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Do you think eating at restaurants has broadened your palette & made you a better cook?

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I started trying to teach myself with Julia's MTAoFC. It was really, really hard. Most of the positive reviews I read began with, "Just like when I studied in Paris," or "This takes me back to France." However, for someone who has never even eaten in a French restaurant, I had no idea how these dishes were supposed to smell, taste, feel texture-wise, let alone how to pronounce them. (I persevered and have since met with some success.) But then, I tried to make risotto from Molly Stevens' book. It was a fiasco. I followed the directions and yet it was HORRIBLE. I've never eaten risotto before, never even seen it in a restaurant. So how do I know I made it incorrectly? Maybe I just don't like it?

So, this got me thinking. Perhaps I could try to seek out restaurants as a way of broadening my palette in an attempt to at least know what the dish I cook is supposed to taste like. What do you think? If not, can you recommend another approach?

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  1. I would say that ANY experience adds to your knowledge base.

    Me? I never, ever follow a recipe. I read several recipes for any new dish to get a feel for the ingredients, proportions, time/temp ratios, etc. and then just make it.

    That way, it is always "Mine".

    I agree that it can be hard to make something you've never seen or eaten, but to answer the original question, "Sure, it can't hurt".

    1. In answer to your post query, it's yes, but not in the sense that you're thinking. After spending 3 years as a road warrior and eating a lot of horrible food I came back with a sharpened palette and a sense of anger when an eatery managed to botch even an average ingredient.

      The short downtimes between trips had me focusing on trying to source and make best use of the best ingredients possible.

      To answer your post's query, restaurants can get fairly expensive especially if you're trying to figure out what specific dishes taste like. Have you thought about cooking classes or even community events where people make different things to share? Do you taste the basic ingredients? That's probably a starting point to first of all figure out where exactly is your palette.

      1. My restaurant dining has absolutely been educational to me - the main thing that I deliberately use restaurants for is trying expensive or rare ingredients that it would be difficult for me to obtain, or that require experience to work with, as well as many that are just "out there" compared to what I grew up with. It was a lot less threatening to me to face my first calamari as an app at my local Greek place then as a frozen square of rings and tentacle clusters defrosting on my counter.

        I whole heartedly second DoobieWah's "read lots of recipes" technique also -- I think that you can really excellent sense of the core identity of a dish by reading a wide range of recipes for it.

        And watch cooking shows - it's just plain fun, and a very affordable way to get an idea of how a dish should look.

        If you are just getting started with serious home cooking, I would also recommend hitting up your local library for a copy of 'Master Recipes', by Stephen Schmidt. He gives bare bones core recipes for a wide range of dishes, and follows them up with wonderful variation recipes, letting you see how the bones look clothed. In my opinion it's one of the very best teaching cookbooks out there. Unfortunately, it is out of print, but I think it well worth searching for a library or used copy.

        1. A broadened palette has caused me to eat at restos I wouldn't have set toe in years ago.

          1. Obviously knowledge of what a dish should taste like is key to mastering a dish. Why, if you had never tried risotto would you want to make it? One it's a very time consuming dish and something that even in restaurants can be awful. If there was something in particular you had wanted to make, I would definitely suggest trying it first.

            In answer to the question you posed in your subject, I think practice makes you a better cook more than anything. I have horrible issues with timing (especially getting sides and entrees to be ready at the same time) and for me it's ruined many a meal. As for tastes, I grew up in a home where the cook was better than 99% of the restaurants I've eaten in, so for me it's a no. But I definitely wouldn't try to make something without knowing what the ingredients tasted like.

            1. I agree with the other comments -- tasting an unfamiliar dish before you make it will definitely help. An alternative, if you're having trouble tracking down a dish, is YouTube, FoodTV, or other sources of food/cooking videos -- tasting is better, but at least the videos will give you an idea of what the food is supposed to look like and how it's typically made and served.

              1. Definitely, yes.
                But, on the other hand, cooking has ruined some restaurant experiences for me. I know I can do better at home, and the mystery is gone from many dishes. For example, shortly after getting a brulee torch, I pretty much lost interest in creme brûlée, rendering many restaurant dessert menus very boring.
                For something like risotto, I would try that in a restaurant. But as mentionned, even restaurants often get risotto imperfect. I'm kind of surprised your results were so terrible; my husband often makes risotto with varying quality of ingredients and results, but I've never, ever found it horrible. Another way to gauge your results is post your recipe and results in Home Cooking, I'm sure people will have input.

                2 Replies
                1. re: julesrules

                  This is pretty much exactly what's happened with me. I eat out far less, won't order some items on menus (especially for the price), avoid entire types of restaurant cuisines.

                  From the OPs posting history I think s/he needs to take some cooking classes instead of worrying about using the greatest cooking gear.

                  1. re: julesrules

                    Totally agree.

                    I was raised in the kitchen. However it was an Italian American kitchen, so pretty much, that was all I was good at cooking for many years.
                    But I still loved to eat, so I would go out and try as much as I can, and usually, if I liked something, i would try to re-create it at home.
                    I'm pretty good at doing it too, but it's seldom AS good as it is in a restaurant
                    On the other hand - it's very rare I cant top an Italian meal at home!

                  2. Well of course it will. Even if you end up with a very different palate from whqt you wanted to end up with, at least you'll know what you like. Keep your eyes, ears, and palate ready for anything. Have fun!

                    1. Simple. Carpe chow; where ever and when ever!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Passadumkeg

                        Even if it comes in a can or from an eeevil, imperialistic, militaristic corporation! ;)

                      2. At some level, not eating in restaurants made me a better cook. Very quickly after moving out on my own, I realized that I liked good food, and the only way I was going to get it on my broke student budget was by cooking it myself.

                        Some foods inspire me - not just restaurants, but street foods and the like. On the flip side, though, once you get to a certain level of cooking your taste in restaurants gets redefined. As an example, I'd say that most of the time I order Italian food at restaurants my response is "Meh, mine's better". So I tend to gravitate towards restaurants that serve stuff I'm not likely to do at home or don't have the equipment for (pizza ovens, tandoori ovens, sushi, Korean BBQ, Beijing duck) or that are fairly new to me and I haven't mastered cooking them yet.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                          I totally agree with Tastesgood! As my culinary skills improved, I was often disappointed when eating out. (Hence the name) These days, we do exactly the same thing - Sushi, Indian, Korean, etc. And I'm learning to cook Chinese, so I do think eating out helps to make you a better cook.

                        2. Ummm, guys, it's "palate", not "palette".

                          Unless you're painting a picture with your food (not a bad metaphor, actually)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: coney with everything

                            **hangs head in shame**

                            You're absolutely correct. Time for Khan to go stand in a corner.

                          2. Absolutely eating in restos will make you a better cook. Because it gives you something to aim for.

                            BUT, the caveat here is, obviously, where you choose to eat. I tend to go to restos that make food that is: difficult/time consuming/uses rare ingredients. I tend to avoid chains (there are some exceptions to that rule) and I seek out chefs at the top of their game. I'm seeking flavor combinations that will surprise me, in a good way ;-) Or even just something simple, prepared exceptionally.

                            Be aware though, this can play havoc on your finances ;-> at the high end places, explore their appetizer lists and/or small plate menus. Great way to eat fabulous food for not so much $$.

                            There's no way I'd be the cook I am today without the influence of all the foods I've enjoyed in restaurants over the years.