10/20/14

The Evolution of the Home Chef

The Evolution of the Home Chef

“Home Chef”

It’s a new term, one that has not, until now, had precedence in history.

For hundreds of years, since the first “restoratives” (ie: restaurants) opened in France, following the toppling of the French monarchy and the world’s first  “professional” cooks who worked for them suddenly found themselves without employment, the commercial chef and the home cook have eyed each other distrustfully across a wide abyss of training, technique, mythology and methodology.

That began to change on November 23, 1993 when TV Food Network was launched.

Okay, that’s not exactly true, Julia Child paved the road for Emeril, Bobby, and all of the other “celebrity chefs” with The French Chef in 1963, as did Graham Kerr with the introduction of The Galloping Gourmet in 1969, but the globalization of food-related television really exploded in the early nineties.

The point being that starting back then, and growing exponentially over the last two decades, the line began to blur. Techniques and terminology what were previously only available and comprehensible to those who indentured themselves to a restaurant kitchen at a young age, or shelled out the bucks to attend culinary school, became commonly and easily available to anyone who was willing to watch and study what was being offered for free (or at least for a minimal cable television subscription) and cared to pay attention.

Please take note of that last paragraph…words like “watch”, “study”, and “pay attention” are key. 

Sitting on your rear-end, sucking down Doritos and staring vapidly at a chili throw-down, ain’t what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about people who watch the right shows (more “Good Eats”, less “Hell’s Kitchen” please) on Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel, and an increasing number non-cable channels, with a pen and notepad in hand, and then test and practice what they learn in the “lab” of their own home kitchen, treating the medium more like correspondence courses, and less like a mindless hybrid of game shows and soap operas.

Knife skills, French techniques, building on mother-sauces, deglazing, mise en place

We can take what is actually about the cooking from these shows, and winnow the gold nuggets from the falderal of high-pressure, turn-and-burn techniques designed specifically to keep you alive and cooking through a 300-cover night, and not necessarily about creating two, four, or six perfect plates of food for your family.

Another amazing resource, possibly an even better one that the cable network shows, that has helped bring about this cooking evolution are online video sources like YouTube. Here, instead of being at the mercy of a television show’s production calendar, you can actively search out short “how to” videos on specific techniques, often presented by professional chefs, on thousands of culinary subjects and recipes.

It’s like having a free, private cooking instructor in your own kitchen!

The Home Cook and the Professional Chef.

Understand this: one is not more or less than the other, or at least it doesn’t have to be.

There are those who aren’t interested in being a “home chef”, just like there are those of us who couldn’t care less about knowing how to change our own oil (sorry, Dad!) And, that’s okay. Nobody has to know how to sousvide an egg, or chiffonade parsley, or blanch a duck, to put a fresh, healthy and delicious dinner in front of their family…as long as they can do the latter, that’s all the skill anyone needs to have.

The Home Cook, and the Professional Chef are each their own animal, and now the Home Chef is an evolving hybrid of the two…someone who cooks nearer a “professional level” of quality (if not quantity) using and improving on the classic “Mom’s methods” with two-plus centuries of techniques and styles perfected by professionals.

I point out “quantity” because this is a large part of what you’re paying for at culinary school…it’s not just the techniques, it’s how to perform them on a massive scale, very very quickly, in such a way as to conserve costs and maximize profitability, the business of professional cooking…but none of which are skills required when cooking at home.

With the availability of online (or on-air) education, these are really the only factors that will separate the professional chef from the dedicated home chef of the future.

It’s an exciting time to cook in, and those of you who are willing to research study, and practice practice practice are ushering in a new age of food in the home kitchen.

You are the new home chefs!

-Chef Perry
SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com

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05/30/14

On Real Food and Home Cooking

Empty Shelves

Someday I want to write a cookbook based on the premise that you can eat anything you want, any time you want, as long as you personally cook every bite from scratch ingredients.

You see, I disagree that people “don’t have time to cook” (I kinda have to, right?)…but really, I believe that:

1: people choose not to prioritize home cooking (we all have 24 hours in a day), largely due to social pressures and media influence, and…

2: people with little cooking experience don’t understand that home cooking can be simple, healthy, fast, and affordable… a position of ignorance that corporate food has been more than happy to encourage and profit from.

In our MY KITCHEN program, we teach foster kids, many with ZERO kitchen experience, how to cook simple, healthy meals in classes lasting less than an hour.

Regardless of what Food Network (and their frozen food sponsors) would LIKE us to think…you don’t have to be an Iron Chef to cook real food.

100_4719There’s also the ever-growing trend towards convenience “foods”, again much of it due to corporate marketing, who’s been trying to push their C-Rations on us since they were forced to find a non-military market at the end of WWII.

We’re reaching a critical tipping point in history where it will no longer be a matter of IF I choose to cook from scratch, but that there won’t be raw ingredients available to do so.

Lack of business and ever-tightening “regulations” are putting small farms, farmer’s markets, and artisanal food producers out of business in droves (and not by accident) while corporations are buying up larger tracts of farmland at a historic rate. As the supply diminishes, so does the knowledge, interest, and demand.

Unless something is done to change the trends…our great-grandchildren will be shopping in a food desert, and happily munching their solent green, and never know what they’re missing.

Retailers, of course, have a much more vested interest in moving people toward “meal assembly” than actual cooking.

There’s less waste, it’s easier to stock and store more “high profile” products in less space, and the shelf-lives (ie: the amount of time they have to get it sold) are vastly greater with frozen and pre-packaged foods. I’m not sure what the difference in mark-up is, but with 30% of our fresh produce ending up in the dumpster, the gap has to be pretty marginal.

rachael_ray_02

Finally, how much responsibility should we place on the TV shows, magazines and food writers of the past decade’s “foodie movement” for possibly widening the rift between “us and them” (ie: people who cook and people who don’t) by making it more about entertainment and “food porn” than practical application?

You’ll note that Food Network (and all the others) may be yapping incessantly about “farm to table” during the shows…but the ad time is filled with pre-packaged garbage and convenience food. Is the underlying message that…

“We both know you can’t do what you just watched Bobby do…but doesn’t THIS look almost as good?”

Change and education are the key to regaining responsibility for our family’s health and nutrition, not conceding to a corporate food mentality that will always, ALWAYS place the security of their shareholders over the health of our families.

Your thoughts?

-Chef Perry
SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com

01/16/14

What is a “Home Chef”…?

home cook

Honestly, I don’t much care for the term “home cook”.

(Which may seem strange for someone who does meal planning for a living…but I’ll explain…)

Despite it being descriptively accurate, ie: “a person who cooks in their home”, what should be a badge of honor has become a caste term to designate someone who is “lower” or less skilled that the professional chef. The glitz and glitter of the recent explosion of food television’s popularity has, for many, created a level of misunderstanding and misinterpretation as to what “cooking” really is, and that is having a dangerously undermining effect of home cooking in our society.

But, for lack of a better title (and because I despise the phrase “amateur cook”), I’ll use the term home cook, and do what little I can to elevate it back towards the status it deserves.

2048nigellarachIt’s no secret that many home cooks have skills and experience that matches and even exceeds that of their professional counterparts. In fact, many of the “celebrity chefs” that are well known and beloved in our new food culture,  were never really “chefs” at all. Rachael Ray and Nigella Lawson are two of the biggest names in the culinary world, but neither are professionally trained chefs.

Self-trained and having never worked in a commercial chef position, they are just two examples of skilled and famous “home cooks” who have hit it big.

Oh, add to that list Julia Child, of course. (Julia did attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but except for her own cooking shows, never cooked in a professional setting.)

Some would say that the title of “chef” has to do with education, which is a ridiculous argument, as culinary schools have only been around for a couple of hundred years (remember, there wasn’t much in the way of a “restaurant industry” before the French revolution of 1789) and teach and revere the methods developed by chefs who never attended any form of culinary school…or in some cases, any school at all, lol.

Many of our modern chefs never received any formal cooking education either, including Paula Deen, Gordon Ramsey, Rachel Ray, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller (!), Ina Garten, Jamie Oliver, Ferran Adria, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and the list goes on.

AICAIEphotoshootNow, let me be clear here…if your goal is to work as a professional chef, in a commercial kitchen, and you haven’t grown up in kitchens or worked your way up from dishwasher (which is the true “classical training” everyone likes to yap about these days) then culinary school is a wise, likely necessary option for you.

You will learn skills and techniques in speed, multitasking, bulk cooking, food purchasing, business skills, and planning that are absolutely essential for running a restaurant kitchen…but are almost completely disconnected from, and unnecessary to, the home cook.

Again…one is not better than the other, it’s a completely different set of requirements, at the heart of which are some common skills. You can be a great cook without being a chef, just as you can be a chef without being a great cook (and we’ve all ordered THAT dinner…)

The point is that if you take away all that “other stuff”, then YOU have, or can develop, all of the same cooking skills in your home kitchen, to cook great food, and you can do it as good as anyone I’ve mentioned here. If fact, without the pressure of high volume cooking, the drive for turn-over, the constraints of menu, the need to multitask, and the need to cook at a profit…you should be able to cook BETTER food than a chef in a commercial kitchen!

One of the best arguments we have for the legitimacy of the home cook comes, ironically, from the same cable networks that seek to elevate the term “chef” to a level of celebrity.

If you’ve ever watched a food-centric show that involves travel outside of the United States, you know what I’m talking about. Every time a chef or “host” visits a home and is offered a meal, it is invariably the best meal of the trip, regardless of how many world famous chefs or restaurants they’ve visited. Hosts ask chefs where they learned to cook, and the answer is almost always in their mother’s, or grandmother’s kitchen.

Even that age-old kitchen game “If you have 24 hours to live, what would your last meal be” is answered with simple yet beloved dishes from the childhood home kitchen, and not some fancy Michelin star restaurant’s tasting menu (a fact that is usually pointed out in no uncertain terms by the show’s host.)

So, what then makes a “Home Chef?”

The home kitchen is the primal hearth from which all cooking was born, it is where most of us first watched, and touched, and tasted, and smelled the delicious alchemy of earth and water and fire and flesh, and it deserves a higher honor in our society than to have become the repository of canned “food”, frozen “meals”, and boxes of fill-in-the-blank-Helper.

Processed-Food-500x375If we are to reverse the current trend of disdainful disregard, we must first agree that the definition is NOT anyone who cooks at home. My four-year-old daughter could pour boiling water into a cup of noodles, or spread peanut butter on bread, if we agree that this makes her a “home cook”, then we are as responsible for that disdain, as anyone.

Just as a “home mechanic” can have as good, or even greater skills than a professional mechanic, they still both must know how to take an engine apart, put it back together, and have it run, to be considered a mechanic…a home cook must know how to cook. Not thaw and nuke, not dump and stir…but COOK.

If we do not hold the term to a certain standard, then we are part of the problem.

Here is one of the best descriptions I’ve found for what, beyond financial compensation, makes a chef…and I would say the same goes for what I consider a home cook…

“A chef has to be responsible for the soul of the food. A chef should have a deep understanding of how to cook many types of food, what flavors go together, how to handle kitchen equipment (knife skills, etc.,), and so on. A chef should not require the directions part of a recipe, and usually shouldn’t require the amounts in a recipe, either.”

In other words, it’s all about the food, knowing what to do with it, and having a passion for making it great…just like the home cook.

Your thoughts?

-Chef Perry

Home Chef Cookbooks

11/11/13

Kitchen skills: How to hold a knife

How to Chop with a Kitchen Knife While Keeping Your Fingers Intact from Kaley Perkins on Vimeo.

This video was taken during an interview with journalist Kaley Perkins, and published on her blog, KaleyPerkins.com, as part of her post, “Local Chefs Fight Monsanto With Knives” November 9, 2013.

Click here to read the full interview and listen to the additional podcast.