(These are recaps of our “Hidden Apron at Home” Instagram Live sessions held on my @errant_diner account focusing on the fundamentals of cooking as I, a non-chef, understand them. They are based on my experiences learning how to cook and deal with systems and ways of thinking vs. just recipes. This second session is part of a longer series addressing the Motivation – or lack thereof – to cook. This one deals specifically with Efficiency. Click here for a recap of Part 1: Confidence)
IG Live Recording can be found below. Note that since this was on Instagram Live, I may answer questions that came in that you won’t see on your screen. I’ll do better at reading them out next time. Also notice that I wasn’t perfect in my execution. Don’t let perfection keep you from making a perfectly good meal.
One of the most common things I hear from people when it comes to cooking is that they “really want to start cooking but just don’t feel like it”. I suppose you could guess that people who say this are just lazy. I wholeheartedly disagree with this as it glosses over the complex, interconnected forces that underlie our motivation to do something. Why exactly does one “not feel like doing something”? From my experience when it comes to the kitchen, it’s a matter of four related issues that need to be tackled: lacking the confidence due to hearing misleading messages about cooking, not being efficient enough in the kitchen, having too rigid an approach to cooking, and only accounting for the taste of a meal while neglecting the other senses.
This past week we focused on Efficiency, which should NOT be confused with Speed. The whole point of being efficient in the kitchen is not how fast you can prepare a meal (though being efficient can certainly speed things up for you), but how you can maximize the things you want out of cooking while minimizing the costs. I am being deliberately vague as to what these “things” and “costs” should be as they are entirely personal. You may want to maximize the amount of calories you can fit into a single serving if you’re training for a race while minimizing financial costs since that raise you were counting on didn’t materialize. Another person may want to maximize the amount of variety in their diet because they get bored easily while minimizing the amount of time in the kitchen on account of their busy social life. I for one want to maximize the amount of joy I derive from being focused and aware of what I’m doing in the kitchen while minimizing the number of movements I need to make to counter my already high-strung personality. YOU define your outputs and the relation between Efficiency and Motivation is that if you minimize the things that make cooking a drag, you are far more inclined to see cooking as enjoyable and not a huge chore. A few key principles then:
- Mise en place, a vontade
“Mise en place” (or “meez” or “plas”) is one of those fancy French terms industry folks like to throw around that simply means having everything in its place. Having everything you need easily within reach and prepped for cooking will do wonders for your efficiency. However, I will add here a much less stuffy Portuguese phrase: “A Vontade” (vawn TA jee), “to your desire or liking”. The thing about your mise is that it is YOUR mise. While there are tried and true things that generally work for most people like having separate bowls for your chopped and unchopped ingredients, your setup will differ based on your own equipment and your goals. They also include more than just the ingredients on your prep table. For example, I place all my empty tupperwares in the mini cabinet under my prep table since I’m constantly cooking up multi-purpose sauces, syrups, and side dishes. A baker may instead store all her cookie cutters or flour there instead. The key is that you intentionally design your space to reduce drag. I also don’t have the money or space to afford multiple prep containers so I just use a sheet tray that where all the ingredients sit roughly next to each other.
- Agile Cooking
Borrowing from software development, Agile is an approach involving rapid iteration, evolving requirements, and is distinct from Waterfall where phases are done sequentially in a linear manner. Many recipes and cookbooks lay steps out in the latter where you prep and cook everything in order and often leave out steps that are implied like washing your greens, chopping onions, etc. Rather than thinking of a single dish sequentially, think of getting tasks done just in time (see task sequencing in point 3) and as part of a larger whole. Since I’ll be spending time in my kitchen preparing lunch anyway, I may as well use the time I have waiting on something on the stove to iterate on a syrup I’ll use for an evening cocktail, wash equipment I used during prep, or work on extra side dishes or dessert components. Approaching your kitchen time as open time with malleable task structures makes it a much more refreshing and fun experience rather than one nervously looking at kitchen timers and how much longer your roast chicken is taking.
- Cooking with a hundred hands
Something you probably don’t consciously think about when watching cooking shows or dining out is the fact that entire teams are behind the assembly of the dishes you enjoy. Before any celebrity chef puts together their 30-minute meal on TV, ingredients have already been pre-chopped and portioned into cute little ramekins. There are roles in restaurant kitchens dedicated solely to cold appetizers, sauces, or the grill. This is very different from home cooking or even small-scale pop-up cooking where you are working with a very small team or flying solo. How can you use your two hands to effectively do the work of more? Try to think of steps in terms of how long they will take and the degree to which you can leave them while you perform another task (ie. “passive tasks”). Then perform them starting with tasks that will take the longest and where possible consolidating as many passive tasks together so that are running in the background while you concentrate on a single active task. For example, even though my pasta recipe may call for some smashed garlic, I may wait to smash them until after I’ve started simmering by berry compote and roasting my broccolini so that I’m utilizing as much of my kitchen power as possible. Could I have done it along with all my other ingredient chopping? Sure! Is it the most efficient to do it in this sequence? I don’t think so.
1) Season Broccolini in a sheet tray with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
2) Roast (~375F) until florets are browned and crispy.
3) Season with lemon (opt.).
1) Simmer blackberries and sugar in a skillet, mashing berries to release their liquid if desired.
2) Flambé the berries (opt.) by pouring in a little rum and setting alight with a matchstick or by tipping the skillet towards the flame until it catches on fire. Relax and let the flame go out. You won’t burn yourself!
*Note: Cook pasta in boiling water that is well salted. This salted water will form the basis of your sauces so salt liberally! If your water doesn’t taste salty, then it’s not salty enough. While dried pasta usually takes ~10 minutes, test a strand or two every so often so you know it’s done. Cook it slightly under al dente as it will continue to cook once you’ve added it to the sauce(s). You essentially want to start the sauce while the pasta is cooking and toss your noodles in the sauce direct from the boiling pot once it’s ready, using the pasta water to blend the flavors together.
Brown Butter-Garlic Pasta
1) Melt butter in a skillet on medium and cook until brown. Look for a dark brown color and be careful not to burn it (brown turns to black and it’ll smell smoky rather than nutty).
2) Toss in garlic and fry slightly. Longer frying = stronger garlic flavor.
3) Toss in cooked pasta straight from your pot of boiling pasta and a bit of the pasta water. Stir well until a nice silky emulsion forms. Garnish with grated parmesan (opt.).
1) Toss the mentaiko (reserve some on the side if you want to garnish with a little raw mentaiko at the end) and miso into the pan with a little of the pasta water.
2) Quickly follow up with the cooked pasta straight from your pot of boiling pasta.
3) Stir well until the mentaiko is fully incorporated.
4) Garnish with more raw mentaiko and thinly sliced nori (opt.)
6 Lies Cooking Show Celebrities Tell You
The Breakfast Burrito: An Unusual Study on Kitchen Efficiency
*I wrote both these blog posts in 2013 so please excuse the snark.
Visit any restaurant that has seats near an open kitchen, especially smaller operations where you can see how they prepare multiple dishes with limited space. Alternatively, go to a pop-up dinner if these are being held near your area and ask to see the chef’s prep space. Bonus if you can watch them prep and cook as well. I personally have enjoyed these two unique chefs:
- FlipEats by Chef Joel Javier. Chef Joel has been hosting intimate pop-ups in his Brooklyn home for some time now. He’s able to churn out a dizzying amount of Filipino-inspired courses within the tiniest of kitchens.
- The Broken English Pop-up by Chef Moeen Abuzaid. Similarly, Chef Moeen’s pop-ups are multi-course journeys into Arabic cuisine with complex components made more miraculous by the fact that they’re produced in the smallest of spaces.