To me, the difference between a cook and a chef is how you look at food. Chefs usually have some training in cooking and techniques. A home cook usually learns from others and through trial and error. Chefs come up with new dishes. Cooks just want to make good food. Cooking in a restaurant kitchen is very different from cooking at home.
Because cooking at home is different, you should try to think like a chef, rather than cook like one. You don’t have to go to culinary school, you just have to keep a few things in mind.
Pre-Cook Common Stock Ingredients
In my Bachelor’s Kitchen Eating Plan, I advocate making big pots of things like beans or rice. These are common ingredients in many, many dishes. If they are already cooked, it saves time and also encourages you to eat more of them. Both are very good, basic foods every diet should have. Both are versatile and can be eaten at any meal. You can do this with other things like pasta or salad components. It speeds things up a lot.
I like to make a big pot of rice at least once a month. Because cooked rice doesn’t last more than a few days, I usually make two pots during the month. That rice is ready for a quick stir-fry or fried rice. It can go into a soup, over a salad, or replace hash browns on the breakfast plate.
Put Things In Their Place
Chefs have learned when the heat is on there’s no time to hunt for and prep ingredients. That’s why they do the prep work first. If you have ever watched a cooking show on TV you know the hosts always have everything laid out and pre-measured, so they can concentrate on the dish and their patter. They have a large staff behind the scene doing all that. You don’t. But you do have some prep time before you start cooking. Use it to do what chefs call mise en place, which in French means “things in place.” Most recipes have a list of ingredients first. That makes mise en place easy. Just go down the list and have the ingredients cut, peeled, sliced, diced and measured as the first step. Sometimes, ingredients added later in the cooking might be put off preparing until you’re waiting for something else to finish, like in baking. Always read through a recipe first when you start so you can see clearly in your mind what has to be done when. The more prepared you are, the more fun cooking will be.
Make Leftovers Into New Dishes
Here’s a little secret of the restaurant industry. Profit margins are low, so they can’t afford to waste any ingredients or leftovers. That’s how you get those Daily Specials. Chefs and cooks are being creative with leftovers. Yesterday’s beef stew becomes today’s Beef Burgundy. There are hundreds of uses for a leftover rotisserie chicken. Mashed potatoes can make a Shepard’s Pie. And all those leftover veggies can make a great soup. Just add water or broth or bouillon. Growing up, we had leftover soup every other week when my mom would use up all the leftovers to make room for new groceries.
Soup Is A Kitchen Savior
Speaking of soup, it really is good food and it is also universal. Every culture has some kind of soup, usually made of vegetables, water and maybe some animal protein. I would say it is one of the oldest dishes ever made once humans discovered fire and cooking.
I had the good fortune to live for a while with a bunch of Chinese doctors and medical researchers who were attending a nearby university medical school. Watching them cook dinner every night was an eye-opening experience. Anything can be made into a soup. One time, someone brought home two live crabs and dumped them in a bowl of water to await becoming that evening’s dinner. One escaped and ran around my kitchen floor for a few hours because I had no idea how to pick one up. They made soup with the whole crab, holding them over the sink while they pulled it apart, blue blood spurting. Add some water and seasonings and it’s ready to go in no time.
Make sure you get your money’s worth out of every food you buy so you throw away less. It’s good for everyone.