A Chef’s Secrets



It’s a common complaint: you buy the cookbook written by that chef whose cuisine you adore, spend a whole afternoon in the kitchen slavishly following the recipe, and serve it to your expectant guests. They praise the dinner and your devotion to the culinary arts, but you and they both know that it didn’t taste the same as it did when you ordered it in the restaurant.

At this point the conspiracy theories start. Did the chef leave out a vital ingredient or alter a crucial oven setting just so you wouldn’t be able to recreate the recipe? No, probably not. What happened is that you just had a head-on collision with an annoying fact: you don’t have all the resources that a restaurant chef has, and on certain recipes it really shows. We interviewed several prominent chefs in the South Bay about what they do every day that the average home cook can do only with difficulty, if at all.

Having the right ingredients is important, suggested Chef Darren Weiss of Cafe Catalina. “I go to the produce market every morning and get specialty items very fresh, things that you can’t find at all in supermarkets. It’s especially important with mushrooms, because some types are only available at some times, and they don’t keep for long on the shelf. It’s not that the distributors don’t want you to have them, it’s that the highest quality items are only available in small quantities, and those of us who go to that market get it first.”

Even if you go to the farmer’s markets around town yourself you may not come away with the best quality items, suggested Ho Kim of the Pacific Rim Cafe. “I buy meat and produce all the time, and I know what good quality looks like,” he explained. “I see meat that has been cut wrong, against the grain, and I know that piece is not going to be as tender as another piece that is cut right. You might look at that piece of meat and see that the color is good, the fat content good, but you might miss how it has been cut. The recipes at my restaurant are home-style cooking that anyone can do, but if you have the experience to select the best items then it will taste much better.”

Even given the best of ingredients, home chefs will be tempted to cut corners when it comes to time. Many classic recipes involve stocks that have been cooked down for hours, even days. “To do a good sauce takes as much as three days, starting with beef bones to get a good stock, then adding wine and spices as they’re needed,” said chef Lupe Franco of Aimee’s Bistro. “There are some recipes which can be done very well at home, the sauces based on butter, the pastas and such, The more sophisticated things take a lot of money and a lot of time. Many of those recipes were created when people expected to spend a lot more time in the kitchen.” Chef Steve Matthews of HT Grill agreed. “It’s not just the time to cook stock sauces down, it’s the continuous attention. The demi-glacé is an example. We add caramelized onions, pureed vegetables, and tomato paste, over a period of six or seven hours. Each chef on the line knows how to monitor that pot, what it looks like at each stage when it is cooking. A home chef not only doesn’t have the time to do that, they don’t have the patience to find out by trial and error when to add the various ingredients. We make it every day, so we know.”

The technology of the kitchen matters too, according to Matthews. “We have a mixer here that can grind and process shrimp shells to make a shrimp bisque. You just can’t get that with a home mixer, not if you run it all day. They’re not powerful enough.” Chef-owner Paul Guillemin of Legacy pointed out a restaurateur has a superior technology even in something as basic as the stove. “Your average home stove doesn’t get as hot as a restaurant stove. When you want to make a sauté, the oil has to be very hot. The typical home stove can’t get that hot, so instead of sautéing something you are almost poaching it in oil. Heat control matters at the low end too – I keep four stocks going at low heat, veal, vegetable, chicken, and fish. Sometimes I have lamb stock and lobster stock too. A dedicated home chef might make one of these, but certainly not all of them at the same time, as we do. There are ways around this, as there always are for someone who is dedicated – some people make the stock and pour it in ice cube trays, and keep it frozen until they need it. Most people won’t go to the trouble, though.”

Chef Douglas Mc Gohan of Pooch’s pointed out that even where the technology is low, sheer numbers can count. “Some of the plates we serve here have six items on them, all cooked separately. That variety is a real attraction for diners, but it’s not easily achieved by a home cook. I go through a hundred pans a night, and I have a dishwasher that takes about a minute and a half. Unless you want to deal with scrubbing a pan after each use or you have a team of dishwashers, you can’t match the resources I have. This isn’t to say that a home chef can’t make a great meal, just that they should focus on the things that they can do well. I have taught cooking classes, and I make sure to teach things that are less complex, things that people can do themselves.”

As more than one chef pointed out, there is more to a great meal than just great food. The room itself is part of the dining experience. For most people their dining room table is not merely a place to eat, it is also the place they write their bills, help the kids with homework, and try to assemble that puzzle Aunt Bertha sent from Ireland. At a restaurant they are in a space that has been designed to be just one thing – a good place to relax and dine. Chas Gaddie of Coyote Cantina has been both a chef and a house manager, and he waxes poetic on the importance of ambiance. “There’s a energy within the space, a certain buzz going, and that enhances your experience. You’re more alive, you’re affected by the joy that’s going on around you. When I trained my staff before opening I told them yes, restaurants are about food and yes, they’re about service, yes, but people will come here for something they don’t even know they’re getting, and that’s the buzz of being in a place where people are eating and drinking and enjoying.”

At least, you might think, I can match my meals at home to wines of the same caliber as I have when I dine out. Sometimes you can, but not always, pointed out Carlton Simril, General Manager of Soleil. “We have connections to winemakers and wine purveyors who don’t sell to the public.” So if I come to Soleil and get inspired by some great combination of food and wine, there’s no guarantee I can get it at home? Carlton was equivocal. “If you take the time to develop connections, get to know people in the wine trade, you probably can get most of what we can get – but it’s not something you can do on the spur of the moment on a Saturday night. If you really want to enjoy that experience again you can always come back here and have it again, and that way you don’t have to do the dishes.”

Back to Food Writing