If you cook and are a fan of the great chefs, you must have worked out by now that no matter how much you spend on their expensive cookbooks (and all fancy chefs now publish recipe books that claim to reveal their culinary secrets), you will never be able to reproduce their dishes in your home kitchen. I’ve searched high and low for explanations for this phenomenon. And here are some of my findings.
Home cooked food never tastes like restaurant food because:
# 1: CHEFS LIE
• I’m sorry, but there is no other way of putting it. They love their own signature dishes so much, they hate the idea of everyone being able to reproduce them. They are not so concerned with home-cooks but they can be super-paranoid about rival chefs.
So, they leave out a couple of ingredients or a few key steps in the process. When you try the recipe, the dish will seem almost the same but it’s never quite right.
The worst offenders are traditional Indian chefs. They never, ever part with their recipes. If there is a spice that is the key to a dish, they will always lie about its exact composition. The dish will only be passed on from father to son.
# 2: WE LACK THE RIGHT COOKING KNOWLEDGE
• There are many things that we can’t be expected to do, that professionals take for granted. How many of us, for example, understand tomatoes well enough to know which months they will be the sweetest in? Chefs know these things and will always adjust the recipe, adding less or more tomatoes depending on the time of the year.
Then, there’s the whole business of animals. When we buy meat, we expect it to come ready-packed. But the best chefs all understand butchery.
If a recipe says “take one pound of meat, and cut into cubes,” we will go and buy the meat from a supermarket. But a chef will know which kind of cut is better for a particular dish. And they will always select the right cut using knowledge we do not possess.
# 3: OUR INGREDIENTS DON’T MEASURE UP
• The great restaurateur Terence Conran used to always tell his chefs that no ingredient in his kitchen should be one that customers can go and buy in the supermarket. Chefs spend a lot of time finding the best suppliers and persuading them to part with high quality produce that is not available to you and me.
I first became aware of this when Richard Neat, a 2 Michelin-star London chef took a very popular lamb dish off his menu at the Longchamp Restaurant. The folks who owned Longchamp were mystified. They were importing plenty of good quality lamb, they said. Why wasn’t Richard satisfied?
Well, said Richard, it was because he needed Normandy butter to put into the dish. And though the management had offered him New Zealand and Australia butter, that wouldn’t do. The dish would not taste the same without Normandy butter.
Would you and I ever do that? Probably not. That is why our food never tastes as good.
# 4: WE DON’T HAVE PRO KITCHEN EQUIPMENT
• I once saw Michel Rostang, a famous French chef (many Michelin stars at many restaurants) struggle to cook in the Miele show kitchen at the Singapore Gourmet Summit. Miele had equipped the kitchen with its top-of-the-line home kitchen appliances. But for a professional chef, a home kitchen, no matter how fancy its gadgets just did not cut it. Good chefs need professional kitchens. And we, who work out of home kitchens will never get it quite right.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in a Chinese kitchen. The best stir-frying is done in minutes (seconds even) in very hot woks. No home kitchen can ever give you the temperature of a professional Chinese kitchen. So, no matter how hard you try, or how religiously you follow the recipes, your stir-fries will never taste as good as the restaurants’.
# 5: WE’RE AFRAID OF SALT
• When cooking at home, we’re always conscious of how much salt we are adding to a dish. Chefs, on the other hand, use the seasoning generously but judiciously – enough to bring out the true flavor of ingredients but not so much that your lips go numb with the stuff.
# 6: WE DON’T KNOW A SECRET PEARL OF WISDOM: SHALLOTS
• Shallots, like anchovies, are silent tastemakers, bringing magic to savory dishes without making their presence felt. Unlike onions and garlic, their punch is subtle, and professional chefs use loads of shallots in various stages of cooking for the depth and character they can add to the overall flavor.
# 7: CHEFS LOVE BUTTER, BUTTER AND MORE BUTTER
• It’s incredible, just how much butter gets used up in a professional kitchen in a single day. Butter is without doubt the king of all flavors, and French chefs have been its willing subjects for centuries, using liberal amounts of butter as base for all their sauces, pastries and desserts.
If you use up a whole stick of butter to make a single dish at home, your heart will probably be unhealthy from the stress and guilt you’ll suffer afterwards for this reckless act. Chefs, on the other hand, are quite remorseless in their butter-dealing – and heavy creaming — ways.
# 8: CHEFS KNOW HOW TO WEILD THE KNIFE
• All professional chefs are extremely attached to their set of knives, and one reason must be because they are really good at using them. Watching a chef chop vegetables is like watching a music maestro’s fingers flying over the piano keys.
This expertise isn’t just a visual treat – being able to chop ingredients, finely and uniformly greatly impacts the evenness of cooking and the overall flavor of the food.
# 9: FINALLY, IT’S PRESENTATION AND AMBIENCE
• Here’s a piece of interesting science connecting sound levels to our tastebuds. Researchers say that when music is played at a volume between 62 and 67 decibels, the food served invariably tastes better.
Now who controls and calibrates background sounds to pair well with good food? Haute cuisine restaurants, of course! Piped music at that particular volume range matches the sound of human conversation, which comforts the subconscious mind and allows the brain to focus on the less-critical business of transmitting sensations of flavor.
Add fabulous food presentation to this multi-sensory mix, and never ever can home-cooked food compete on so many carefully-managed levels to give you the same food experience.