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One of the most important and introductory ideas that I teach in classes is that in learning about food and cooking, your individual personal feelings, tendencies, cares, and habits will become a part of “your” food and cooking. And that’s, not only ok, but a great thing, and something that brings you closer to your food and any food you consume. Let’s elaborate on this in a number of ways to help you understand the idea and let it be a help to your cooking instead of a hindrance!

Cooking is Full of Choices

When cooking (and shopping), the choices you make are what define your cooking style. Invariably all cooks will have to make hundreds, if not thousands of decisions while cooking and shopping that will affect the final dish. Even with a precise recipe, you’ll still need to decide “what is a (small) dice?” or “is this mince fine enough?” or “is this sweated, seared, steamed, etc enough?” or “is this a small or a medium-sized onion?” or “is local/organic/sustainable necessary?” etc., etc., etc. to infinity…

This is one of the key reasons that I teach the understanding of food and the cooking process (along with technique); so you have the necessary foundational knowledge to feel confident making all those inevitable decisions and understand the ramifications of each. This knowledge and understanding are what allow cooks to feel calm in the moment because they know the outcomes and hazards along the way. This knowledge is what eliminates the fear of “ruining it” that many cooks have when starting to get in the kitchen or veer off of recipes. But this simple understanding gives way to the larger, and next level of understanding about food and cooking; is it (the decision) necessary, worth it, or important? Here is what I am talking about today and what I want to shine some more light on. This is also an introduction to what I call “Chef answers”. Chef answers typically start with a vague answer that promotes further understanding of food and cooking because it is not straightforward.

One of the First Chef Answers that Cooks encounter:

Q-“How long do I cook this?”

A- “Until it’s done.”

This promotes the understanding of food and cooking because the answer is dependent on what your intended outcome is and is judged by the characteristics of the item being cooked as well as your personal values and desires, not by time. For example if you are making caramelized onions, the cook time will vary based on how hot your burner is, how bug your pan is, how much you heated it before cooking, how many (exactly) onions you are making, how good your technique is, how quickly you need them, how much water your onions had, and how dark you like your caramelized onions. When you understand these simple concepts, you can make those calls and not feel stressed by not knowing the outcome during the decision making process. This also helps you to become a better cook because you are constantly learning, assessing what is happening, and adjusting to what is happening in real time.

Now, this level of decision making can seem intimidating, but when you know the basics about food and cooking, as well as how to think about these questions, it becomes freeing because you know where the guard rails are. For example, as long as Chicken is cooked to 165F, it will be safe to eat and everything else is negotiable or variable. Let me elaborate even more.

“A good Chef knows when to ask for help.”

All cooks have to make a choice on what to sacrifice and what to leave to others to do. At one point early in my career, I made the statement that “I wanted to cook to molecular perfection!” What I didn’t realize at that point (along with many other things I have learned since then) was that we are all going to have to make sacrifices with our food based on our available time. As well as the fact that cooking is a subjective activity where there is no “molecularly perfect” possibility available, but I'll save that point for another post.

One of the lines that I open the Essential Series with is “Cooking is a matter of time; and in general, the more the better.” I do this to begin to illustrate this idea that you will ultimately have to make certain sacrifices because we don’t all have unlimited time when cooking. To illustrate this idea, I often get asked “is local/organic/sustainable really necessary and worth it?” The Chef Answer is “it depends” because it does depend based on your time, resources, and values.

To zoom out a little, the reason that the dream of many a fine dining chef is to have a dedicated farm growing all the ingredients for their restaurant is so they can have influence over all things that end up on the plate (and thus are supposedly/theoretically better). I say supposedly/theoretically, because in this fictional dream scenario, in order to take this idea to the next level, are they also spending their time caring for each and every plant on the farm? If so, how good are their horticulture skills? What if they are spending all their time on farming and not on creating and executing dishes? Does this make the food better or worse? What about the idea that not all things they grow in this farm are meant to grow there, or grow there the best that they can be grown? Are they going to have multiple farms in all growing regions to grow a wider variety of foods or simply the foods that grow best in each region? Are they able to pay for only the best farmers to tend each and every farm? Do those farmers all share the same food driven approach to farming (ie. what’s best for the certain dish) and is this idea communicated effectively to each? You can see how this idea of “cooking with only the “best” ingredients” can break down very quickly under scrutiny and further questioning and understanding of all that goes into food.

This isn’t to say if you have a dedicated farm that is focused on growing things for the chef/restaurant that it won’t produce a better outcome. Even at a place that is doing this super well, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in NY, you have to rely on others and trust in their work to move forward at all. Ie.- Not all cooks' knife skills are as good as the Chef’s, but you can’t run an operation of that size and complexity without relying on others to “do their best” and accept that it won’t be “the best that could be done.” At a certain point, we’ll all have to make sacrifices and get others to help at some point, somewhere along the way. And that’s not a bad thing! We all can't be “ the best” at everything. And we all don’t have unlimited time to become the best at everything and also do everything ourselves. Once we understand this simple fact, we can begin asking the right questions, “what is really important here?” and “does it matter in this scenario?” Here is where our unique values begin to come out in our food and cooking, how we begin to develop our own unique style based on the choices we make which come from our individual values of “what is important?”.

So back to the original question of “is local/organic/sustainable (L/O/S) really better/worth it?” The answer is “it depends” because if you are under a limited budget and can only afford a little bit of fresh food that is L/O/S, I would argue that it is much worse since you could get much more fresh food if you bought non-local because you’d be eating/able to buy more fresh vegetables and thus have more fresh food to eat. If you can afford to buy all L/O/S, it probably will be better because typically small farmers take better care of each and every item they produce because they need to make as much as they can on each and every zucchini and the better they all are, the more money they are able to make. And if you didn’t know it, farmers make VERY LITTLE and certainly don’t do it for the money. This is why it is generally considered to get better produce from smaller farms. But not always- because they don’t make much in general and need to sell as much as they can to bring in as much money as they can. Which can lead to them selling “not just the best” of what they produce because farming is hard and very fickle. And this can lead to substandard produce being sold by small farmers which can be argued is “less good” than something that is of a higher quality despite not being Local, Organic, and/or Sustainable. This is also why general food knowledge and how to select quality produce really matters because if you blindly believe that L/O/S is “always better”, you might end up buying sub standard produce because of this belief. But if you know how to pick out a good XXX (tomato, onion, bunch of kale, etc.) you can feel confident that what you have selected is “the best” of what is available to you beit Local, Organic, Sustainable, or Mass Produced. This is why I teach simple food knowledge so you are empowered with the information as to the “Why” of food and cooking to be able to decide, onion by onion or apple by apple or meal by meal as to “What is really the best.”

And here is where your values also come into play because “the best” when picking out produce doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Sometimes I’ll happily pay more for a lesser quality item if I want to support a local farmer. Other times, the quality of the item wins out and I’ll buy non-local and be just as happy about it. It really comes down to what is the most important value at the moment or for the meal. If I am cooking for my aging family members and know that I won’t have many more opportunities, I am definitely going to rely much more on overall quality of the items because the goal of increasing the experience to them is more important than supporting a local farmer. Or if I’m just buying for my regular week, I might be more willing to support that farmer, despite the quality cause I know I can make it taste good and I feel better about buying local whenever I can. Or on super busy weeks, when I can’t make it to the farmers market, I buy at the supermarket because I need to spend that time with my family instead of at the farmers market, buying local. And again, here is when simple cooking and food knowledge comes into play. Because if you know how to pick out “the best” produce in any scenario (farmers market, farm stand, grocery store, etc.), you can decide if it’s worth it to make another stop at another store to make sure the “tomatoes for the BLT you’ve been dreaming about” are worth the extra time… Or baking the bread yourself… Or growing the Tomatoes… Or making the Mayo… but it all starts with simple food knowledge and deciding what’s important to you at the moment…

This leads me to another of my Mantras in the kitchen, “Based Upon Intended Usage.” Always remember this one as a background to everything you do in buying, prepping and cooking. Because Based Upon Intended Usage of each ingredient, dish, or experience, your values will change. If I am running late to get home to cook dinner for my family, you are darn right I’m not that worried about if every little thing is as good as I can make it at work because my family will come first. Always. But If I’m cooking for the President or for a Cooking Competition, I’m gonna lean into making all things the best I can possibly make them… It just depends on the circumstance that will alter your values… But remembering these things will help you to feel confident in making the best calls you can and learning how to make things better in the future. This is the continual process of learning how to cook; making a call, doing it, and assessing how well you did to possibly improve next time. This is how you can feel comfortable with every call you make and continue to do it better based on each and every scenario you encounter.

Pre Prepped Ingredients are Not The Devil

Coming from the idea that everything is better if I do it because I am a better cook than most, it took me a while to become ok with recommending and using pre prepared ingredients. I am still getting better at this because of the general idea that things are “better” if they are prepared from scratch (which is true, but time available is also a factor). Well, the balance to this care and attention to freshness of preparation is “if everything is 2 hours late, no one cares if you made it all from scratch.” Basically, one of the things that each cook has to decide is how much time do you have to make whatever you are making and utilizing the level of help that is matching to the amount of prep that fits the situation. Again, this goes back to the “if I grew each ingredient or prepped every ingredient myself, it would be better.” But if I have to wait until the fall harvest of my sunflowers to produce the sunflower oil for my homemade mayo, I’ll be waiting 6 months to have that BLT. So, maybe I’ll just buy the mayo today since I’m hungry today… Again, a simple idea that can help with the feeling of being overwhelmed with decisions. And it all starts with simply understanding food and cooking. If buying precut Butternut Squash will get you to cook more, then by all means, BUY IT! And don't’ feel bad about not “doing it all yourself” because the intended usage was to cook more of your own meals. And as you get more comfortable cooking more, then you can save time and money down the road by getting to the point when you want to cut your own Butternut. Or you might decide that it’s not worth it and spend that time on other things… But you get to decide that… Not me, some TV chef, or food media publication… And again, it all comes down to basic food knowledge, basic skills, and your own personal values of what’s important to you…

Your Style of Cooking

All of these thoughts, ideas, and ideals combined with your technical skill in the kitchen is what makes Your Style of food and cooking. You can choose to lean into overall quality, speed of prep, practicing technique, supporting local, saving money, or any number of values that you decide as your focus when cooking and shopping. In general, it will be a combination of all of the above, but simply knowing basic food knowledge and cooking techniques plus thinking about your values and how they are expressed in your food will allow you to make these calls in the moment and feel comfortable and confident that you are cooking “your best” for your intended purpose for each and every meal… This is what I mean when I say “Your Style” of cooking because it is really a reflection of all of these things… The more you learn about food and cooking and the more you practice your skills, the better you’ll be able to express yourself exactly how you want with each and every meal you make… This is why I stress the importance of the fundamentals of cooking and why I teach basic understanding of food knowledge and cooking techniques; so you can have the knowledge and skill to be the best at making “Your Food” exactly the way you want!

Simple knowledge + Good technique + Your values = Your Style of Food.

It really is that simple, y’all!! :D Happy Cooking!

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