I knew I was a pretty good cook when a friend of mine cooked something delicious, I complimented him and he told me: “yeah, I learned that from you.” My mouth opened like a fish gasping for water. “I taught you that?” My cooking journey has been an interesting one, and today I will explore the elements that contributed to the chef that I am now.
Becoming a better chef is like growing a tree. But… you know, I just thought up that metaphor out of the blue, so not even I know exactly what I mean by that. So, let’s find out together!
If my cooking skills are like the tree, then getting better at cooking starts at the roots. The roots take up the nutrients from the ground that enable the tree to grow. The roots are my passion for delicious food. I am a relentless searcher of things that taste good or feel good in my mouth. There are so many layers and aspects to food, and the possible combination of ingredients and preparation methods endless, making the process of pursuing good food an endless joy to me.
I regularly visit restaurants with Lazy Pig in the Netherlands to scratch our itch for good food. We are always surprised by the things that can be done by passionate, creative chefs and the interesting traditions that different cuisines bring. The latter tickles me in particular, and I make it a sport to find peculiar and authentic dishes in foreign countries that teach me about that country’s cuisine and culture. This exposure to good food is the soil of my cooking skill’s tree. However, my introduction to delicious food did not start in any restaurant. No, it started in my parents’ kitchen.
A short background story. My mom and dad can both cook well and they both have their specialties. My mom is the queen of subtly seasoned, aromatic Chinese stir-fry dishes. She excels at making vegetables the main star of the dish and lots of times meat plays a supplementary or supporting role to add some umami flavours to the -often- sweet vegetables. Especially when she could cook with vegetables from her own garden, the savoury aromas of her vegetables made it redundant to add any meat or lots of seasonings to the dish. My mother nurtured my love for vegetables.
My father has a different cooking philosophy. As a king of his kitchen kingdom he reigns with bold, heavy, explosive flavours. Not surprisingly, his specialties are dishes like lamb skewers, mapo tofu and pulled noodles (the latter paired with strong-flavoured veggie & meat stir-fry sauces). The first combines robust lamb-meat flavour with cumin, onion, red chili peppers and salt. The second combines the simple tasting tofu with Sichuan pepper (a lot), garlic (a lot), red chili peppers (a lot), green onions and minced meat. My mother would often complain that my father’s food was too salty. I tend to side with my mom. My taste buds prefer a more subtle approach to seasoning. However, my father was a master of his specialty dishes, and he taught me an undying love for meat.
As we move up from the roots to our trunk, the trunk would be my cooking techniques and knowledge of cooking tools. How I cut my ingredients, roast, stir-fry, peel, blanch, sauté, knead, roll, and so on and so on, my trunk grows through the years (that sounds weird) as I continue to hone my technique. They are the foundation that allow me to go to the branches of the tree. It is again my parents that kick-started this process, teaching me cutting, stir-frying and dish-washing techniques. but it was the advice of my friends that had worked in restaurants or had a strong love for cooking that allowed me to sharpen and hone my skills. How to prepare meat and potatoes, how to handle the oven, and even how to cook pasta.
My skill set is lastly rounded out by cook-savvy people on the internet. It’s a hobby of mine to read about recipes that teach me about techniques needed to produce dishes that I’ve never tried making before, and then attempting to reproduce them. I have been practicing this for about eight years now, and I can humbly say I reached a point where I can follow an online recipe and not screw up about 90% of the time. Pretty damn awesome if you ask me! (No actual calculation was performed to come to this specific number.)
Branches and leaves
Moving up the tree, we arrive at the branches and leaves. Here I’m really reaching to find good metaphors, so bear with me. The branches are my knowledge of the ingredients. Vegetables, meat, herbs, spices, pasta, rice, the whole shebang. What are their properties? Taste? Texture? Cooking time? Their use in combination with other ingredients? Here the nutrients from my exposure to good food and tasting my own food countless of times really comes to fruition. As that experience grows, the branches – the knowledge of ingredients – grow stronger and find room to flourish. They allow me to hold the leaves: the dishes themselves.
Every leaf is one of my food creations. One that can be picked up, tasted, and cherished. I debated whether the sunlight would be my exposure to good food. After all, leaves get exposed to the sun. But no. The sunlight is the happiness that is radiated from my friends and family as they taste my food. And that happiness is put back into my cooking. There is nothing that empowers my cooking skills’ tree as much as the love I receive for the food I make. The way my friends’ eyes shimmer in the evening light as they take a bite, the “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” as the flavour hits them, followed by a focused silence as they frantic shove my food in their mouths. There is no sight more satisfying for me than that. It is however complimented, by the kind words of the people around me. My girlfriend asking me to cook Chinese for her, because she woke up with the urge to eat rice for breakfast; my sister saying she doesn’t like to order ribeye in a restaurant anymore, because I cook it best; and my friends listening in awe as I describe to them how I made Vietnamese Pho, asking me when I can cook for them again. It is the energy that keeps my cooking tree alive, growing stronger, healthier, greener leaves for everyone to enjoy.
Water and fertilizer
From soil to leave, we have almost covered the entire tree, making this metaphor officially a good one, as decided by the metaphor gods. But there is one more essential thing needed to grow this tree: water. And this ingredient, believe it or not, is what I can taste in all my friends’ cooking. It is what will always make my friends’ cooking better than my own, and undoubtedly, what makes my food delicious for them. If all your passion for food, cooking techniques and food know-how fails, just use this one thing to save your dish. The last and final ingredient, but also most essential, is love and attention for your food. Whenever I see someone cooking with their eyes glued to a mobile phone, or someone walking away from the stove and forgetting about their food, I shake my head in disbelief. Respect your ingredients. Give the food your full attention. They deserve it, and so do your diners.
If the roots are the passion and the sunlight is the happiness of your diners, then what is the fertilizer? The shortcut to really upping your cooking game? Well, young sapling, it is the tasting of the food, before serving, that will transform you from someone who cooks, to a cook. Does it taste sweet, acidic, umami, or bitter? Fruity or herby? Which fruits/herbs? Does it have bite: black pepper, chili peppers, mustard, onion or garlic? Or is it warm and/or earthy: mushrooms, nutmeg, star anise or cinnamon? Taste the food before serving, describe it, and adjust the seasoning. Start doing this, and every day will be a day where your cooking tree can grow. Just make sure you leave some room in your agenda before you do, because that phone of yours will be red-hot with friends lining up to have some of your delicious food again. And you will never want to stop cooking.
Lazy Pig asked me to write this blog post for you, as an introduction for our next cooking video. I hope you have gained something for it, even if it’s just a good chuckle from my ridiculous impromptu metaphor. But mostly, I hope I have somehow sparked your passion for cooking, or ignited your interest for exploring different kinds of food. Lazy Pig believes good food connects people, and I couldn’t agree more. We’re reaching the end of this blogpost, but you haven’t seen the last of me as a writer here. For now, I leave (pun intended), with one last tip to share with you, kind reader. Enjoy, and keep cookin”!