The path that each cook takes to becoming a chef is different. My journey began in my home kitchen in the South of France where I was lucky to be influenced by both of my grandmothers. They cooked all the time and allowed me to be their “assistant.” Mostly that meant tasting rather than actually cooking, but now I know that tasting is one of the most important skills required to be a good cook.
When I started culinary school, I was still a teenager. I am occasionally asked to visit the Culinary Institute of America (or CIA), which is an exceptional school that receives 50,000 inquiries from potential students each year. The school only admits around 1,000 students, and it is very difficult to be accepted. At this school, a student begins to learn the basics of professional cooking from cleaning produce to knife skills, and even dining room service. Each aspect of the industry is touched upon at the CIA.
Once a student finishes culinary school, the search for a job begins. Finding a position in a fine dining restaurant, like Le Bernardin, can be challenging and not always what one would expect. At Le Bernardin, the kitchen is structured in the classic “station” layout. Different tasks are performed at each station and some tasks are easier than others. When a cook starts to work at Le Bernardin, it doesn’t matter how much experience he or she has, they always start at the first station and move through the stations toward the goal, which would be a sous-chef. This process of working each station ensures that each of our senior cooks knows exactly how to execute everything in the kitchen. It allows a cook to experience our system from the ground up, and it also allows a cook to perhaps learn a totally new technique or practice important standard techniques. An exceptional cook will move through the stations quickly. What should be evident at the end of this process is a chef who is precise, fast, and organized that possesses a sense of seasoning along with very good communication skills. Of course tasting the food all along the way is the key to success as well as passion and hard work.
There are lots of professional techniques that home cooks can learn and practice to make cooking at home more enjoyable. This week’s recipe, Barely Cooked Salmon with Braised Leeks and Tarragon Beurre Rouge, utilizes some important exercises in seasoning, knife skills, cooking fish, and making sauce. Whether you are a professional or not, this recipe is delicious and it is always fun to challenge oneself and grow as a cook.