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What’s up, everyone! I hope you all are doing well and looking forward to a new month and a little cooler weather coming up! For this post, I wanted to share an evolution that occurred in me when I began culinary school and how it can hopefully help you learn to appreciate your food even more and even increase your enjoyment of all foods, especially the ones you think you don't like!!

YOU are going to be a Chef???”

When I started telling my family that I wanted to become a chef in high school, I got a pretty strong reaction from a handful of them because I was such a picky eater growing up. Because I am a chef now, most people think that I always loved food and knew I wanted to be a chef from an early age. I grew up well before the “foodie” age, before the internet was really common or even useful for average folks (I know, for some of you younger readers, it may come as a shock to you that that time ever existed…;)), before the rise of Celebrity Chefs, and even before Food TV or media was a thing. It just wasn’t an average thing for people in my part of the world, at the time I grew up, to look at being a Chef as a legitimate career other than just being a “cook” aka, a simple laborer. Yes, I watched The Frugal Gourmet, Julia, and Yan Can Cook, but I had no idea I would become a chef then and the better majority of people just thought those were more for entertainment than any sort of precursor to a career in food. So watching them didn’t give anyone the idea that it would/could lead to a career in food. I actually ended up becoming a Chef initially because I was more in love with the job of cooking. The energy, the excitement, the challenge, and the lifestyle of the kitchen are what initially drew me in, not the prestige, intellectual, human, or cultural sides of the industry that have kept me enthralled beyond the mastery of the technical aspects and love of being part of a counterculture. I just liked to cook, plain and simple. School was boring, and luckily, easy for me. Cooking was exciting, challenging, engaging, and when I found CIA, I realized that it was such an immense endeavor, as well as a legitimate career, I knew it was for me and was hooked. And I have never looked back since.

But for those who knew me growing up as a kid who had to be negotiated with to eat any sort of vegetable and routinely said “nope, I don’t like that,” going into a career centered around food was laughable, at best. Fortunately, I was a lot more determined to excel at my chosen profession than hold onto my ideas of what my child-self thought of certain foods. The ability to have that type of growth, as well as the benefits that have come from it, are what I wanted to share with y’all today in hopes of helping to expand your appreciation of different foods and give you, what I found to be, a more helpful and joyful outlook on food as a whole!

Simple Ideologies to Simple Problems

It’s really simple,

“All Foods are Great When Done Well and Given Multiple Chances.”

When I started culinary school, I decided that if this was going to become my career, I had to be able to judge all foods, not just the ones that I liked to eat. So I simply put aside what I thought about a type of food and tried everything I encountered so that even if I didn’t like something, I knew how to assess it because that is what a Chef needs to be able to do. I didn’t have to like it, I just had to know how to cook it well. Plain and simple. I hated a lot of foods that I now love when I began school. Tomatoes, olives, blue cheese, lettuce, cabbage, beets, fish, and sauerkraut were just some of the top ones that spring to mind that I hated, let alone the myriad of foods that I never even knew existed and discovered in culinary school.

I remember in Fish Butchery Class when we had Oyster day and the chef asked who would like to try the biggest oyster that we had opened and I raised my hand because I never had tried a raw oyster before and figured, “why not? If you’re gonna try your first oyster, why not jump at the big one?” Well, it turned out that that particular oyster actually had 2 little crabs inside it and I nearly gagged, but I didn’t let that get me down and simply learned that stuff like that happens when dealing with a natural product (especially ones that were alive!). But I didn’t mind the taste and despite the texture being a little challenging for 18-year-old-John, I kept on trying raw oysters and soon they became one of my favorite delicacies to enjoy! And the first one I tried wasn’t exactly the best first experience. But I persisted, kept an open mind, and tried them in different contexts and with different accouterments and grew to truly love them!

I could tell you story after story about how I came to love all different types of foods and my reaction to them the first time, but I think this illustrates a large part of the point rather well. Even if your first, second, or third time trying different foods, they aren’t “up your alley,” keep giving them a shot with an open mind. You never know when something you used to hate might become your next new favorite delicacy!

Food Done Poorly Always Sucks (and there’s a LOT of that happening right now!)

One of the other things that I realized going through culinary school that has helped me to love different foods was that any food that is taken care of throughout the cooking process can be delicious. And that there is a LOT of food cooked poorly in this country (and I’m sure in other countries as well, but this is the one I know, so I’ll keep my commentary to what I actually know…;))… When I say “taken care of,” I am talking about proper selection of ingredients, proper cooking techniques, proper seasoning, and proper flavor combining.

Many people say they hate a lot of foods. What I have found over my career is that many people just hate food that hasn’t been taken care of or put more simply, cooked poorly. Brussels Sprouts are a common one that gets a lot of flack for not liking as a kid by many people. Well, when they are under seasoned, boiled or slow roasted to death, and just slopped, by themselves, on a plate, it’s no wonder there is such a widespread distaste for them among so many in this country. They do suck when that’s how they are served and I wouldn’t enjoy them that way either. This can be said for many vegetables and is one of the reasons, I believe, that people don’t like many different foods. So many people simply don’t know the basics about food and cooking. It’s not their fault because we eat food all the time, we are simply expected to know about food and how to cook it. This is why I focus on the fundamentals for so much of what I teach; because most people really don’t know the basics about food and when you can learn to select, cook, season, and pair well, pretty much all foods can be great! You don’t have to be a master of molecular gastronomy or creative food pairings to learn to pick out good veggies, roast, and season them well and put them with something that tastes good. This stuff is really simple, but if you never learned it, it is simply a blind spot. That’s how knowledge works and why I am so passionate about teaching the fundamentals; they have the biggest impact on most people’s food and cooking. And taking care of food throughout the cooking process (or knowing when it has been taken care of if you're not the one cooking it) is the biggest step to learning to love the wide variety of foods that are out there!

This idea came to me slowly over my career when I kept hearing one statement over and over again, “I don’t like XXX (insert any food), but THIS is delicious!!” Whenever I would hear this I would try to ask folks how they had had the particular food before and time and time again, they would regale me with stories of their childhood where they simply had food that was poorly done forced upon them. I wouldn’t like that either, and in fact, another realization that dawned on me was the reason that I didn’t like so many foods growing up was that it simply was done poorly. No disrespect to any of my folks who weren’t that good at cooking during my childhood, but they just didn’t know how to give food the love it needed to become wonderful and enjoyable. My grandfather was the one big exception to this (and whom I almost named my business after) because he was just a simple farmer who knew about food, knew how to cook it, and gave it the love it deserved. Food was always great when we went to visit and it wasn’t until much later that I realized the importance of simply knowing food and how to take care of it was the difference between food that was delicious and food that I hated and didn’t want to eat.

When I became the one who was creating food for others to enjoy, I would try to go after the typical foods that folks didn’t seem to enjoy and would make it a goal to prepare them in a way that they would enjoy it. It wasn’t initially a goal to challenge people, it was simply so rewarding when I first started getting “the statement” (I don’t like XX, but this…) and it was my job to create food that the masses would enjoy, not just people who liked XXX food before they came in the door. This just snowballed into this idea that I am talking about in this post, that all foods are good when done well! I have seen it happen so many times without any prompting, that I am fully confident in this. Now, I definitely love to do this, try to do it as often as possible, and wanted to share all this in hopes that you’ll keep an open mind when trying foods that you might not have liked before and might just learn to love another food! Plus to illustrate how important it is to know the fundamentals of food and cooking and be able to do them well and how that can expand your enjoyment of food and your life!! It’s all connected! And it’s not difficult when you know the basics!

Tastes and Time

The last note I’ll make about learning to love new foods is that in addition to what I have said above, is the ideas of acquired tastes and changing taste buds. There are simply some things (flavors, dishes, cultural variability) that take some getting used to. This is literally where the saying came from that something is “an acquired taste”. Similar to learning a new language, or a name you haven’t heard before, the first time might be awkward and feel (or in this case, taste) weird and this weirdness can sometimes be uncomfortable because that is the definition of something new: not comfortable or familiar. Some things simply take tasting with an open mind a number of times before you start to appreciate it. For me, olives, anchovies, and blue cheese were acquired tastes that I had to simply keep trying before I began to love them. I’m sure there are a lot of delicacies from other cultures that I haven’t tried that might take some getting used to. But, for me, that is one of the many things I love about food and culture, the ability to discover and learn about new foods and find new things I love as well as a new level of connection with folks from other cultures! When I say that food has been one of my windows into culture, this is exactly what I am talking about and if I wasn’t looking at tasting new foods from this perspective, I wouldn’t get the joy that I do from traveling, eating, or simply living the life that I do! Oh, and a little tip that helped me with acquired tastes is to try the flavors or ingredients that I didn’t think I liked with other flavors that are classic combinations (like olives with hummus, blue cheese with figs, walnuts, and honey, or anchovies in caesar dressing). This was a way to appreciate the flavors when they play their parts and taught me to miss them if they weren’t there as well as not to shove an aggressive flavor in my face. This is part of learning how to “do things properly”; do them in a way that is balanced for the ingredient. :D

I also learned in culinary school that our tastes change over time as we age. As we get older, we start preferring things that are more bitter and liking things that are sweet a little less. Now, I’m certainly not a culinary anthropologist (or whomever it would be that would know this…lol), but I suspect that this is because we need more antioxidants as we age and they often come in the bitter greens/vegetables. When we are young and developing, sugar is a compact, fast form of energy that helps us grow faster. It makes sense that we would like sweet things more than bitter things as we are young and developing. Plus when we are young and don’t know the difference between the bitterness of poisonous things and beneficial bitter plants that help us, this aversion could have kept us around on the planet longer. But when we get older, we need less of the “growing fast” flavors and need more of the “slowing down of aging” flavors and have learned which bitter things are helpful vs. harmful. This is all supposition as to the “WHY” of this idea, but the “WHAT” of the idea remains. Our taste buds change over time and because they do, we should keep trying things that we thought we might not like because we might think differently now that we are a little, or a lot, older!

Chefs can hate things too, but keep trying!

It’s also ok to not like something because we all have our things we like and don’t like. Everyone doesn’t have to like everything and that’s ok. But I would encourage you to keep trying all the things you think you don’t like with an open mind. This will help with your curiosity about food (and life) as well as give you the opportunity to find a new favorite food! I call this the Chef Mindset because I learned it with foods and it certainly applies to foods. But you can also simply call this a Growth Mindset and it can be applied to any part of your life as well! I encourage you to keep an open mind, keep trying new things, and keep learning about yourself and life as a whole!

Happy Cooking, Eating, and Living Everyone!! Love Ya!! <3

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