Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kitchen Lessons: Part One

Sometimes you end up learning the most memorable lessons in the most unlikely of places. How was I ever to expect that my scatterbrained, neurotic bookworm self would discover so much by navigating through the daily hustle and bustle of a working kitchen? Not only did I learn heaploads about cooking with and caring for my ingredients, I experienced small, quiet revelations about how to care for myself and those around me.


Lesson Number One:

Taste. Season. Taste again.

One afternoon I was making a mix for lime sorbet. The ingredients were few and simple enough: lime juice, lime zest, sugar and water. I first followed the recipe, and thought that something wasn't quite right. The limes we were getting in were tougher and drier than normal; their juice wasn't as tart either. So, I adjusted accordingly. A bit more juice went in and a tiny bit more zest to balance out the sugar.

Thinking I had arrived at a pretty good point, I checked in with my chef. Wordlessly, he proceeded to add even more lime juice, zest, sugar...tasted the now puckeringly sweet-tart syrup and to my surprise, added a tiny pinch of salt. "Taste," he said. Somehow the salt had magically enhanced the sweet and sour qualities of the lime, made it taste more like itself.

Next he added: "You had a good start, but remember, you were tasting your mixture at room temperature. When we freeze it, all the flavours will be dulled, because our tongues taste less and our noses smell things weaker when they are very cold. So we do just like Spinal Tap, yeah? Turn it up to eleven. Now it'll turn out better when it's finished."


I learned, and am still learning (always, always still learning) about cooking with context in mind. Which has the often disconcerting result of learning to talk to yourself.

How cold is the meat before it hits the pan? Room temp, or was it straight from the fridge? - it'll make a difference to how long, and how evenly it will cook. Are we serving it right away, or do I need to hold it for a bit? What are we eating it with? (The vinaigrette, it tastes a touch too sharp now, but when it dresses the asparagus/fish/new potato, it'll be just right.) Do those strawberries, blushing red as they look, actually taste like anything this week, or do they need some help? Do I use just sugar or an acid, like lemon juice, or aged balsamic vinegar to bump them up, or perhaps a bit of both?

Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially something as sensual and as social as food. And it's a nice thing to be thoughtful, or mindful rather, of how and who you're cooking for and eating with.


Sometimes it's as simple as giving yourself permission to question things as they are, and then proceed to tweak the details until they turn out almost as good as you always imagined them to be.

I am discovering that learning to cook is about learning to be open minded, to be flexible and to be willing to constantly make small adjustments. Learning in a working kitchen is a bonus, because you have access to a roomful of experience to help you to not only develop, but learn to trust your sense of judgement. You, in turn, learn what pleases you, so that you can pass that pleasure on to others.

A simple but lovely idea: Taste. Season. Taste again.


  1. What a lovely post... I am envious that you got a personal lesson from a chef like that, and didn't realize that food in it's cold state has a duller flavor either. Very informative... thank you!

  2. Very interesting blog... I will be back again soon :)