makes me a professional/expert.

              Sorry for the rant. Anyway, the best way for you to transition from recipe jockey to cook extrodinaire is to simply stop using recipes. Recipes are simply tools/guidelines.

              1. re: dbug31

                Not sure if that is directed at me since a big part of my advice - stop following recipes - is the same as yours. Nonetheless, I gotta say you are both right and wrong.

                Yes, a Chef is a professional cook and an excellent home cook is not the same thing.

                Nonetheless, it is absurd and arrogant beyond comprehension to suggest that an excellent home cook can't turn out a multi-course meal for 6 as good or better than all but the best restaurants. Does this mean a home cook could make the equivalent meal for 60 every night for years? Not a chance. The simple fact is an excellent home cook, given the time and top-notch ingredients, can make fantastic food for a family, but they probably couldn't do it 60 times a night in a professional kitchen.

                A simple glance through any Chowhound board will quickly illustrate that many successful places with professional Chefs turn out mostly mediocre or bad meals. As an accomplished home-cook myself I essentially judge restaurants on whether or not I can do better myself at home. The simple fact is for most mid-range, and many upper range, places I can and do. Could I do a full menu for 100 every night? No way. Do you love that? I hope so, because it is true for far more people than you are apparently willing to give credit. I don't claim to be an expert or professional, but I am quite sure I can cook a meal I'll like better than the equivalent at most places in town.

                1. re: rotochicken

                  roto, that post wasn't directed at you intentionally. I think your advice to the OP is sound & true.

                  I wasn't by any means trying to be arrogant. I never did say that a home cook couldn't turn out a wonderful 6 course dinner. Of course they can, why couldn't they!?
                  I do in fact believe a home cook can turn out meals with results far better than most restaurants with professional "chefs". I too judge based upon whether I could make better. I know a lot of professional chefs that truly should quit their day jobs, but this occurs in many fields.

                  Sorry to have pissed you off. It wasn't my intention at all. I'll be sure to use the word chef less seriously on these boards in the future. : )

                  1. re: dbug31

                    No need to apologize. Entirely my fault. I was in a bad mood. There are few people I respect more than those who can turn out 100 meals a night better than I can do 2.

                2. re: dbug31

                  CHEF
                  Etymology: French, short for chef de cuisine, head of the kitchen
                  1 : a skilled cook who manages the kitchen (as of a restaurant)
                  Let's don't get tied up in semantics, here. I think the OP used the word "chef" in a more colloquial way than in the formal "head of the kitchen" meaning. HungryLetsEat want's to be a more creative skilled cook rather than just a skilled cook, which is no small accomplishment by itself.

                  The replies so far have been right on target. To make that move, you have to think about the spirit of the recipe rather than the law of the recipe. The book "Culinary Artistry" sounds like an excellent aid. I suspect that "A New Way to Cook" and "The Improvisational Cook" by Sally Schneider probably are, also. If nothing else, the book(s) will act as a safety net to free HLE to move away from the almighty recipe.

                  And maybe this is the hardest part for an already accomplished cook. Ya' can't be afraid to fail.

              2. Thanks, all, for your perspectives and suggestions. I do understand that the term 'Chef' is mostly appropriate as a job title - something that is earned through (usually) much schooling both formally and on the job. I will never be a chef in that regard (couldn't deal with the hours) but I do seek to know what the professionals know about how to build a successful dish without instructions.

                What I seek - as several of you caught - is that understanding of how to bring ingredients together insuch so that they compliment eachother cohesively. For example, when I watch Top Chef I am simply amazed at the contestants' ability to, within seconds, assess a pantry and pull together multiple ingredients that will comprise a dish. That to me is an art form. Some of it can be taught but I think mostly that ability is innate.

                I hear the term "flavor profile" tossed around a lot lately and suspect there's a fair bit of training that chefs go through to learn basic flavor profiles off of which to build. Sounds like the book that was recommended "Culinary Artistry" may be a source for more info on that.

                Again, thanks for the dialog here. It's been helpful and inciteful. I'll definitely start by picking up the books you recommended. Then I'll muster up some culinary courage and set out to work without a net.

                5 Replies
                1. re: HungryLetsEat

                  Not to take anything away from the contestants of said tv show, but what you see in the final edited version of the show is in fact not reality. The producers of the show go through hours of rules prior to each taping, resulting in considerable time to recollect ideas and think about what they are going to do prior to "improvising". So while they are limited to the ingredients on hand, the supposed "Quickfire" or similar challenges are not quite as quick as one would think.

                  Getting to the idea of "recipe jockey" vs. chef, I find myself in a similar situation. Most of my friends and all of my family thinks that I am a gourmet chef. Little do they know, I spend a considerable time researching the ingredients that I am going to cook and find recipes with techniques in mind that I wish to utilize. Now, that's not to say that I don't make changes to the base recipes, which I certainly do, but the basic idea is the same. Does that make me a chef? Certainly not, but I do think there is alot be to said of individuals who have the palates to recognize a good dish, make modifications, and seeing people swoon. It's absolutely my favorite thing in life.

                  Cheers.

                  1. re: HungryLetsEat

                    "Culinary Artistry" is considered by many professionals to be a "must have" book. The credentials of the authors is very impressive. I agree with dbug31 - recipes are just tools/guidelines. My cookbooks and the loose leaf binders I have for recipes printed off from various sources are littered with my own notations - as in "add this, use more, cook longer", etc.

                    When you check what you have handy in your pantry or fridge, or something that needs to be used soon - say, some fresh dill, fish, whatever - and can come up with a way to use those ingredients to make a great dish either without a recipe or just modifying one - then you will be creating. That is what professional chefs are able to do because they have to and are trained to - wasted product in a restaurant is lost profit.

                    1. re: HungryLetsEat

                      We have to be careful when throwing the "chef" word around, because some "chefs" are really only administrators and may have never been inventive or creative cooks. Some kitchens don't want creative. They're happy with what they've been doing for years.

                      1. re: yayadave

                        I agree, on the flipside that exists too...

                      2. re: HungryLetsEat

                        Hungry, check out this thread about Top Chef at TWOP.

                        http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.c...

                        On this thread, people put together their own responses to the challenges. You might find it fun; I know I do. Granted, coming up with a menu is not the same as executing it, but if you look through some of the posts, you should find some ideas that appeal to you.

                        And I agree with most of what others have said. Once I realized I didn't need recipes for familiar cuisines anymore, I started writing down what I was doing. Then I would have a record of the way I did things, and I would also have recipes to give friends if they asked.

                        I am now using Claudia Roden's _Book of Middle Eastern Food_ because while I like to eat such food, I am new to making it beyond the basics. I think every time you go beyond your repertoire, you will learn things that you can then apply to your go-to dishes.