Chefs are not rule followers. We stay up too late, we drink too much, we eat fois gras – we don’t play by the rules. I think this is one reason we are not afraid of looking at ingredients in the kitchen and wonder “now what?” without a single plan. We jump in head first and start grabbing ingredients, turning on ovens, heating sauté pans and trusting our instincts. Sometimes it turns out wonderfully, sometimes it doesn’t and that’s ok.
The other day I found myself in the kitchen going to grab an ingredient for a recipe and it wasn’t there. Case in point was this lentil curry recipe. I wanted chickpeas but they weren’t in my pantry, so I improvised with the lentils. I’ve always tried to tell my clients and friends that there is not a need to fixate on every single ingredient in a recipe. Your dinner is more than likely not ruined if you use shrimp instead of lobster or tarragon in place of basil. I understand that is incredibly difficult for type-A, rule following athletes to grasp. You’re coach gives you a training plan and you follow it to a T. You’re coming up on an important race and you do not deviate from your meal plan. You follow the rules. Then I come around and tell you to throw a little of this in, a little of that – substitute this and voila, you have dinner. Your head is spinning because you are a rule follower and that’s ok.
One of the best examples of throwing the recipe rule book out the window is when Food and Wine contributing editor Daniel Duane challenged chef Dominique Crenn to cook from her new cookbook, in his kitchen, using only his knives and pans. He was trying to prove that these cookbooks with expensive ingredients, hard to find ingredients and 45 steps were impossible for any home cook to accomplish on their own. As she breezed into the kitchen he was convinced that it was not possible that Dominique would be able to accomplish this task in 4 hours. As he called out each step to the recipes, she diverged since all the ingredients weren’t there. She kept cooking, improvising and tasting. By the end of the 4 hours she had cooked everything he wanted her too. Was it exactly as the recipes in her cookbook called for? No. However, it still had the soul, the essence of the recipe.
I understand that a 2 Michelin star chef is better at this than a home cook and without a doubt myself. It’s a story, an example on how we shouldn’t get caught up on the “rules” of a recipe. Cooking should be fun, not stressful. So the next time you find yourself standing in your kitchen overwhelmed, take a deep breath, grab a glass of wine and start finding ingredients you like. Trust me, it’ll be ok and besides, you might surprise yourself.
To read the Food and Wine article, click here.