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Jun 12, 2011 09:43 AM

Things That Call Into Question A Cook's Credibility...


Chemicalkinetics' thread about how a chef's choice of unconventional equipment might prejudice a person against his cooking ( ) got me thinking about what would, rightly or wrongly, prejudice me against a person's cooking ability.

I was reminded of a conversation at a party years ago with a woman sporting acrylic nails who told me she was attending culinary school. As soon as I saw those acrylics, my mind called *bullshit*. Not only do I not believe that any culinary school worth its salt would allow a student to attend classes sporting long/fake nails. I also think that (sanitary issues aside), there is a sort of preciousness to the maintenance of those nails that might very well keep a person from becoming a GREAT cook. (This betrays my feeling that it takes a certain assertiveness, aggressiveness and ballsy-ness which in many ways contradict such preciousness to become a truly GREAT cook.


This is not to say that there aren't some really good cooks out there who produce delicious food on a consistent basis sporting the nails. It is to say that seeing them creates a prejudice in my mind about the cook's capacity for greatness.

What makes you doubt a person's ability to create great meals *before they start cooking?

  1. I always worry when the skinny person says "I'll bring/make dessert."

    43 Replies
    1. re: yayadave

      Someone who thinks that the only way to achieve a great dish is to use the most expensive,hard to find,exotic ingredients known to mankind.Show me someone who can turn a cheap cut of meat or some humble vegetables or grains in to a delicious and satisfying meal.and I'll show you a great cook. :-D

      1. re: petek

        "Show me someone who can turn a cheap cut of meat or some humble vegetables or grains in to a delicious and satisfying meal.and I'll show you a great cook. :-D"

        I think that's the thing that most distinguishes Italian and French cooks. They just use what they have. And that's the thing that most defeats cooks in the US who try the hardest to cook "authentic" Italian. They get locked into one "authentic Italian" way to cook a dish.

        1. re: yayadave

          I would also add Asian,Latin American and most other European cooks where expensive meats and produce were not an option.Using what they had was the only option,especially my parents generation(and the ones before them).

          1. re: petek

            I agree with emphasizing doing great with what ya got is a trait/ability not peculiar to any region. it's a universal.

          2. re: yayadave

            Agree 100%. But remember there have been great American cooks too.

            1. re: yayadave

              True, but there's a big "but" in this argument. The poorest Italian cooks indeed used what they had, but in many cases the traditional "cucina povera" meant vegetable soups made with wild greens just pulled out of the ground and bits of pork from a hog raised lovingly on acorns or flour-and-water pasta made with skilled loving hands five minutes before being tossed in the broth. Today there are lots of good reasons to replace pork fat with extra-virgin olive oil, and wild field greens are a luxury item. And who wants to eat organ meats today that haven't come from a reliable butcher? To come close to the tastes of the poor folks' food of yesteryear, you can't just go to your discount supermarket today.

              1. re: mbfant

                mbf: just depends where one lives. wild field greens? crap that reminds me I need to look before I mow the road-visible areas tomorrow. organ meat? gotta call Jim next time he's slaughtering. sorry if I sound like a snot, but we don't ALL rely on the supermarket alone.

                1. re: hill food

                  No we certainly don't, but those of us who don't (a) risk being called "snots", (b) have to spend real money for what was traditionally cheap or free. I posted in response to the statement that a great cook can do great things with cheap ingredients. Today's cheap ingredients are found at the supermarket for many people. I see wild rughetta where I live (Rome), but don't pick it since it was probably visited by feral cats first. I'm having lunch at the restaurant Checchino dal 1887, a perfect example of what I'm talking about: the unreconstructed urban poor-folk's food of a hundred years ago, which the present owners' great-great-great grandparents' served in the same place, is today served in an upscale restaurant. We don't all have the luxury of a Jim or a weed-lined road.

                  1. re: mbfant

                    please don't let my flippant remarks cause offense. in Rome I WOULD be more comfy with organ meat than I am here in the central US (unless I know the source) I appreciate what you are saying, it just sort of sounded like the post originated from someone in a large US city with only hypermarts to shop (as in the usual shrink-wrapped choices). but I will say - ehh the cats of Rome? plenty, but I'd just bathe the greens three times beforehand. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant and on what piazza I had the meal you're describing (it was late and night in stumbling distance from P. Navona).

                    1. re: mbfant

                      Great post. Also, enjoy Checchino. It's been in my dreams since I got to eat there last year. : )

                1. re: petek

                  Yep, that's why most of the recipes in the Silver Palate cookbooks suck!

                  1. re: petek

                    Reminds me of that Roz Chast cartoon where the woman is trying to make a recipe and has to buy a Quasenbo pan.

                      1. re: petek

                        It's true that a quality of a great cook is to be inventive, creative, and versatile enough to transform simple ingredients into great food. However, I think there is also something to be said for using the best quality of ingredients, which may at times be expensive and/or hard to find. There are also certain things that fall into the expensive/hard to find category that make your vision of a certain dish or flavor combination work. Should you put Saffron in everything? Of course not, but it's pretty hard to make paella without it. Is cherimoya a kitchen essential? No, but it may be the most delicious fruit in the world. There is a definitely a balance between the esoteric and the classical, and great cooks can tread that line.

                        1. re: SonOfAllston

                          Well said, SOA. I do think there is a bit of a backlash to the "bestest", "freshest" thing, not because people don't agree that high quality ingredients make for a better outcome than inferior ones (all other things being equal), but because great ingredients, if anything, make a cook's job easier.

                          Sometimes it's budgetary limitations that keep a person from using high quality ingredients (and the cost of some so-called high quality ingredients is just inflated with idiot tax), but I agree that the willingness and ability to incorporate them (and well) when the opportunity presents itself, is also a trait of a great cook.

                        2. re: yayadave

                          i disagree! just because a skinny person might not eat a lot, it doesn't mean that they don't enjoy delicious, savory, or rich desserts too. we just might have a few less bites!

                          1. re: jamieeats

                            when i graduated college i weighed 130 pounds. my apple pie then was just as good as my apple pie now that i weigh roughly double that. if my apple pie skills had grown with my weight, i'd probably open a shop and put Marie Calendar's out of business.

                          2. re: yayadave

                            Oh, no! You don't have to worry about my desserts. I'm skinny and make fabulous pies and cakes with normal amounts of butter, sugar and all the good stuff. Yikes!

                            But I worry when a really obese person says the same thing. I just assume they eat indiscriminately because they have no palate, so I guess we're both biased!

                            1. re: yayadave

                              i wish people would get over this universal distrust of skinny cooks & bakers. i may not *look* like i eat much, but i'll prepare you a meal - dessert included - that'll make you swoon.

                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                I totally agree, Isolda! It is frustrating. One of the ways I stay thin is to channel my love of food into creating it for others instead of eating it myself. I taste as I go and sample what I cook but by the time I am done, I don't feel like eating a lot myself.

                                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                  Yes, it really bothers me when people hate-on skinny bakers. I did a cupcake crawl in Chicago and one of the owners stated--in conversation--she would never try anything I made because I am skinny. Not only was this rude but very unprofessional. Furthermore, it really bothers me that her bakery gets a lot of PR and is 'well-respected' because I felt it was unprofessional to treat a customer this way--especially when she did not know me.

                                  Also, I hate when people are rude about healthy (whole wheat, no-sugar), vegan, or vegetarian dishes. If they don't want to try it, fine... but you can just say "No Thank you" to an offer instead of providing ancillary comments.

                                2. re: yayadave

                                  Great thread, great answers.

                                  I know too many excellent thin chefs to assume that thin folks can't cook, but when they've made it their profession, I do have a tendency to wonder if there's a personal control issue there. Which, granted, is both irrelevant and none of my business. And as a food writer with a history of eating disorders, I realize I tend to project. On the other hand, I've come across enough people in the food industry with similar backgrounds that I'm willing to suggest it's a Thing (see: Bruni's memoir).

                                  1. re: yayadave

                                    Nah, I agree. I knowe exactly ONE good skinny cook. She is really bloody something though. When she taught me to make her lasagne, first step was make the pasta sheets. I knew we were on a winner there.

                                    1. re: yayadave

                                      Are we talking about cooks or chefs (i.e. casual vs. professional). A chef who is really overweight or out of shape implies to me a lack of the discipline needed to execute successfully in a kitchen. If you look at very successful chefs, few of them are "big". The pace in the kitchen requires a high degree of physical fitness and as a cook, being around food and food smells that much totally deflates my appetite. Also, kitchens tend to attract people who thrive on intensity and pushing their limits, and a lot of cooks and chefs that I know take that outside of the kitchen in terms of physical exercise that allows them to exhibit those same qualities.

                                      1. re: SonOfAllston

                                        Mario Battali and Paul Prudhomme spring to mind fairly quickly -- Mario's just a big bear of a guy, but Paul (last photo I saw) was bordering on the morbidly obese...and neither of them seem to be suffering any pay cuts.

                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                          Prudhomme needs a wheelchair to get around. I would say that's some form of suffering.

                                          1. re: escondido123

                                            I said "doesn't seem to be suffering any pay cuts" -- I purposely avoided any conjecture as to physical ability or comfort.

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              Of course there are exceptions to every rule: Tony Montuano and David Burke re others that spring to mind. I was thinking less of really old chefs and more of younger cooks and chefs. Having worked in a wide variety and number of kitchens, overweight, and certainly morbidly obese, cooks and chefs are few and far between, even for the shear fact that they take up too much space on the lines and kitchens tend to be pretty tight fits.

                                          2. re: sunshine842

                                            I knew somebody who was a friend of Paul Prudhomme, this was over twenty years ago. Chef Paul had (has) a bad hip but he wasn't a candidate for surgery due to his weight. He told my friend that he had separate sets of four-hundred, five-hundred, and six hundred pound clothes, so his weight has been an issue for a long time. Doesn't make him any more or less a good cook or good person. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.

                                          3. re: SonOfAllston

                                            "A chef who is really overweight or out of shape implies to me a lack of the discipline needed to execute successfully in a kitchen."

                                            I will disagree, ones appearance does not equate to their abilities. Also I guess its debatable as to what "over weight" means to you but lets say 30lbs or more over weight would be constituted as out of shape at least. Now I cook as a hobby but my career is in the clinical medical laboratory where multitasking, time management, technical skill is key, and not to mention adaptability, and versatile thinking. I'm on my feet all day, rarely get to break to eat, and the stress load is high. Sounds kinda like a busy professional kitchen no? Oh but wait I'm out of shape and 30 pounds over weight, I can't possibly exhibit this range of skills and abilities?? Sorry , you are just wrong in judging someone's skills and abilities by their appearance.

                                            1. re: BelovedofIsis

                                              I thought he was talking about more than 30 lbs - 'really overweight.' It's true, you rarely see someone morbidly obese in a pro kitchen because of the physical demands and space constraints. Just like how you don't see a whole lot of morbidly obese bike messengers either. Nothing to get worked up about here. I have seen plenty of moderately overweight pro cooks.

                                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                                What were talking about here is more in the morbidly-obese-get-winded-from-climbing-stairs type thing. And yes, the clinical field certainly sounds like it demands a lot of focus and mental agility. And yes, while being on your feet all day and not having time to eat can be uncomfortable, but that also applies to things like retail jobs or bussing tables; it really isnt even close to a professional kitchen in terms of being physically demanding. We have to deal with all of the mental challenges you mentioned as well as having to move at an incredibly high speed in 100 degree heat, and lift heavy objects for 10 hours while constantly being pushed and yelled at to move faster and push harder. Kinda different from working in a lab. Being very overweight also has less to do with your abilities and/or skills, and more to do with a reflection on your discipline, which is a key factor in being a great chef/cook. You could have the greatest technique in the world, but if you cant take the heat, mentally and know the rest.

                                                1. re: SonOfAllston

                                                  I'll completely agree with the logistical argument that a morbidly obese person would have a hell of a time managing his/her way around a busy commercial (or any) kitchen. But, the discipline argument, while I see the logic, does not necessarily hold true.

                                                  Take Oprah Winfrey for example - she's had a lifelong struggle with weight/eating habits which has made her morbidly obese at points in her life, but this lack of discipline in eating did not take away from her discipline in the other areas that made her the media mogul that she is today. It's possible for a person to have the skill, dedication and even the palate to be a great chef/cook and yet have some other issue that causes them to eat way more than is healthy.

                                                  I've never had Paul Prudhomme's food, but judging from his success, it's not impossible for a morbidly obese person to manage to become a chef, and a well known one at that. And actually, as I'm sure you well know, the whole culinary environment has changed quite a lot thanks in large part to Food Network and the ensuing glamorization of the business. There are a lot more skinny chefs visible to the public eye now, but don't kid yourself that there aren't a whole bunch of fat ones working in kitchens all over.

                                                  1. re: inaplasticcup

                                                    Totally agree, I think you were able to knock the nail on the head better than I did.

                                                    1. re: inaplasticcup

                                                      I was always extra-disciplined in all areas of my life: education, work, hobbies. Struggled with my weight for years, and I called it the one area that I allowed myself free reign in. Now I'm at a lower, but manageable, weight and still rebel with pig-outs from time to time. Happier and saner, I think.

                                                      1. re: pine time

                                                        fair point; it is true that not all chefs who are overweight are bad cooks. Im also not basing this observation off of celebrities on the food network, but on my own personal experience. Im also not denying the fact that people can struggle with weight issues and still maintain a high degree of discipline. The question was possible indicators that someone may not be a good cook and, in a professional kitchen, that would be one for me. This is not to say that this is a foolproof barometer, much like using boxed stock or any of the other indicators mentioned on this thread for that matter.

                                                        1. re: SonOfAllston

                                                          I see your point. :) I guess not so different from my thinking that the logistics of long/fake nails would hinder greatness in the kitchen.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                well of course, ipse! but that's obvious. what things *besides* a taste of their food indicate to you that they don't actually know what they're doing?

                                              2. Too many cans of processed ___. If I look into a pantry, and see lots of cream o' crap soup, powdered sauce mixes and the like, few good (and dated) spices, and little to no good veg in the 'fridge, then I'm pretty sure dinner isn't going to be very good.

                                                4 Replies
                                                1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

                                                  What are you doing looking into my pantry, anyway? There are items in there that are not representative of how I cook in real life, but hold a place for quick comfort meal availabity. Please don't open my refrigerator either, unless you are not in my home to judge but to enjoy.

                                                  1. re: marthasway

                                                    I apologize, but when you opened the pantry door- I couldn't look away! And as for the fridge, I was just looking for the tonic water, I promise!

                                                    1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

                                                      Just being in someone's kitchen gives you a good idea of what sort of cooking they do...the pans and knives and ingredients sitting on the counter tell a long story. Breathe, Martha -- everyone who sets foot in your house sees something, whether they are looking for it or not.

                                                  2. re: caviar_and_chitlins

                                                    A former coworker always bragged about her cooking, so I asked for a few recipes. Every single one began with a can of cream o' [whatever] soup. Never made a single thing from her.

                                                  3. when they swear by _____ cooking utensil to the extent that they couldn't make the dish with out it. any failures are blamed on not having the right ______.

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