Good Food Versus Great Food

Sep 26, 2018 | Cooking Tips

When I was about twenty-three I made a switch from cooking pub food to fine dining. For me at this time, it was a big step up. It was a big change. Of all the things I learned in that first fine dining job, one lesson has always stood out to me. That’s the lesson about the differences between good food and great food. There are much fewer differences than most people think. Today we are going to talk about these differences and how you can use the tricks I learned in my first fine dining job to take your food to the next level.

Ingredients

One of the first things I learned in that job was about using quality ingredients. I know this probably sounds obvious but it really wasn’t. Using fresh ingredients, in season, at the height of their flavour is a lot different than using them in the dead of winter when they have been shipped halfway across the world. But it goes beyond produce. Good quality meats, olive oil, salt, spices, herbs, chocolate, butter, whatever it is. If you start with really good quality ingredients half your job is already done.

Another thing that struck me about this wasn’t so much about using fresh ingredients. It was about the difference in ingredients and using the right ones. One tomato does not equal another. One may have a higher water content or sugar content. Some tomatoes are more acidic than others. What it really comes down to is that there is a tomato for every job but not every job is for every tomato. Does that make sense? Obviously, I’m not just talking about tomatoes here. Using the right ingredients is vitally important to creating truly delicious food.

Prior to this I never really thought about these differences and how they could affect the flavour of food. I would just grab a tomato off the shelf and use it for anything I needed a tomato for. It didn’t take long to see how blind I had been.

Salt and Pepper

It is my opinion that there are no two ingredients more important to the Western palate than salt and pepper. If you don’t season your food, you are not doing it right. Seasoning with salt and pepper is a very simple thing that you can do to enhance the flavour of your food. I’m not just talking about soups and sauces here. I’m talking about everything. Chicken? Season it. Broccoli? Yes! Season it. Yeah, but what about rice? Of course, you want to season it!

Salt acts as a flavour enhancer. When used properly it brings out and highlights all the individual flavours around it. You shouldn’t taste salt. Its presence should be subtle. It is a supporting character in the play that is your dinner. If you want one thing that can change the quality of your cooking in an instant, it’s salt.

How much do you use? As much as you need too. This is a vague answer, I know. But it’s also a valid answer. I can’t tell you how much to use only your tongue can. That’s why it is so important to taste your food as your cooking. Season, taste. Season, taste. Season taste. Get the idea?

So, if salt acts as a flavour enhancer, what does pepper do? Pepper is a spice, it adds a little touch of heat and mystery to foods. Again, you shouldn’t be able to pick the flavour of the pepper. But if you do a side by side taste test of a dish with pepper and a dish without, you should be able to tell the difference.

Acids

I would say that using acids properly to brighten the flavours of food, has been the single most important thing in changing the quality of the food that I cook. Just last night I was making curried pork. I tasted it. It was good but it could be better. I added a pinch of salt and the juice from half a lemon. I stirred it in, gave a taste and it was like night and day. After adding the lemon juice and just a touch more salt the flavours popped. They were bright and crisp. This is what acidic ingredients like citrus juice, tomatoes, and vinegar can do to your cooking.

There are very few things that can’t benefit from a little squeeze of lemon juice or a touch of vinegar. Don’t believe me? Next time you are cooking something like a stew, or a sauce taste it, add a few drops of fresh lemon juice, stir it in, and then taste it again. You’ll get it.

Be careful when you add the acidic ingredients. When cooking with milk or cream acids can cause curdling. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them. A touch of lemon juice to finish a cheese sauce, bechamel, or chowder is perfect. But, it should be used to finish. Squeezed in at the last minute. Same goes from green vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, or peas. A little lemon or another acid will brighten the natural flavour of these ingredients but added to soon it will also discolour them. A squeeze of lemon on grilled asparagus or steamed broccoli after cooking and right before serving is the way to go.

Butter/Fat

In cooking, a little bit of butter or good quality olive oil can enhance the flavour, texture, richness and appearance of a dish. I know that a lot of people are wary of fat but as long as you are using good quality fat, and using it in moderation you have nothing to worry about.

A little butter whisked into a sauce right before serving will cause a nice shine on the surface, and a creamer and fuller flavour. Also, adding butter to cooked vegetables along with salt and pepper and maybe a touch of lemon juice will make you your families new hero. Even just a little drizzle of fresh olive oil on a lot of things can add a bit of a wow factor. Again, as long as it is good quality olive oil.

Don’t be afraid of butter and olive oil. Use them to make your food even better than it already is.

Time

Time is something that a lot of us are short on these days. There is always something to be done and usually, it isn’t cooking. But generally in cooking, time is passive. Put something in the oven on low heat and forget about it for a few hours. It’s not that difficult.

Time is vitally important in cooking and patience goes hand in hand with that. I’m sure you’ve heard that good things come to those who wait. Yeah, it’s true. The more patient you are while cooking, and the more time you are will to put into your food be it active or passive, the better your food will be.


Conclusion

This can all be boiled down to one simple concept that I think we can all understand. Care. Care about your food, how you’re cooking it and the people you’re serving it to. That is the key. If you care about the food you will put in that tiny little bit of extra effort that it takes to taste and add seasoning. Or to squeeze in that little tiny bit of lemon juice. This is the most important lesson I learned in that first fine dining job. Care about the food. Just care.

2 Comments

  1. Ben

    All very valid and we’ll stated points. I’d be tempted to add ‘Plating/Presentation’ to the mix. Food is an experience of much more than the palette. Thanks for the article!

  2. Chef Ben Kelly

    You are totally correct.
    Thanks for the comment.

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