Even if you’re a decent home cook, you still end up at fine restaurants wondering just what makes their food so magical and different from what you whip up in the kitchen. A simple dish somehow takes on a rarefied air when you’re in a top dining venue…and no it’s not just the fancy plates or the gorgeous atmosphere, it’s actually the fact that the food is a cut above. So, what can the home cook learn from the restaurants that do it best? Are there any lessons you can easily apply to your family dinners? Read on to find out.
1. Ingredients Matter
One of the biggest things you notice (and love) about excellent restaurant food is that everything tastes very fresh. The reason? It is. Your first priority must be the quality of the ingredients you’re using. If you’d planned on cooking with asparagus, but what’s offered at your grocery store looks sad and withered, choose a different veggie. And seek out farmer’s markets or farmer’s delivery packages so that everything you put into your meals is top notch.
2. The Unexpected
There’s no denying the deliciousness of our favorite old standby dishes, but one thing that makes dining out so good is that you often experience new flavor combinations you’ve never tried. The excellent home chef can learn from this not to be afraid of branching out into different ethnic cuisines, flavor profiles and new combinations that might just delight.
3. The Power of Plating
Eating is a full 5-sense activity – the best meals look and smell as amazing as they taste. That moment when your server puts a stunning meal in front of you is part of the experience of a truly memorable meal. So, whether you’re cooking for yourself, your family or a romantic date, take a little care to make the presentation attractive and appetizing. You don’t have to get too fussy with it either; simply putting a bit of thought into colors, arrangement and garnishes does a world of good.
4. Taste, Taste, Taste
When we get into our cooking routines, we often forget to taste, which is one of the most critical parts of cooking. And yes, you still have to taste even when you’re following a recipe ounce for ounce. Your personal preferences, the type of ingredients you use, your cookware and 100 other things can impact the precise flavor, so you have to taste and possibly adjust at every single stage. The best chefs in the world are constantly sampling what they make, regardless of how many times they’ve made it.
5. Organization is Everything
In a kitchen, disorganization quickly leads to disaster. It’s critical that you know where everything is, that it’s labeled properly and that everything you need is on hand. And when it comes to ingredients that can go bad, it’s important to take careful note of expiration dates. One chef’s trick is to simply use masking tape and a marker to label every item with its expiration so that you don’t accidentally use something that’s seen better days. As for organizing cooking tools, everyone is different, so just take note of what slows you down or gets in your way and make the necessary adjustments so that next time, it’s right where you need it.
6. Mise en Place
This is the French cooking term for “set in place” and it’s a key prep step that all pro chefs are taught right away. The reason behind chopping, measuring and gathering all of your ingredients before you get started is that it ensures that you have everything you need and that it’s ready when you need to use it. This helps you avoid starting a recipe without a key ingredient or having to scramble to chop something at the very moment it needs to be thrown in the pan. Putting everything in little bowls first may seem unnecessary and fussy but once you see how much it streamlines the cooking process, you’ll be a convert for life.
World class chefs don’t take shortcuts. It’s not because they’re cooking snobs but because it makes a huge difference in the outcome. Investing some time in making your own stock and sauces will immediately elevate your food from pedestrian to Michelin…well maybe not Michelin, but you get the idea.
8. Butter it Up
You might actually be a bit horrified if you were to see how much butter goes into many high-end meals in the kitchen of a top restaurant. But it’s for good reason – butter pretty much always makes it better. I know that you’re told that olive oil is just as good and healthier besides, but if you want to up your cooking game, start buying butter in bulk and using it in almost any savory dish you cook.
9. Give Meat a Rest
It’s tempting to dig into a steak right off the grill, but the best chefs will tell you that meat needs to rest before being enjoyed. The 5 or 10 minutes you wait will give all the wonderful juices time to spread throughout the meat so that the whole cut is more uniformly moist and delectable. The resting time depends on the size of the meat – here’s a guide you can use to figure out how much time yours needs.
10. Fresh Herbs
You know that huge spice rack you swear by? Ditch it. Most of them have probably been there for years and hardly have any flavors left anyway. Top restaurant chefs use only fresh herbs and spices to season food, so if you want your food to burst with flavor, you should too. Maureen Lampert is the chairman of the Oak Street Council, an association of business owners in the high-end Oak Street shopping and dining district of Chicago. She’s also a frequent contributor to several lifestyle and traveling publications.
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