I enjoy watching people cook – from prep, to plating. There is much to be learnt from their movements about the kitchen. You learn about their temperament, their organizational skills, how they delegate, lead, control and command. We see their perfectionism; and their style of cooking offers insight into their thought-process of preparing food. I had a fly-on-the wall experience a couple of weeks ago while visiting with friends.
The couple at whose home we had gathered for a celebration of food and fellowship, could, as one friend put it, “throw-down”. They are both excellent cooks. I got the impression that when they cook “together” each has their own dish or dishes that they make that finally come together on a plate. However, cooking with others – working on the same dish – is never an easy task, especially if it is not something to which you are accustomed. The chief cook always has particular ways in which he/she likes to have things done. Therefore, I was very content to watch and learn when my friend Al, (chief cook for that day)
bossed, ordered, instructed his 3 helpers sans his wife on a sunny Saturday not so long ago.
The task of making Al’s signature great-tasting fruit punch made of ice tea, guava and pineapple juices (the quantities are Al’s secret blend) was given to the one (known as CAG) in the group who can’t cook to save his life but who knows food, and can take and give instructions very well. CAG’s task was to mix/stir the ingredients together for the fruit punch, little did he realize that there is stirring and then there is stirring. CAG was stirring with the spoon only submerged about halfway down the large jug, when Al caught a glimpse of his actions and instructed him to push the spoon further down, closer to the bottom of the jug and then stir to mix. This way, the iced-tea granules would easily dissolve and mix with the juices instead of bits being settled at the bottom of the jug.
Pat and Desi, when they were not washing up and ensuring that Chef Al had all the necessary ingredients, tools, and equipment at hand with which to create his dishes, were in full student mode. They dutifully followed his directions in rinsing, patting dry and cutting up ingredients. Al was not only in cooking but also teaching mode. As Pat and Desi completed their tasks from one half of the kitchen and moved to the other half where Al was at the stove, they watched as he fried, sautéed, stirred, stir-fry, seasoned, and tossed various ingredients for multiple dishes. They asked questions to understand the process, which Al patiently answered. The ladies would discuss among themselves how they cooked certain things, even the same dishes that Al was making. They commiserated with each other about certain things not turning out the way they liked and vowing to try making (fill in the blank) the way Al was making his. There was life and learning happening right there in the kitchen.
As Al cooked the beef for the chowmein, he explained to Pat about the cut of meat to use and how to cook it. When it was time to combine the meat, vegetables and noodles while seasoning with soy sauce, Desi was having a light bulb moment of how to bring the ingredients together which was different from her approach. The excitement on her face was clear; she couldn’t wait to try it at home.
When Al was frying up the salt fish to accompany the bakes, he needed to get some scallions/green onions/shallots cut up. Desi immediately offered to cut them up for him but he refused her offer. He wanted to do it himself and to add it to the pot the way in which he preferred. He cut the scallions directly over and into the cooking salt fish, letting it cook and wilt a few minutes before shutting off the heat. Of course slicing the scallions ahead of time and then adding them to the pot at the appointed time would yield the same results but Al’s approach spoke of his down-to-earth, somewhat free-flowing way of cooking. While he had exacting ways in which some things were to be done, there also existed a relaxed way in which he did things in the kitchen.
As with most cooks, the act of cooking does not end with the heat being shut off, plating and seating are equally as important. When all the food was done cooking and transferred to their designated crockery, Al directed us to particular seats around the table.
There is much I learnt that day through Al’s management of his kitchen. I saw great concentration as he focused on the task at hand whether he was rolling the dough for bakes or stirring a pot of chicken curry or transferring baked chicken to a platter. The next time you get a chance to watch someone cook, don’t pass it up; you might learn a thing or two, or three.