Learning to Create
The biggest lesson I took away from cooking in restaurant kitchens was that they are no place to improvise. If you’re the executive chef, they are where you perfect your craft. If you’re a line cook, they’re where you go to learn. Customers expect a dish to taste the same every time, so if you start messing around, you will, I assure you, be fired. Improvisation was something I did at home.
“You may be very imaginative and creative in the kitchen, but you cannot take advantage of those qualities if you don’t know the basics. Have a great weekend.”
That is something Jacques Pépin recently wrote on his Facebook page. I love the “have a great weekend” part. I agree with him about the basics, sort of, but for me the two things happened simultaneously, getting imaginative and learning the basics. In my twenties, when I first got serious about cooking professionally, I went out and bought La Technique and La Methode, M. Pépin’s two excellent step-by-step teaching manuals. They looked serious, almost like medical books, with their black-and-white photos of oozy meat slabs and the like, but the guy on the cover seemed sweet and nurturing. I soon discovered that these instructive volumes would keep me riveted, knife in hand, through some rocky terrain such as boning a chicken, poaching whole fish, larding meat, curing gravlax, stuffing a veal breast, opening oysters (my first try resulted in a trip to the emergency room), constructing a giant sausage in brioche, trimming a rack of lamb, and making an iced vodka bottle (which I actually did for a party once, a wild and successful centerpiece). I learned all these amazing things from M. Pépin. He made me feel like a professional but also well taken care of, except during the oyster incident. That was no joke.
Growing up I ate a lot of great food, and I witnessed much kitchen activity, both calm and chaotic. But I can’t say I discerned any solid technique going on. My grandmother seemed to just throw stuff together in a kind of ancient Italian haze. But with these two books, page after page, right through to the end, I gained confidence. M. Pépin was my kitchen daddy.
I did attend restaurant school, but I dropped out not even half way through, because I was broke. I was pretty amazed when I then got offered jobs in restaurant kitchens despite having no experience. I realized right off that they weren’t jobs, exactly. They were endurance tests. Restaurants taught me how to work extremely fast, often with an unacceptable amount of angst, racing heart, and eventually a really painful thumb joint on my chopping hand, a lump of muscle buildup in my left shoulder (I’m left-handed), and ingrown toenails. Some people thrive under harsh conditions, relishing in the adrenaline surge. I’m not one of them. But I wasn’t allowed to refuse to skin rabbits or drown eels in vinegar, or to cut 55 live lobsters in two, each with a hopefully swift whack of a knife. I’d cry almost every time I was yelled at, which was ridiculous, since being abused was just part of the package.
I wanted quiet and time in the kitchen. So I bought more cookbooks, many more, mostly Italian. I cooked at home peacefully during my off hours, playing with flavors and serving up my creations to all my friends. I loved Carlo Middione, Giuliano Bugialli, Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean books. I read Artusi, and I grabbed a few of my mother’s books, ones by Anna Del Conte and Ada Boni. I admired Marcella Hazan and recognized her authority, but a reprimanding tone I sensed in her voice turned me off. I’m sure I could have learned more from her, but what can you do?
So Mr. Pépin is right. You need to sharpen your skills. But that didn’t stop me from playing around at the same time. And it shouldn’t stop you either, no matter what your level. I’ve always believed that where there’s a will there’s a way, whether the results are good or not so good. And it’s all ultimately good, because you’ll learn something, even from your most inedible messes. Believe me. I made a ton of them.
Salsa Verde with Basil, Marjoram, and Mint
This is one of the first sauces I learned to make on my own. It’s an Italian classic with no set recipe. You’re after green freshness, however you choose to get there, within reason. Parsley, capers, and good olive oil are one way to go. All herbs and garlic are another. Anchovies are often an excellent addition, depending on what you’ll be using the sauce for. Fresh hot chili sometimes has its place. But start out simple. Just think olive oil and fresh herbs, and start chopping. I like the mix of basil, marjoram, and mint below because it recalls the taste of mentuccia, the wild mint so often used in Sicilian cooking. This mild salsa verde is great tossed with spaghetti or spooned over grilled swordfish. And it makes a beautiful dressing for summer tomatoes.
(Makes about 1 cup)
A dozen or so basil leaves
12 large sprigs marjoram
12 large sprigs spearmint
¾ cup rich and buttery extra-virgin olive oil (maybe a Puglian or Ligurian brand rather than a really green, pungent Tuscan)
The grated zest from 1 large lemon zest, plus about a tablespoon of lemon juice
1 small, fresh garlic clove, minced
A few gratings of fresh nutmeg
Chop all the herbs well. Put them in a bowl. Add the olive oil, lemon zest and juice, garlic, nutmeg, and a little salt. Mix well. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving, to deepen in flavor. The sauce will theoretically keep for a few days, but I find it loses freshness after a few hours, and its bright green color darkens. It’s so quick to make, I just throw it together at some point while preparing dinner. If I’m only cooking for two, I’ll make about half this amount.