Other than cooking, the most important thing the students and I do in class everyday is taste and eat. After hours of cooking, it’s great to take a few minutes to enjoy the delicious results of our hard work, but the time we spend tasting is about more than that. Tasting gives us a chance to critique our food, to try new foods and experience familiar foods prepared in new ways.
At a high end restaurant, a chef is constantly tasting. Sauces, side dishes – a sample of anything that can be tasted before presenting it to the customer. In every professional kitchen I’ve worked in nothing is served without being tasted multiple times, often by several people. Dishes that chefs made hundreds of times before are still tasted every time they are prepared.
We do the same thing in the classroom. Disposable tasting spoons at the ready, the students cook, they taste, then I taste. We taste and taste and taste. No matter how many times we’ve made the dish before, we taste it again, evaluate, tweak, taste again before serving. A dish can always be improved. If a dish isn’t right, you can fix it. They also taste each others dishes and compare to their own. Why do they taste different? All the tasting, comparing and critiquing we do helps the students develop their palates, teaches them to recognize favors and helps them learn how to improve their food through minor adjustments to the ingredients.
Sometimes when people ask me to describe my job, I tell them: “I show students how to cook, then I taste their food and tell them how to improve it.” I know this sounds like a dream job to a lot of people, but its not always easy. Sure, some days it means tasting three or four plates of Homemade Fettucini with Ragu Bolognese and Tuscan Roast Pork with Garlic and Rosemary but other days it means sampling sixteen different Mayonnaises.
For the students, all this tasting can be a challenge too. Of course, most culinary students like to eat and are excited to taste new things but often students enter ICE with food preferences. In this era of special diets and food phobias even culinary students will dislike foods before they try them and avoid tasting them if possible. Working in most top restaurants, only religious beliefs and allergies are acceptable excuses for not tasting the food you are cooking. To be a great chef you have to be willing to expand your food horizons and try new things. Over time you can develop an appreciation for foods you may not have liked before.
I admit that sweetbreads didn’t always make my mouth water, but over the years I’ve cooked them many times in restaurants and after learning how to cook them properly and tasting them every time, I’ve actually grown to like them. I’m always enthusiastic about eating new foods and I try to encourage the same enthusiasm in my students. Great chefs are always evolving, trying new foods and creating new dishes while always trying to refine and improve the cooking they have done in the past. Really tasting – thinking critically about the food that they create and constantly working to make it better is the mark of a true professional.