Cook; repeat; repeat

How to master kitchen tasks

April 26, 2011

When I decided recently to leave my job as the chef de cuisine at a busy Portland restaurant, I was motivated by my new job’s family-friendly schedule. Soon I will be teaching culinary students — students who may someday want a restaurant of their own — in a degree program.

What will it be like, I wonder, to teach green cooks after working with my veteran staff? My staff’s skills have been polished to a high gloss by the wearing repetition of food preparation. I will probably tell my students that cooking is a craft, and that craft is based on the principle of practice. Restaurants rely on cooks executing the same task over and over, until muscle memory and instinct kick in.

That’s what I’m noticing in these last few days of my job — the cooks and bakers who are so good at what they do that it is a pleasure just to watch. In the mornings, I often look up from my own task of writing the menu and look around the kitchen. Mornings are when we make the mozzarella, the fresh egg pasta, and the bread. These are the foundations of our menu, and the women who make them every day have become experts.

Baking bread this beautiful takes practice.

This is what I will miss seeing: Griselda, our sweet, tough prepper, scooping mozzarella curd from a water bath of 180 degrees, the temperature that boiling water reaches a couple of minutes after you take it off the stove.

Steam curls up and around Griselda’s face, and sweat beads on her forehead. Quickly, so as not to burn her hands, Griselda pulls and shapes the softened curd into neat domes, pinches them closed on the bottom, then drops them into a pan of cold brine, where they look a little mysterious, like baby UFOs. Later that day or the next, the cheese will be cut into oval slices for its starring role.

With her cheese melting onto most of the pizzas the restaurant sells — as many as 75 pies a day — Griselda’s work is essential. The pizzas bake in an oven heated to 700 degrees by a blazing fire of oak and fruitwood. It’s fun to watch the pools of mozzarella puff up near the arcing flames. It’s even better to eat the luscious melted mozzarella on a pizza with tomato and basil leaf.

Near Griselda is Norma, the lead pasta maker. Norma began her day at 6 a.m., when she mixed eggs into flour with a little lemon juice. She kneaded the dough, taking it from a stiff and shaggy mess to a smooth and springy ball, then set it aside while she made another one.

Now, Norma stands at a whining electric pasta machine. Her left arm is fully extended to one side like a laundry line, over which drapes a yellow sheet of pasta. With her right hand, Norma guides the dough through the rollers in successive passes until it is thin enough to cut.

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Norma’s fettucine, pappardelle, and ravioli have a surprising lightness and an appealing toothsome quality. Not all fresh pastas are like this, probably because few have as much hands-on labor behind them. The 15 or 20 minutes Norma kneads each dough is arduous, but it develops the dough’s tensile strength. Then, when she thins the dough, she does so gradually, which coaxes out and preserves elasticity. Once cooked and sauced lightly with tomato and butter, Norma’s nest of fettucine is irresistible.

Often I am interrupted in my menu writing by what sounds like someone slapping wooden blocks together. It’s our baker, Giana, making her bench knife come down on a chopping block full of ciabatta dough with the decisive force of a guillotine.

Perhaps that’s because Giana’s ciabatta is at a whopping 97 percent hydration level. What that means is that she incorporates 17.4 pounds of water into every 18 pounds of flour. The rising wet dough becomes so jiggly and bubbly that the loaves Giana divides the dough into seem incapable of remaining stationary.

I have seen this dough pour off her table when Giana’s back was turned. It just hung there like a snake, never reaching all the way to the floor but never breaking, either, with its strands of gluten so absolutely stretched and saturated.

Giana bakes the ciabatta in the wood oven before lunch service. The oven retains about 550 degrees of heat from late the previous night, when the pizza cook stoked a large roaring fire for Giana before he went home.

The result of all this flour, water, and fire coming together is a deeply caramelized, complex loaf of bread, whose crust flakes off in layers like puff pastry. Broken open, it reveals a network of gossamer sheets of dough caught and baked at the peak of their rise. It’s like a miniature diorama, filled with secret rooms and filmy floor-length drapery.

I know that with bread like this, everything has to be just right. I have only a beginner’s sense of the judgment and decisions involved in its production — about flour, mix time, hydration level, the variable temperature of a wood oven, and so on.

Realistically, I have wondered: What proportion of what is required to be a chef or a baker can be learned in a culinary school? Probably only a mere fraction of Griselda’s dexterity, Norma’s feel for pasta, or Giana’s knowledge of wood-oven baking can be taught in the classroom, even if the classroom is a kitchen. What they know about making cheese, pasta, and ciabatta these women learned on the job, every day.

That is what I will tell my students. Go out into the world of work. Do the same thing over and over until you improve. Every once in while, look up and notice the fine and enviable work of the other cooks. They are your teachers now.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by Katherine Deumling on Apr 27, 2011 at 1:20 PM PDT

Beautiful Kelly! And true and so well written. Thank you.

2. by Fasenfest on Apr 27, 2011 at 1:50 PM PDT

Yes, beautiful. You were a bright star in your old world and undoubtedly will be a bright star in your new one.

Best of luck and I look forward to hearing more.

3. by Jenny on Apr 27, 2011 at 5:27 PM PDT

On a sliver of a wall in my kitchen I have painted over the stark white with chalkboard paint. On that I have written the words “the work itself will teach you.” And it does. In that kitchen I have taught myself the basics of baking and am now venturing out into experimentation.

4. by Tom Myers on Apr 27, 2011 at 5:59 PM PDT

Kelly, that was a joy to read...both times! I think it represents the way you grew your abilities, perceptively and perspirationally.

5. by Margaret on Apr 28, 2011 at 10:44 AM PDT

Thank you so much for this comment. In this day of chef as media star, always trying to make “news,” the point of the work -- real food -- often gets forgotten. The kind of deep experience you describe is the foundation of the best dishes in every cuisine. The work can become tedious over time, but the knowledge behind it is real and the results worth waiting (and paying) for.

6. by wendypchef on Apr 30, 2011 at 8:20 AM PDT

So true. The more I cook (I’ve been blogging and cooking about 2 years now) the more comfortable I am with cooking by the seat of my pants, the more fun it becomes.

7. by Alex Woodruff on Jun 7, 2011 at 7:41 PM PDT

I am thinking of going to culinary school in the fall. I have just graduated from the University of Michigan but want to pursue food and food writing. I was wondering if you had any tips for finding a good school, I am especially looking in Chicago.

8. by kelly on Jun 8, 2011 at 10:41 AM PDT

I am just beginning in professional culinary education, but I do like what my new boss expressed: that culinary schools seeking to provide value should know how to guide all kinds of students into a variety of food-related careers; culinary schools should think big, including and beyond the foundations of restaurant work. I would ask what kinds of jobs graduates are finding. Best of luck!

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Chef Kelly Myers shares her expertise in the professional kitchen with the home cook, focusing on ingredients, equipment, and techniques.

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