By Shay Spence
If you can’t control the heat, get out of the kitchen. A month and a half into my Culinary Arts program at ICE, this is undoubtedly the most important concept that I feel becoming ingrained in my being on a daily basis. “Are you checking your heat?” Chef will holler to the class every five minutes. “Remember: YOU control the heat; the heat does not control you!”
As my class has sailed (relatively) smoothly through the basic knife skills, stocks, and sauces of Module 1 and transitioned into the more serious cooking of Module 2, our days in the kitchen have become more heated, literally. Technique and attention to detail are now more important than ever.
We have covered the dry heat cooking methods of sautéing, grilling, pan-frying, and deep-frying; each one bringing its own set of nuances and challenges. In sautéing or grilling a protein, for example, you need to have a high enough heat to get a nice brown crust on each side, but low enough that it will still cook through to your desired degree of doneness without burning the outside to char. When frying, an oil at too low of a temperature will result in a greasy, soggy, mess, and too high of heat brings us back to the problem of a burned outside with an uncooked inside.
All of this, of course, seems fairly simple and perhaps obvious. I’ve been an avid cook for a few years, and liked to think I knew my way around a stove pretty well before coming to school. It’s different now, though. I’m training to become a professional. In this industry, consistency of quality is absolutely crucial. If I overcook a ribeye steak in my kitchen at home (which has happened more often than I care to admit), it’s kind of a bummer. If I do it in a restaurant kitchen, it is money you are throwing in the garbage and a customer you may have lost.
This is why I am in culinary school. It’s not just about learning how cook; it’s about learning how to think. How to develop instincts. How to multi-task. These are the skills that are mandatory in this business, and mastering them is what makes the difference between a decent chef and a great chef. “You’re not coming to school to learn how to read recipes,” our chef will say, “you’re coming to school to develop the instincts so you can create recipes.”
In just the two months I have been in school so far, I can feel this starting to happen. I am learning how to check the degree of doneness on a piece of meat just by feeling it–a chef’s trick that I could never quite grasp before. I’m learning how to cook three things at once, get them on the plate at the same time, and create a beautiful presentation, all while maintaining a clean work space. Most importantly of all, I am learning to keep control of my heat. When you don’t realize that you are in control of the heat, you allow the heat and the pressure of the kitchen to control you.
Of course, these skills do not come overnight. It takes years of practice and constant repetition, but I can feel my roots starting to take hold. Before culinary school, I was cooking for fun; now I am cooking with a purpose–the purpose of becoming a great chef.