01/16/14

What is a “home cook”…?

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 cook?”

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