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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. : )
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.
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.
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.
"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.
Hungry, check out this thread about Top Chef at TWOP.
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.
i agree with your aggravation--everybody who can cook 3 recipes thinks they are a chef, but their feet sure don't feel like mine, and chances are they have no clue what really goes into that little package or onto that plate-- but i don't think it was the op's intention-- HungryLetsEat just wants to learn to cook more creatively at home.
my advice to the op would be to save up some chow money, go get some super top-notch spices, cheeses, vinegars, oils, charcuterie, salt from all over the world, whatever makes you happy that you don't cook with every day. lay in a real pantry! then jaunt over to the farmer's market and buy everything you see that's beautiful. cook for the weekend. just like a "real chef," you should try to use everything up that's perishable-- think soups, preserves, freezables too. feed people and see what they think. if necessary use cookbook recipes, but just as models-- you are tweaking recipes based on what you have, not going to the store, cookbook in hand to get exactly the ingredients called for. have fun with it and taste your own success. build your confidence level with simple things and then imagine your favorite recipes with different tastes and textures, sauces & sides and figure out how to make it happen. :)
Try to find inspiration in ingredients rather than recipes. Go to the market - preferably a farmer's market - and look around before you buy anything. Find the most spectactular stuff that day, or just whatever looks good to you, and make a meal out of it. When you get home, feel free to look at cookbooks for inspiration or help with technique, but don't let the recipe drive the dish.
It sounds like you have enough experience and technique that you'll be able to put together some great meals. Just put down the recipe crutches and cook for yourself. And if it doesn't knock your socks off, don't worry about it: You'll eat again - maybe even that day - and the experience will help build your confidence.
as my GF says whenever we go to someone else's house to eat, "you can always tell the difference between the pros and the amateurs"...I've been cooking professionally for 38 years and have been called "Chef" for nearly 30...
I've tried to avoid this, but I just can't. The "Dealing with food snobbery" thread inspired me.
The original post on this thread really reminded me of the type of dialogue you would have seen between Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce in an episode of "Frasier". To refer to yourself as "amazing" in any catagory is quite a stretch. And the term " procure" as opposed to "get"? That is weird.
Okay, got that off my chest.
Scotth - If you re-read my original post I say that people *tell me I am an amazing gourmet chef*...and that embarrasses me because I know that not to be the case (which is exactly the point of this post).
As for using the word 'procure' instead of 'get' - *I* find it weird that you would single out my choice of words there. You seem to imply that I am a vocabulary snob. I'll tell you why I chose the word 'procure' over 'get'. To 'get' means to go after. To 'procure' means to get by special means. I intended to convey that instead of just going to a grocery store to 'get' lettuce I will get up early to make a special trip to a farmer's market 1 hour away to 'procure' the freshest of seasonal baby greens. This illustrates my point that I have the passion for great food but am not confident enough yet in my abilities get there without the aid of recipes. Is that clearer to you now?
At any rate, I'm sorry that my post aggravated you so much that you felt that you had to "get it off your chest." Perhaps (or should I have typed 'maybe'?) you should just ignore any posting that comes from me in the future.
Hungry, you are right, to "procure" means to get through effort, as opposed to get, which implies nothing but picking something up casually. There is nothing wrong with using this word that way. In fact, the more precisely you can use verbs, the more we can understand your meaning. More power to you, and experiment away.
I mean no disrespect by this and do appreciate your appreciation for fine ingredients but perhaps as you strive to rid your yourself of the crutch of recipes and become more creative, you could also get down to basics by using the most humble ingredients for awhile as well.
I have many friends who are exceptional home cooks who can easily produce fine meals as easily from the local Safeway as from the wonderful local farmers' market or specialty purveyors. We all learned to cook when resources weren't as rich and varied as they are now so we had to depend on what we could get as our mothers and grandmothers did, eking flavor out of things using only technique and skill. We had simple equipment, no food processors or Kitchen Aid mixers. Julia Child bought her stuff at the grocery store too and never made us feel bad about it on WGBH.
I just read the post by Richard 16 regarding KISS and the simple differences made by simply chopping things in a different manner or size and realized how often I do this intuitively because of Julia and having learned the very basic techniques because I had to. Amazing how much you can do with supermarket eggs, butter, flour, milk, sugar, cream, baking soda, baking powder, yeast, vanilla, ham and cheese. We didn't have the fancy varieties yet but, with a few fruits and vegetables, we could do endless things for every meal if we had those twelve products and knew what to do with them.
I do buy quite a few specialty ingredients but increasingly now, my cooking has "regressed" to the most simple recipes as I have allowed the ingredients themselves to shine. Although I am quite capable of producing very elaborate dishes, I rarely do as they hide flavors more than enhance them in my opinion. I am grateful that I learned the most basic techniques long ago and how to maximize the intrinsic flavors of each food.
Point taken, MakingSense. I did not mean to imply that I do not shop at big chain supermarkets. I do so the majority of the time for convenience and cost purposes. But, I feel passionate enough about food that I do make a special effort, when schedule and budget permit, to seek out local fresh produce and meats. I would venture to guess that many other Hounds do this as well.
A lot of the stuff at my local farmers' markets is cheaper than the supermarket! Not to mention better and local to boot. We've got one guy who brings in things from some very small Amish producers even though he's not Amish. He just rounds it up so they don't have to travel.
What I was talking about above was using a simple method or technique and then riffing off it. Like last week, I had beet greens that might have gone into the compost pit. Instead I made an improvised beet greens flan that turned out great. Used the basic flan recipe and added the sautéed chopped greens. I've used that often with other veggies. Could have also used some leftover potatoes and made a fritata, maybe an omelet with some scraps of ham.
This is what I mean by getting back to basics - not relying on recipes or special ingredients. Just using what's at hand or easily available to create something good as if out of nothing. Those beet greens could easily have gone into the trash.
I trained and became a chef and taught cooking classes. My classes were different from the usual in that they did not focus on any one type of food but rather to understand how cutting and the application of different types of heat (or cold/cool methods like pickling) affects different foods. It is akin to learning how to paint by learning about brushes, surface media, color, etc., rather than learn to recreate a painiting. In sports it would be akin to learning the basics.
I would go to the grocery store and buy stuff willy-nilly. Then one class might be dry heat like baking, another different saute styles, etc. Some with salt, some none. We might include *one* spice or herb, to get a sense of how it affects the flavor. We *deliberately* did not put thought into whether it was a "classic" approach. The second class was simply more cutting technique with how different shapes (Fine dice, matchstick, chunks, etc.) affect the final product. Later we'd combine techniques, i.e., steaming then sauteing and vice versa.
If you're thinking "K.I.S.S" that's it exactly. If you're thinking "experiment with everything", just combine it with KISS and you've got it. Some things will work, some won't - and you'll have tried both. This is how I trained, and if it seems too simplistic -- well, it is simple. Often the slowest to learn were those of us with stuff to unlearn.
How to do this when you have to put food on the table? If you're baking throw something extra in the oven and see/tastes what happens. Using herbs? Try using just one (two at most) and taste what happens. Over time you will start to "own" the changes. You'll read recipes and think "if I do this, that will happen."
Most importantly, though, have fun! It's only food! (Ouch! Hey, cut it out!)
re: Richard 16
OK so you graduate culinary school and feel your entitled to be a chef.......TRUTH is Culinary schools graduate more incompetant chefs that one could imagine. The term Chef is a french word that means "COOK" if you have a passion for food and creating the ultimate customer satisfaction then you could be a Chef. It is a term that is one of respect to professionals in the kitchen. Look at the brigade system that Escoffier used each station there was a chef. Sauté Chef (Saucier) [sos.je] - Responsible for all sautéed items and their sauce. This is usually the highest position of all the stations.
Fish Chef (Poissonier) [pwɑ.so.ɲe] - Prepares fish dishes and often does all fish butchering as well as appropriate sauces. This station may be combined with the saucier position.
Roast Chef (Rotisseur) [ʀo.ti.sœʀ] - Prepares roasted and braised meats and their appropriate sauce.
Grill Chef (Grillardin) [gʀi.jaʀ.dɛ̃] - Prepares all grilled foods, this position may be combined with the rotisseur.
Fry Chef (Friturier) [fʀi.ty.ʀje] - Prepares all fried items, position may be combined with the rotisseur position.
Vegetable Chef (Entremetier) [ã.tʀə.me.tje] - Prepares hot appetizers and often prepares the soups, vegetables, pastas and starches. In a full brigade system a potager would prepare soups and a legumier would prepare vegetables.
Roundsman (Tournant) [tuʀ.nã] - Also referred to as a swing cook, fills in as needed on station in kitchen.
Pantry Chef (Garde Manger) [gaʀd mã.ʒe] They are responsible for preparing cold foods, including salads, cold appetizers, pâtés and other charcuterie items.
Butcher (Boucher) [bu.ʃe] - Butchers meats, poultry and sometimes fish. May also be responsible for breading meats and fish.
Pastry Chef (Pâtissier) [pa.ti.sje] - Prepare baked goods, pastries and desserts. In larger establishments, the pastry chef often supervises a separate team in their own kitchen or separate shop.
Even the dishwasher had a title......The escuelerie or dishwasher, (from 15th century French) is the keeper of dishes, having charge of dishes and keeping the kitchen clean. A common humorous title for this role in some modern kitchens is Chef de Plúnge.
Because Americans are condescending and think they are better than everyone else, because they have some degree they lose the passion for the team spirit.
Sure there is only one executive Chef and the chain of command that follows, but the term Chef is one of great respect that everyone on the team EARNS the title.
GROW OUT OF IT LITTLE SOUS CHEF
You'll probably appreciate this op-ed written by Marcella entitled, "No Chefs in My Kitchen"
"I must confess that the growing use of the word bothers me.
For starters, “chef” is a job description — a chef is someone who cooks professionally, usually in command of a restaurant’s kitchen brigade, and depending on the brigade’s size, he or she might not even be doing any of the actual cooking. "
uh, chef does not mean "cook," in french, dude. chef means "chief," or "head." in france the orchestra conductor is called the "chef" because s/he is in charge of everyone in the orchestra.
to be a chef you must be in charge of people. not a station, not a home kitchen, but full time employees. "personal chef," btw, is an oxymoron.
I completely understand where you're coming from. I'm a pretty good, well rounded cook. While I don't always follow a recipe, I do use them for ideas. (often reading quite a few and taking what I want from each) However, I have a hard time creating my own. Putting new flavor profiles together isn't something I'm good at. There are plenty of people who can look in a near empty pantry and come up with a fabulous meal. I'm not one of them. (I may a great cook, but I'll never be a chef) If my pantry is almost empty, it's time to go out. Lately I have been forcing myself to come up with something, even if it turns out bad, at least I tried. I think as long as whatever food you're preparing is satisfying, then it doesn't matter if it's your creation or not.
First off, I wouldn't feel too embarrassed, as there are a lot of recipes out there that most people would have trouble following. I'm not even talking about the French Laundry cookbook, either; there's a lot of skill in knowing proper techniques and following them correctly to get the right result.
Example? Homemade pie crust - I can't get it right and I consider myself quite handy in the kitchen. The recipe doesn't mean squat compared to the years of experience I'll need before I can crank on out on command. So even if you don't ever do anything save follow recipes, there's no shame in that, because it still puts you head & shoulders above most people.
Most of the advice already given is good, I think. Just don't be afraid to experiment! The easiest way I found to start branching out from set recipes is to simply switch out ingredients 1 for 1. Experimenting with different flavor profiles in recipes that you already know work gives you chances to try new dishes without having to worry about the outcome.
Similarly, if you want to try whipping up something from scratch, stick with known flavor profiles. Curious about making your own tomato sauce? There's basically no combination of garlic, onion, tomato, and basil that's going to taste bad, so you can feel free to try out different combinations or preparations of those ingredients without having to worry about the outcome.
And then, once you start to get the hang of how different preparations affect different ingredients AND what flavor profiles work well, well, then you can walk into a pantry and just make something with what's there - with confidence.