The Basics

13 October 2017

Crippling writer’s block hit me like a heavy duty tenderising mallet this morning. So, as one does, I phoned a chef friend and asked what he found challenging and frustrating in his kitchen. Without a breath, he commented “Hickmore, many newly graduated chefs have no idea of the basics,” he continued “They can’t de-bone a chicken, make a basic roux, have little to no knowledge of cuts of meat and lack the determination to succeed…”

Kitchens have been going back to basic and classic methods for years. Some are milling their own flour, making fresh stocks, smoking and using wood and flame cooking amongst other things. Consumers are driving this. They want an authentic, hand-crafted product.

I am sure that most chef schools are teaching the basics. But, to become efficient at something it takes practice and repetition. Yes, it is boring to turn two pockets of potatoes or make litres of Béchamel each day. Think for a moment though, were Leonardo da Vinci’s first inventions any good? Probably not. No doubt he had to practice his craft. Are Millennials more interested in the fancy stuff, instant gratification, considering themselves an artist more than a craftsman.

Quoting Anthony Bourdain "Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman - not an artist. There's nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen - though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honourable and satisfying."

A stone mason can’t build a cathedral without knowing how to make a perfect brick. A chef cannot create classic dishes without knowing the basics of the five Mother sauces.

My chef friend maintains that often the less privileged members of his brigade are hungrier for knowledge and accept that they are part of a team, they listen more intently and learn tasks quickly.

A top education at a great chef school is not guaranteed to make a young chef a success. The key is career self-determination.

Here are five pointers for achieving career self determination:

  • Lay out a career plan for yourself. Imagine what it feels like to achieve that goal and what steps you need to take to get there.  This can change over time, but it is your own personal story not someone else’s.
  • Remember that it is impossible to make a mistake if you are learning from the experience. Attempt things, don’t be afraid of failing.
  • Don’t chase jobs just for the salary, work with people you trust who will help you grow. Choose carefully who you want to spend time with.
  • Back yourself and find your own voice. You cannot please everyone all the time. Every successful person must face criticism, jealousy and situations that are untenable.
  • Take charge of your training and development, don’t wait for others to dictate the process. Your time is precious, learn to steer your own ship

Like sautéing, braising, roasting, flambéing, poaching and grilling - life is about basics. Learn, practice and master the building blocks of your career, grab the steering wheel, add some flavour and originality, and you have a recipe for success.