NZ's top chefs share their top tips on becoming a better cook
Many of us have had more than our share of culinary disasters. So how do you conquer the kitchen and become a better cook? Dionne Christian sought advice from some of our top chefs, who share their 10 defining principles of cooking.
To watch MasterChef, you'd think anyone could whip up a sous vide lamb, duck neck sausage or a smoked scallop. All followed by a towering croquembouche of cream-filled choux pastries. But the reality is that most of us cook the same repertoire of meals week in, week out, and a good number of us would dearly love to be like those MasterChef contestants, continually bettering their culinary skills.
With just a few weeks until the MasterChef final, we sought out four chefs - Al Brown, Annabel Langbein, Ray McVinnie and Ruth Pretty - to share their tips for becoming a better cook.
Tip 1: Get organised
Despite their disparate backgrounds, tip one, the chefs say, is to get organised. And that starts before you open a cupboard or pick up a pan.
That means sitting down before you go shopping, to decide what meals you and your family will eat over the next week. To find inspiration for nightly meals, it's a good idea to read recipe books, magazines and newspaper columns as well as take recommendations from friends.
Writing a detailed shopping list means no dish is started only to realise you're missing a key ingredient.
That's the way to go, says Ray McVinnie, who is consulting food editor for the Herald's Bitemagazine and has run restaurants, lectured at the Auckland University of Technology and was a judge on TV's MasterChef.
"Plan ahead, be organised and pay attention to detail," says McVinnie, who describes his cooking style as simple, unpretentious and attentive to the quality of the ingredients. "I think the majority of cooking mishaps occur because the cook hasn't read the recipe properly or [because of] inattention to detail."
It also gets a tick from free-range cook and award-winning food writer Annabel Langbein, who favours home-grown and home-cooked simple but delicious meals.
In her latest publication, Winter Goodness, Langbein writes: "When you get home late and you're tired the last thing you want to worry about is what to feed the troops. Having a plan for your weeknight meals and a few useful items prepped in advance takes the stress and effort out of midweek cooking ... "
Tip 2: Know your limits
Similarly, tip two is not about cooking per se. It's about knowing your limits. Acclaimed restaurateur and new MasterChef presenter Al Brown shares McVinnie and Langbein's philosophy that cooking should be about simplicity, generosity and using the best possible ingredients.
"You've got to learn the laws of cooking which are about understanding how things work and why you follow certain methods. You can't just rush to be Heston Blumenthal; you know, armed with a squeegee bottle to dot perfect little drops of sauce on the plate. It's like learning anything - it takes time - and if you look at the career of all great chefs, they started out washing dishes and have worked their way up. It takes patience."
Langbein says getting overly ambitious is often when things start to go wrong: "And once they go wrong it can be like a stack of dominoes; everything just seems to go wrong."
So, you get organised and decide what you're eating in the next few days and you shop accordingly so you'll have everything you need.
You pick a dish that doesn't require you to be a Michelin-starred chef and you begin. Not quite.
Tip 3: Read the recipe
Tip three is to read the recipe and pay attention to what it's asking you to do and the expected outcome. Celebrated caterer and head of the Ruth Pretty Cooking School, Ruth Pretty sold her landmark Wellington restaurant, Marbles, established her catering business in 1988 and expanded into teaching in 1993. Thousands have now taken classes at the 11ha orchard property, Springfield (in Te Horo on the Kapiti Coast), she runs with her husband, Paul, and a small army of staff.
"What we always say first up, is read the recipe and read it again," says Pretty who, in 2005, was honoured by the New Zealand Restaurant Association with induction into its Hall of Fame. "It's the way to develop an understanding of what you're being asked to do and what the outcome is likely to be."
Pretty agrees cookery books and magazines used to be guilty of perhaps complicating recipes by using the language of the kitchen; a language you already had to be more or less familiar with to understand. Nowadays, she says recipes are more stripped-back with specific instructions clearly spelt out so even novice cooks aren't bamboozled.
Tip 4: Get your timing right
Tip four enlarges upon the idea of ensuring you understand what the recipe requires you to do but, now it's about the timing: making certain you have enough of it and knowing when to prep and cook each element of a meal.
If you have limited time during the week, plan meals that are quicker and easier than those you might make on weekends when you've got time to develop and indulge a greater passion for cooking.
For Langbein, timing extends to knowing when the best quality ingredients will be in peak condition: "And then it's about being observant and using your senses - tasting, smelling, being engaged in the process so you know where you are going. It's a bit like learning music really. You get a rhythm and once you know that, you can riff out and get creative. But if you don't know the rhythm first, chances are it will end in disaster."
Tip 5: Taste your food
Being observant and using your senses means tasting your food as you cook. That's tip five. Brown says the more you cook, the better your palate will become; you'll begin to realise when something needs more seasoning or acidity or sweetness and, along
with a better sense of taste, you'll develop the confidence to make changes as you cook.
Tip 6: Practice
Tip five links closely to tip six: practice. Brown, Langbein, McVinnie and Pretty agree cooking is learnt by doing. McVinnie suggests developing a repertoire of basic dishes and perfecting those before moving on to more challenging recipes.
"Cooking is an incremental process; you add to your skills over time."
Tip 7: Learn from your mistakes
When it does go wrong, it's time to apply tip seven. McVinnie says remember the old adage of looking at the situation as an opportunity to learn. He recalls early childhood memories of baking a cake but not understanding the importance of mixing different ingredients at the correct stage. Instead of giving up, he got analytical about what went wrong - and asked his mum.
Like McVinnie, Langbein counsels caution, practice and analysis.
"Make the same dish three or four times in a reasonably short space of time. I once made a genoise sponge about 20 times to really figure out what was happening and see where I was going wrong. That way you start to learn the methodology and understand it."
Brown and Pretty say it's important to extend that analysis out to thinking about why you like a certain dish. What was in it to make it zing for you? How was it cooked?
Tip 8: Try new recipes
Tip eight goes back to what McVinnie says about building up skills over time. Once you've become a competent cook, turn up the heat and move on to new and more difficult recipes. Brown reckons, on average, we cook 2.5 recipes in our favourite cookbooks. They become tried and true favourites - you can tell from the splatters on those pages - but we're reluctant to turn the page to something new. But to go from good to great requires trying new dishes and techniques.
"The only way to get better is to keep pushing yourself," he says, adding you have to remember the prior tips: plan ahead and be organised, make lists, read the recipe and work out if there's anything you can do ahead of time.
Just don't try new and more elaborate dishes for the first time when you're cooking for a dinner party and intend to serve them to other people, says McVinnie. When I tell him that's what I always do, he cautions that I'm playing the culinary equivalent of Russian roulette.
Tip 9: Keep learning
It's all part of tip nine: keep learning.
"I think as you get better - and it's the same with many things - you realise the more you've learned, the more there is to learn," says Pretty.
It's about reading - and reading some more - about food and cooking, watching TV cooking shows and instructional YouTube clips, eating out and, perhaps, even going to cooking classes. McVinnie says don't just look at the recipes in a cookbook, but read what the food writers are saying in the blurb, the tips and hints section and the stories that might accompany each recipe.
"And watch a good cook to learn how they do it," he adds.
Brown opted to join TV's MasterChef this year because it was putting extra emphasis on mentoring contestants and demonstrating for viewers at home more tips, hints and techniques. He thinks TV cooking shows that do this are extremely useful.
Tip 10: Get the right tools
And then there's tip 10: as you build up your skills, think about acquiring quality equipment. Brown reckons that should include decent knives, which you sharpen on a regular basis, a good food processor and a proper skillet.
"It's worth the initial outlay and will save money in the long run. I mean, what's more cost effective? Spending money on a pan that will outlast you or, every two or three years having to replace the cheaper pan you bought? There's also a confidence that comes with having good gear."
Embracing cooking, rather than railing against it and resenting having to create a family meal each night can lead to a kind of zen-like acceptance that can, in turn, become a passion. Brown says that's how it should be.
"Look, people will go off on a Saturday or Sunday and spend hours playing golf or doing another leisure activity. If you develop a love of cooking, you should treat it in the same way; that it's a hobby you really enjoy and will spend time pursuing."
Langbein says people love to be cooked for.
"No matter how simple the fare, you're showing you care and, in fact, they could be eating takeout or something from a packet instead. In New Zealand particularly, we have this habit of apologising for our food as we serve it, 'sorry, the beans are overcooked' or 'the gravy is lumpy' or 'the cake's a bit soggy in the middle'.
"It's a bad habit and not needed. For starters, most people won't notice until you draw attention to any imperfection or glitch and secondly, you aren't a performing flea or a professional chef. This is home. Making people feel welcome and relaxed is what it's all about."
• How To Cook by Delia Smith
• The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander
• The Joy Of Cooking by Irma von Starkloff Rombauer (there's now also a comprehensive Joy Of Cooking website)
• Nose To Tail by Fergus Henderson
• On Food And Cooking by Harold McKee (subtitled The science and lore of the kitchen)
• How To Eat by Nigella Lawson
• Any of Yotam Ottolenghi's books
• Any of Elizabeth David's books (not so much for the recipes but for the stories and information about food).