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

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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.

            1. I totally agree that technique is more important. I am not a chef, just an accomplished home cook, and I have seen my reliance on recipes diminish considerably as my technique and knowledge of flavors has improved over the years.

              1. Technique trumps recipes all over the place! If you have technique, the recipes take care of themselves.

                and btw, Chef Collichio was incorrect, because Piccata has no egg. only flour.

                7 Replies
                1. re: ChefJune

                  What I find peculiar is that even Rocco states on his blog that the piccata has flour and egg... are they trying to back each other up, or is there this obscure recipe involving eggs and flour but no bread?

                  1. re: Blueicus

                    jfood had a brain cramp on wednesday night when Tom "Le Coq" Colicchio stated flour then egg. Major league "Huh?" could be heard at casa jfood. And Rocco's blog stated the same thing, now double "huh?" Jfood cannot imagine how flour then egg then hot oild would look. :-))

                    And as jfood pointed out in another thread, Ina Garten does combine the Milanese breaded version with the lemon sauce, and she is one of jfood's favorites.

                    1. re: jfood

                      I'm thinkinking that Rocco and Tommy are the one's with the brain freeze. Have you really never seen flour then egg then oil?
                      Think chicken francaise. I'm wondering if Mr Coq au Vin MUST be made with a coq even knows the difference between Francaise and Piccata.
                      Piccata, no egg, no breadcrumb. If you change a classic it's no longer a classic it's just another variation.

                      1. re: Docsknotinn

                        Just did some quick research on chicken francaise, which I admit have neither made, ate, nor knew about before. I wonder if culinary schools teach this particular dish.

                        1. re: Blueicus

                          20-30 years ago it was a staple on Italian menues. Now I almost never see it. It's not what I would call a classic but the technique of flour then egg does exist.
                          In either event I'm totally blown away that so many of the Chefs had such a poor grasp on classics.
                          I think that you must have technique and a base knowledge of the classics. If you have no technique you won't have much luck with a souffle. If you have no knowledge you won't understand a basic piccata. I think this was a challange where straight forward classics would have ruled the day. I know I'd much rather eat or serve a Grand Marnier souffle with berries and cream Vs a nachoe souffle. That dish could have been a featured on an Andrew Zimmern episode.

                          1. re: Blueicus

                            I still have my books from J&W from a long time ago. I checked the book and there is a recipe for Chicken Francaise. I just don't remember if I made it there. I have made it since both professionally and personally. It's a great dish. Think French Toast but instead of bread, it's chicken.

                            I had to think twice when I heard TC say piccata was flour and egg. I'm sure he's gotten alot of email over that one.

                            Proffessional cooking schools teach techniques. Without basic understanding of cooking principles, most would not be able to read a recipe and execute it properly. Having said that, it is called Culinary Arts. Art is subject to individual interpretation. If you take 10 chefs and ask them all to make Beef Stew, you will have 10 different beef stews. Are they wrong? of course not, It's how they think the dish is best prepared. An understanding of the classics is important because so much of American Cuisine is based on Western European Cuisines. It is only in the last 15-20 years that other cuisines, Eastern, Asian, etc have had a major impact on the direction of American food.
                            My thinking is if you know the techniques and you have a good knowledge of ingredients, you can accomplish almost anything.

                          2. re: Docsknotinn

                            Yup, Francese is flour, egg, oil, but not piccata. jfood is not a fan of francese and makes piccata abou every other month at home for the ladies.

                    2. I think the thing that bothered Tom, Rocco, and Co wasn't so much the recipe he used but that he couldn't admit he didn't know what Piccata was when asked. I have a cook book from Wiliams-Sonoma and there is indeed a recipe for Veal Piccata which includes eggs and very fine breadcrumbs. Remember what we saw was an edited version. I'm sure what bothered The judges more than anything was that they expected a nice light dish, and they received a heavy dish. They also said he didn't tenderize the cutlets and he served it with gnocchi. The biggest ommision to me was the lemon and capers. I have made this a million times and not even known it had a name. I've cooked chicken, fish, pork chops this way and never knew it was Piccata. I just lightly flour it, throw it in a pan for a few minutes and pour the lemon, broth, capers and butter sauce on top. No fancy name, just breaded cutlets with a nice sauce! Light and delicious.

                      1. Like everyone else here, I think technique is more important. If you know HOW to put things together, then you can easily create things of your own on the fly and kind of know they're going to be at least okay. Being a good chef is probably about using technique to develop your own recipes. Being a great chef is knowing how to go back and refine your creative ideas and make them into consistently reproduceably great meals.

                        Being a great Top Chef contestant means knowing how to make chicken piccata, veal marsala, pizza from scratch, moo shu pork, injera and cotton candy. And what's the proper proportions for succotash? Oh, and you can't check your notes.

                        As far as recipes go, though... look at it from the point of view of a bartender. If you walk into a nice cocktail lounge, you expect the bartender to know how to make any standard cocktail you ask for. Sidecar? No problem. Old Fashioned? Coming right up. So to be a chef you should be well versed in the standard repertoire.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: egit

                          Being a bartender is different because cocktails are a western phenomena and the "classics" really are the classics. The canon is entirely Western unlike cooking where every culture has their own "classics".

                          1. re: KTinNYC

                            KT, I understand where you are going but it's pretty obvious on TC that "classics" refer to Western or Americanized classics. Lasagna while Italian in origin is pretty standard American fare. I think instead of terming it a "classics" list, it should have been "Dishes We Expect You To Know."

                            While I have no issue with only Western dishes deemed "classics" especially in an American reality tv show it doesn't necessarily mean that what is classic to Colicchio is known to all.

                            Last season in a similar challenge, a dish called Chicken A La King came up, supposedly it's American comfort food...really? I'm born and raised in America and never heard of that dish until TC. The dish must have been common pre-1970s or something.

                            Yes, I think not knowing certain "classics" or techniques should be held against you. It's like knowing how to speak but not understanding grammar.

                            1. re: moymoy

                              I was born in the mid-70s and grew up on chicken a la king.

                              1. re: jgg13

                                jgg13 - I'm sorry for your pain. :-)

                                I had chicken a la king quite often as a child too. It was a very common dish, though I don't think I ever saw it in a restaurant anywhere.

                                It would be a big surprise to me if it were considered part of The Canon in culinary schools.

                                1. re: egit

                                  Yeah, I wouldn't necessarily expect a chef to know how to make it (like with the picatta thing), but it didn't shock me when it showed up as being "comfort food" in a show where I'm probably on the younger side of its demographic (although maybe I'm wrong on that one)

                          2. re: egit

                            "you can't check your notes"
                            Any chef who says he doesn't is not only arrogant but not a good chef. Does a lawyer know every law ever written? Of course not. Every law office I've ever been to has a library with dozens of books for reference. Walk into the office of a reputable chef and I guarantee that you will find books on every cooking related subject there. ALot of the best chefs I know keep journals or hand wriiten notes. I have been cooking professionally for 20 years and every day the first thing I put into my pocket is my notepad. If something stumps me I write it down and then go to my office to check it out. Of course the internet is good help too. As far as your list, I'd have to look up Moo Shu and Injera as I have never made either.

                            Chicken a la King is not the most common comfort food around, I have seen it a few times on diner menus. A qiuck check of an older Johnson & Wales cookbook shows it to be there. It's not the recipe that's important, it's the techniques to acheive it that is.

                          3. I've been around too long and been through too much. How about being competent and a good person? I think we lose sight of basic human values in search of the hedonistic some times.
                            With the utmost sincerity,
                            Mark

                            1. From the Foreword to the "New Professional Chef, Sixth Edition" (CIA textbook) as written by Paul Bocuse:

                              "I remain convinced that the respect for tradition in the teaching of culinary arts will be made most effective by enabling students to perfectly master the fundamental techniques. This approach to teaching... finally provides the marketplace with chefs who know how to roast, grill, and prepare proper mise en place, and are ready to address all of the specific needs of their profession."

                              If Chef Bocuse is good with it, I'd go with that...

                              1. To be fair to Tom C., he actually wrote a book called "How to Think Like A Chef," which encourages less reliance on recipes and more on marrying flavors and techniques. As some have mentioned, remember you're only seeing very selective editing on these shows.

                                1. Hey KTinNYC,

                                  Working in a kitchen, I've gotta say techinque. Because of our Mediterranian emphasis, we don't serve hollandaise. But, we had a customer ask for it. I made it, perfectly emulsified, using the recipe from Escoffier. The dish was returned, the customer claiming that, "this isn't the hollandaise I'm used to."

                                  Oh well.

                                  Yoroshiku,
                                  Andyh

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: AndyP

                                    I read recently, that 90% of the restaurants that serve it in the US make it from a mix. It's flavored.like Hollandaise, but not the Real McCoy

                                  2. The Most Important Thing is LOVE! And reverence for the food and the friends/customers you are preparing it for!

                                    1. jfood thinks there is a missing element in this discussion. What separates a great chef from the crowd is "vision".

                                      Jfood has very good technique and a ton of recipes. When he has the right music, the time and the patience, he can turn out great renditions of other people's vision. But jfood is not a great chef, he is a good technician.

                                      The great chefs are leaders, inventors, visionaries, not let's make a Hazan Bolognese, let's create a new sauce with these ingredients.

                                      So in addition to techinique and an understanding of recipes, a great chef takes it to the next level.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: jfood

                                        There is a fascinating book called "Culinary Artistry". The authors talk to many great chefs about recipes, techniques, ingredients, but also about creativity and inspiration. It is a great read, and it certainly corroborates your point about "vision".

                                        1. re: moh

                                          moh, i agree. i keep that book at work, it is a great resource for food pairings. it helps to have harmony on a plate whether it's sweet or savory.

                                          1. re: moh

                                            I agree that the basic techniques are the thing and you should know basic dishes that are common on America restaurant menus if you are going to win Top Chef.
                                            On another note, I love Culinary Artistry. It is my go to book when coming up with a new dish. It has a great section that indicates what flavors go together with what. You go to beef and it shows 40 different flavors (horseradish, etc) that go with it. Great for making the mind work.

                                          2. re: jfood

                                            As usual, jfood is right on.

                                          3. First I would like to open by saying that personally I have found that it is important to take every piece of information from anyone in the industry regardless if it is Tom C. or the Pope's chef, with a grain of salt. Everyone has their own way of preparing something. You could be in a room full of cooks, and each one could show you how to "properly" prepare rissotto.
                                            I DO believe it is important for a successful chef to know classic dishes, and their components. I would assume that Mr. C was saying a chef should know each classic in a broad and contextual sense, not literal.
                                            Obviously the contestant was trying to make a certain dish (piccata) and by not appropriately preparing his goal, his technique was not there.
                                            To conclude, I believe in this situation and when attempting to prepare CLASSIC DISHES in general, it is vital to maintain the integrity of the recipe AND doing so by using proper technique. That is the point of classics.
                                            To be a truly great chef, technique and recipes play hand in hand.

                                            1. Long before you get to technique and ingredients, and way before you get to vision, you start with vocabulary. It's simply a matter of communication. If you can't deal with the established language, you have to describe everything from scratch every time, and it becomes impossible to build on what's gone on before.

                                              You can't simply declare that my eggs florentine has neither eggs nor spinach. You can't say that when I say broil, I actually mean boil. I know it's done a lot - people keep saying barbecue when they mean grill. People say lox when they mean smoked salmon. It's easy to dismiss these things as the natural transition of language, and of the food itself. But in truth, such misuse just confuses things - it does not help get ideas across to each other, and it represents no gain in creativity. It is done out of ignorance, and is a mistake - period. It needs to be corrected.

                                              If the no-food network and Ina Rosegarden are some sort of culinary reference, then Tom Colicchio and his mentor, Thomas Keller are obviously schmucks for ignoring such a fine repository of information. Piccata is breaded and Bobby Flay is the best chef in the world. (BTW, the reference to egg is simply that when you dredge something in flour, you often coat it with egg first.) But as we all know, in food as in anything else, the majority isn't always right, and the majority saying so doesn't make it right. There are basic rights and wrongs, and if you don't know the basics coming into a competition like Top Chef, you're going to lose. And you should.