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What Is More Important to Being a Great Chef? Technique or Recipes

On the first episode of season four of Top Chef, Tom Colicchio the head judge of the program chastised a contestant for not knowing how to make a chicken piccata. The contestant committed the error of breading the chicken. According to Colicchio every chef needs to know how to prepare the “classics”. My contention is that it isn’t necessary to know a recipe but it is more important to know technique and how to marry flavors.

If one knows how the different methods of applying heat, steaming, braising, frying, etc., as well as knowing how to match flavors and learns how to “plate” a dish then isn’t it more important than knowing a recipe. That piccata is not meant to be breaded isn’t really important in the long run.

And why is it only that Western dishes be the classics. Injera is pretty vital to Ethiopian food but I bet if I asked Chef Collichio to make me some he wouldn’t have a clue how to make it properly but if I told him the ingredients and what technique is used to cook the bread he would have a pretty good idea how to achieve decent results. You would probably achieve similar results if you gave a great Chinese chef who has never heard of piccata the list of ingredients and the fact that the chicken is sautéed.

I’m sure there were dishes that were classics 100 years ago that have completely gone off all menus and are only known to food historians. Does the fact that current chefs don’t know how the dish was prepared make them any less?

I’m curious to hear the opinion of others.

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  1. While an understanding of technique, ingredient properties & creativity certainly have a great influence on the success of a dish, part of being a professional (in any field) is to be well versed in the history & basic traditions which are the background of your field. This knowledge increases your repertory & helps you have a better starting point in conversations & collaborations with your peers. You can't do a riff on a deconstructed "whatever" if you don't understand how it is traditionally made.

    1. I don't think it's an either/or question. Yes, having a knowlewdge of the basics is good, because they've withstood the test of time and therefore are more likely to have merit. IOW, they're classics likely because they look and taste so good! And, as we all know, recipes for baked goods (whether made up by the baker or someone else), with their need for precision, are very helpful.

      That said, I consider it far more important to "know" food & preparation -- how it reacts in a dish to the size & shape of cutting, to the applications of heat and/or cold, how and when to season, how the order of making the parts of the dish affects the final product, etc., etc. And your remark about the cultual aspects, what I consider to be a cultural bias, is spot on.

      I used to teach a cooking class and, other than the occasional baked good, we didn't use a single recipe. I compared it to learning how to paint not by copying famous paintings but by learning to use color, canvas, layering, etc., etc. The goal was that the student could look at, smell, and taste a dish and could then recreate it -- and create their own if they liked.

      1. I am also a Chef, and just because Tom C. says something, don't let it go to your head. He's no different than anyone else in this business. Technique trumps every time. If you get your technique down, you can make your own recipes, if you are inclined to learn some classic dishes they'll be all the better because of your technique.

        1. Technique. No question.

          Recipes are merely someone's experience written on paper.

          Technique allows you create your own experiences without living vicariously through the experiences (or recipes) of others.

          1. You need both. But I concur that technique is more important. Technique is like the alphabet. If you don't know the alphabet you can't read.