I’m inclined to say, when I’m intellectually lazy, that cooking is an art, and baking is a science. But it’s just not that simple – in truth, both cooking and baking involve elements of art and science, and it becomes the task of the practitioner to weave both together successfully. At those times, I’m more apt to think of the science part as the “rules” that must be followed at the risk introducing major problems, and the “art” as those more flexible elements and practices which are subject to personal taste and
And then we get to look closely at some of our currently visible chef celebrities, and their practices shoot holes in such theories. I’m thinking of Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry fame, who is by most accounts, one of America’s top cooks – but by my above definition, he’d not be seen as an artist, but rather as a scientist cook. Actually, he’s a perfectionist, and if you get a chance to see his kitchen at work, or even just read one of his cookbooks, you know his work is typified by “rules”. There is only ONE way to do any dish, the Thomas Keller way.
Who’s to argue? Apparently, attention to detail is the key to his success, and perfection is the route he follows. But if this is true, why aren’t their 100s, or 1000s of Thomas Keller clones? and French Laundry clones? It should be simple to copy such success – especially since TK apparently only finds a consistent way to prepare a dish, and does it that way every time! So why does he stand alone?
Perhaps the problem is with the definition of art as stated above – maybe there’s no such thing as art in cooking. Or -and I lean to this explanation- perhaps the real art of Thomas Keller is something undefined as yet in the way he applies his attention to detail.
I don’t know Thomas Keller personally, but I know him from his articles, from his cookbooks, from TV appearances, and from a large number of articles I’ve read about him – Yeah, I know a lot of that stuff is “staged”, but when you get it all sifted down, the persona that is reflected is one of a calm, easy personality, but one who can apply their personal demands constructively – in other words, a good teacher.
In my other life, I was a people manager – and I learned early on that a good people manager (and their ain’t that many good ones!) is a good delegator – and I’m quite sure that, with multiple kitchens, Keller has to be a master delegator. And as a master delegator, he must also be an excellent teacher, and the best teachers I know use mistakes as the vehicle to learning – I’d bet that at the same time he’s demanding, when Keller sees a mistake, it’s not an opportunity for punishment and negativity, but an opportunity to show why his way is better. I’ll also bet he rewards a lot too – when he sees it done correctly, there’s a lot of verbiage of a positive nature.
For those of you without any real commercial kitchen experience, the above scenario is not the norm! But I will contend, it is the art of Thomas Keller’s kitchens – and it’s also the reason why, even tho Thomas Keller has been kind enough to spell out in sparkling detail the specifics of each of his most famous dishes, it’s just not so easy to duplicate his amazing success.
More power to him.
Here are two flavor enhancing tips which have stuck with me from Thomas Keller’s instruction:
* Zest – As you read Keller’s cookbooks, you’ll notice the many times he uses lemon or lime zest in his preparations – this is because he is convinced that citrus zest is underutilized by most cooks. When you think about it, if a cook discovers one or two ingredients that are not being used by his competitors, but which make an impact when they are used, he has his signature element on which to ride to glory! One of Keller’s -and he’s only too happy to tell everyone- is citrus zest. He suggests, as soon as summer arrives, always have several on the counter ready for use in salads, vegetables, and to simply add a summery touch to anything you serve. It’s a fantastic flavor sharpener.
* Salt – I shall always remember watching a TV interview with a chef once -sorry, I don’t remember which chef – when the question arose, “What is the major difference between home cooking and restaurant cooking?” The chef answered by relating a recent conversation he had with one of his best customers, where she asked him, “Why is it that I can cook the very same dishes in my home that you do here, but they are never as good as when you make them?” The chef answered by saying, “It’s because I’m not afraid of salt, but you are!”
I’m sure Keller would totally agree with that statement, as he has total respect for salt. To the question, “How much is too much salt?”, Keller responds, “When you have used enough to enhance the flavor of the dish, but not so much that you can taste the salt” – it’s a matter of experience and feel. Keller also thinks most cooks, especially home cooks, under salt their cooking – out of fear. And the major reason why this happens is that too many cooks do not taste as they are cooking! He suggests that if a cook is always tasting, they will know when peak flavor enhancement has been reached, or when just a tad more salt is needed to get it there – again, it’s a matter of experience and feel.
Keller tells us that in his kitchens, the basic salt used is kosher salt – not because it’s better, but because of the need for consistency, and because its size makes it easy to use. He says that if a cook uses several kinds of salt in their cooking, it becomes difficult to learn how to adjust volume for each one for the many applications needed – it simply easier to learn how to properly use one type and then always use that.
I personally believe we have been frightened away from a proper use of salt by our so-called medical experts (the same ones who told us 10 years ago not to eat salmon and tuna because it had too much fat!). I would not be surprised in another 5 or 10 years down the road that those same “experts” reverse themselves again and suggest salt is good for us. I find Keller’s perspective on salt to be refreshing in the midst of all the expert’s hype – he suggests that the only reason to ever use salt is to enhance flavor – we should never be able to taste salt in our food – if we do, we have used too much. I have no problem with that – and I’m betting that our bodies would agree.