One in a collection of essays celebrating things we love.
Try as we might, and no matter how many competitions we watch, few if any of us will cook like real chefs.
What’s missing from the TV shows and public displays are the intense prep, the refinements, the MacGyvering, the process-upon-processes — in short, the things chefs learn by training and from colleagues and mentors over the course of a career.
Watching that back-of-the-house stuff makes my heart skip a beat. My job affords me an audience every now and then, and I come away with a feeling akin to what hearing “The Washington Post March” does for me on the Fourth of July.
Hokey, you bet.
I love the way chefs label with a Sharpie and blue painters’ tape; the latter peels off without residue and eliminates ghosts of leftovers’ names on plastic lids. I love how they use an ice-cold water bath and gravity to remove grit from leeks instead of cutting and hands-on, hit-or-miss swishing. They taste, they know how to correct. They taste again.
I’m not always keen on how their recipes get distilled into cookbooks and magazine articles, but I do admire the way chefs follow their own charted ingredient ratios to create the same, wonderful dishes day to day. Consistency is underrated (and achievable, as Jacques Pépin surely knows but didn’t emphasize in a viral “PBS NewsHour” interview). Yet, like veteran rock stars in concert, restaurant pros also can riff on a classic just enough to keep things interesting.
And when the pros cook! They can make a sous-vide machine seem crucial and not like just another apparatus to find storage room for. A single pan partially filled with water that holds at a steady 180 degrees can keep seven things warm in deli containers — just the ticket for a home cook with four burners and no slow cooker on Thanksgiving Day.
I love the way chefs spoon-baste in the pan at fast-forward speed, finishing a halibut fillet or baby vegetables to heighten aromas and flavor; they catch those foods at the exact moment of doneness. In nose-to-tail fashion, chefs’ economies yield entire menus that utilize parts we often toss at home. They love to push ingredients to extremes, essentially translating the science of acids and moisture and sugars into something more gloriously edible. (Okay, maybe not all those foams.)
To experiment over days or weeks, chefs will dedicate a corner of a workstation or walk-in that can ill afford to lose the space, and they are eager to share tales of missteps as much as successes.
I spent time recently in the kitchen with Ryan Ratino, new executive chef at Ripple in Cleveland Park. He plated a lamb dish as playfully as a deconstructed dessert, with shiny, jet-black shards inserted upright amid tender salsify and dollops of leek puree. He explained the shards’ creation with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy crush: He had charred leeks until thoroughly blackened; sauteed them briefly with onion broth; pureed them with maltodextrin and spread them thin; dehydrated them to a state of crisp sheets; kept them that way in a fish tub with silica gel packets (MacGyver alert); and broken them into pieces for service.
All that fussing, for what looks wicked and doesn’t even smell oniony? I cast a doubting eye, until I tasted it. The surprise of it, an essence of sweetness and the unmistakable flavor of leeks all came through.
It was love, in one bite.
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