When I was starting out my career as a chef, I spent some time working in Michelin-starred restaurants – boy, is it a great way to get a grounding in cooking.
Cooking under pressure with experienced, grizzled chefs could not have been more of a difference from the safe environment of culinary school.
With the standards high, the temperature even higher and people screaming at you from every direction, you quickly learn some cooking skills that are indispensable for the rest of your life.
Here are the 15 that I’ve never forgotten, and which should serve you well too…
1. Keep your knives as sharp as possible
Most home cooks will get nervous at the sight of a sharp knife, but the reality is they are much safer than a blunt knife.
A sharp knife will glide through whatever it is you are chopping, whereas a blunt one will be more likely to slip off as you force extra hard and possibly cut you.
2. Allow meat/fish to rest after cooking
The ideal way to cook many meats and fish is over a high temperature, sealing the juices inside and capturing all the goodness.
After finishing in an oven, pan or grill, the flesh will tense up. This is how you end up with tough, chewy meat. Allow it to rest properly, and you’ll see an incredible difference.
3. Season all food property
Ever noticed just how much better steak, vegetables and fish taste in a restaurant compared to when cooked at home?
The reason why is simple: salt and pepper. Chefs season everything, which draws out additional flavour. Taste as you go, adding bit by bit until perfection.
4. Only work with the very freshest of ingredients
Try making a sauce using tinned tomatoes from a budget supermarket, then try using fresh vine tomatoes – the different in flavour will be remarkable.
It seems obvious to some, and pretentious to others, but top-end chefs spend a lot of time and money buying the best ingredients money can buy. Good-quality produce will make your job much easier.
5. Clean as you go
You’ll probably wonder what cleaning has to do with cooking, but the answer is quite a lot.
A messy professional kitchen often equates to bad food. When things get busy, and it’s time to finish the dishes, you want to know where everything is and not be looking for something at the bottom of a dirty sink.
Complete one task at a time, clean everything up as you go, and you’ll be a much better chef.
6. A knob of butter helps pretty much everything
Along with seasoning, this is one of the keys to making food taste better.
It could be in mashed potatoes, to finish a sauce, glaze some fish or tossed into vegetables. AND the added bonus is that all the health freaks now seem to be saying butter is quite good for us again. Wahey!
7. Work well with the people serving the food
In restaurants, you’re talking professional waiting staff, but at home, it is probably yourself or a partner or friend.
You could cook the best food in the world but if it suits in the kitchen for 10 minutes going cold that will ruin it completely. No matter how much of an amazing chef you think you are, at least 50% of the dining experience comes down to how it is served – so invest time and effort on that side of things.
8. The finished product depends completely on your prep
If you are cooking for a number of people, you’ll want to have as much ready in advance as possible and finish it all last-minute. This could be diced onions, picked herbs, whipped cream or just clean plates.
Get your prep in order, and ‘finishing’ everything at the last minute will be easy. Don’t have it done, and you are in trouble straight off the bat.
Anything from cheese to meats or vegetables – you must marinate.
But in the same vein as above, getting stuff ready a couple of days in advance and adding herbs, oils, dry rubs or other fragrant elements will drastically improve the ingredients you are using.
10. Get to know your fresh herbs
The average home chef will use their horrible dried herbs that have been in the kitchen cupboard for years.
Buy lots of fresh herbs and use them in abundance – they’ll improve your cooking massively and bring colour and originality to your food.
11. Cook in season
This is probably the hardest one for most people but the information is available online and in books like this one.
The simple fact is food eaten at when it’s in season or ripe will taste so much better than when not. Find good local asparagus in spring and it will taste a hundred times better than something flown half-way around the world in the middle of winter.
12. Presentation is everything
Half of the wonder of eating in a Michelin star restaurant is how the food looks.
Now you won’t be able to master those skills overnight, but you can start with some simple tips, such as buying nice large white plates, copying some simple styles from books and using fresh herbs as garnish.
Food served at home can often look like a dog’s dinner even though it tastes amazing. Spend some time on even these most basic presentation tips and you could improve as a chef by 50% overnight – after all, we eat with our eyes.
13. Give people bread, soft butter and plenty of drinks to start
You’ll probably notice in the really good restaurants they bring lots of stuff to the table when you arrive.
The bread, soft butter and drinks help get the conversation flowing, and people reaching and engaging with each other.
People will wait a good 30 minutes in peace as long as the drinks are flowing and they have something to nibble on, taking the pressure off the kitchen in case they are busy and struggling to co-ordinate everything.
14. Get your oven hot – first thing
Most home chefs, while they know that ‘pre-heating’ is something you’re ‘supposed’ to do – will wait until the moment they go to pop something into the oven before turning it on.
The oven is the first thing a professional chef will fire up when arriving in the kitchen. By having it piping hot, you’ll be able to cook stuff in no time and not have stuff slowly stewing in there, as it slowly heats up.
15. Use a timer
Professional chefs live and die by their timers in the kitchen. This allows them to focus on other stuff without having to check their watch every two seconds or, even worse, forget about something and ruin it.
A timer on your phone or traditional alarm clock will improve your cooking no end.
No excuses now…
These tips will improve your cooking no end. So off you go – put them into practice.