What makes a great cook? No.1: The obsessive

John Harris – food, knowledge, experience
A continuing blog on food, drink and London’s foodie trends

@JohnHarrisFood

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Photo Credit Nick Dawe

Is cooking craft or art? In his latest blog, John Harris provides a unique insight into the essential qualities of a chef and argues that it is an all consuming calling which goes far beyond food on the plate


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Iced coffee granita, Sicily

A great cook is someone who loves food and adores the process of feeding other people whether friends or paying customers. At the drop of a hat they’ll accept any excuse to cook, like an old thespian climbing onto the stage just one more time, tired or not, they’re driven by something deep within them. The play’s the thing, the stove their concert grand, the question is: what moves them to achieve the heights and why?

Most of the best cooks I’ve known have a monkey on their back. They want to be the best so they can prove their worth. Criticise my jugged hare, you criticise me. You say my sourdough is not quite right, hasn’t got big enough holes in the crumb, the crust is good, but I prefer it chewier; no what you have said is, you are worthless. Hence so often the reaction to an unkind word can be complete emotional meltdown. Over the top I hear you cry, but understand, it’s really hard to have one without the other. Sure when you’re cooking things can and do go wrong, but most great cooks will beat themselves up so badly when it happens, often no one else even notices, but they do, and will burst into tears metaphorically speaking or sometimes literally, curled up in a ball howling next to the walk-in fridge, while all around are cheering a great success, why?

Because it is personal.

The best reaction to a disaster of their making is more tea and sympathy than the hard truth that whatever it was just didn’t work. If they don’t have that drive to prove themselves through their food, you won’t have that piece of chocolate cake in your mouth filling you with awe and wonder. How did they manage to make such a perfect cake? It’s part of the obsession to cook better and better food. It’s what drives them to go and find some obscure little supplier who is probably a nightmare to deal with costing time and money they haven’t really got, but for the cook if this guy supplies him with that rare piece of meat, cheese or impossible to purchase vegetable that at this time no one else has access to, the pain and cost is worth every drop of blood shed to obtain it.

The obsession of being judged by what food you produce is all encompassing. Constantly looking for the one thing that will raise your game above the rest. They need the adoration to show that they’re reaching the height, that misty plateau that in reality they never can quite reach, for as they get there, the next one comes into view…so ever onward they must go.

Always secretive about their sources of information, for if the truth be told the spell of their brilliance might be shattered, their intricately entwined ego up in smoke. When you turn to them with wonder in your eyes at where they came up with that amazing chicken dish and the like, you’d never tasted before. The look on their face, dead pan telling you: oh this old thing it’s been part of my cannon of work for years. What they don’t tell you is, they got it out of an old Woman’s Own magazine found while using the loo at their mother-in-law’s last Saturday when they took the kids to see her – it keeps the mystique alive.

So where does it start from? Who are the unsung heroes of the kitchen world? Where do these driven cooks get there original spark from? Women, mainly mothers, sometimes aunts, but always in senior roles in the family hierarchy. More often than not cooking for their own families where the priority is not getting 20 perfect plates out the kitchen door, rather making something everyone wants to eat, fitting it round the home’s general running, having to keep it all together. Cooking how their mum showed them, who had previously learnt from her mother. That’s how our food culture is kept alive: mother to daughter, each generation adding there own experience to refine and adjust to new circumstances.

When it breaks down you start getting real problems and, unfortunately to a large extent, that damage has already been done to our food culture in the UK. It’s in the balance, the biggest influences these days seem to be the ubiquitous TV cook. Good thing/bad thing time can only tell, but that’s a whole other story. Some of the best cooks I know are women, yes in homes, but also in commercial kitchens; they look at the job in a different way to the guys.

Blokes tend to run at the challenges like they’re chasing down a deer or wildebeest, whereas women think it through working out the best path to get it all done, using the time and resources available to get the best result. It’s just the different way the sexes think.

Man hunt, man kill, job done in blood sweat and tears with a bit of macho, proving themselves through sheer will and determination. Women are more inclined to look, think, make a plan and execute all at the same time. They work in a calm atmosphere, oh and they are less messy. Men tend to cook like they need a kitchen porter to clear up the mayhem they leave in their wake. Even the men who have only ever done some cooking at home, it’s instinctive with them they just know there should be someone to wash up after them, they have done all that hard charging about, shouldn’t have to think about the clear down at the end, so why not use every pot, pan meat clever, sauce spoon, kitchen surface available, leaving an interesting splatter streaked down the wall? Why, it’s an art installation, not an accident. Women have it all in the plan, cool calm…and tidy. There is definitely something about the female approach that can, if linked to that obsessional need for perfection, produce the most fantastic results. I know not all the men leave a disaster in their wake, I do so I’m probably looking for justification for my own short comings.

Is cooking craft or art? The lines can get blurred sometimes, but you need the craft skills to be an artist. As far as W. H. Auden was concerned, the cook is very much the artist:

A cook a pure artist
Who moves everyman
At a deeper level than
Mozart, for the subject of the verb
To-hunger is never a name;
Dear Adam and Eve had different bottoms
But the neotene who marches
Upright and can subtract reveals a belly
Like the serpent’s with the same
Vulnerable look Jew, Gentile or pigmy
He must get his calories
Before he can consider her profile or
His own, attack you or play chess
And take what there is however hard to get down:
Then surely those in whose creed
God is edible may call a fine
Omelette a Christian deed…….

Meet Gareth

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Gareth in his domain: The Angel Kitchen

So let’s look at someone who fits this picture. Gareth is a great cook, he is obsessive about his food, and is constantly giving himself new hurdles to jump. He says of himself, “I try to learn one new thing a week”, so what’s his story, what is driving him relentlessly on his personal food crusade?

I’d known Gareth for a while, I new he was dedicated, and was willing to push himself through his food.

One evening I got confirmation that he had that old monkey on his back.

Cooking food for a big PR event I walked in the kitchen and you could tell immediately something was up, Gareth who normally had this slightly wicked pixie smile on his face like he’d just seen something he shouldn’t have. This night he was standing by the stove looking disconnected and pretty miserable. During a quiet moment I had a chat to one of the other guys cooking with him to see who or what had sent him into such a black mood. He raised his eyes to the ceiling in mock despair; “you know Gareth couple of things he was making didn’t turn out how he had planned. They were fine just didn’t turn out exactly the way he wanted them to”.

This is what happens when it means more than just cooking, we all know that in the end it’s just some transient food on a plate, but for the cook I’m talking about, it sneaks up on you gradually becoming all consuming.

Gareth, like a few I’ve known, in his category kind of fell into cooking more by an accident of circumstance than a planned career move. His girlfriend was at Bristol University, he needed a job, there was a fish restaurant downstairs and the restaurant needed some help in the wash up. So for a week he took on that thankless kitchen role of cleaning the pots and pans and the never ending pile of china that churns out of the restaurant through the in door which gets cleaned and goes back out, to only come back in what seems just a few short minutes later all dirty again, it becomes mind numbingly repetitive very quickly. Hence why, in the kitchen hierarchy a good porter is worth more than most average cooks.

So by week two he was desperate to do anything rather than wash dishes, he volunteered to do any vegetable prep, wash salads, clean fish, de-beard mussels, anything that could take him away from the sink and those crusty pans and used china. After a few weeks he was prepping all the fish that came into the restaurant, then gradually he realised that he wasn’t just avoiding dish pan hands any more he was really beginning to enjoy it. All this amazing fresh fish coming through the door, that he had been trusted with to get just right ready for cooking. He was hooked, although he didn’t realise it at the time, there was no turning back, he had to find out more; food was under his skin and the relentless driver it would become in his life had started.

From Bristol he came up to London to work in a couple of restaurants. He got the chance to head up a kitchen at a pretty young age, but didn’t let the challenge intimidate him. Sure he got burnt a couple of times charging ahead before he really new what he was doing, being caught out not knowing everything he should, but every knock down he learnt from, all the time speeding up so he could learn more and more about the processes he was trying to master.

Gareth started cooking when he was 18-19 and he is now 28, so from my perspective, (that of someone nearer their cooking senility years. Too many aches and pains to run round a kitchen, forgetting what you were running for in the first place), he isn’t anywhere near his peak. He has an all too familiar steely determination that he’s going to work it all out for himself rather than learn too much from others, another common trait in his type of cook. I spent five years reinventing the culinary wheel working pretty much in isolation, spending someone else’s money to get the experience I wanted mainly through trial and error. I’m not saying you can’t or won’t learn from others’ efforts, but there is always something in the nether regions of your mind telling you the only way your can master a particular, style, dish or technique is by doing all the hard work yourself.

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Starting to make spinach and ricotta cannelloni

For Gareth every day he cooks he’s got to be better than the day before, the last time he did a dish he learnt how to make it better, and again better the third and forth time, on and on. For if he doesn’t do it like this its just a giant waste of time, bearing in mind the all consuming passion he puts in, that would translate as a complete waste of the best part of his life.

I hope I can follow Gareth in his crusade to become the best cook he can make himself, I know he will turn out ever improving food as he goes along and I’m fascinated to see where this will take him.

I’ve worked with a number of talented cooks over the years they do come in all shapes and sizes. My wife being one of the best, I thought I better get that in; there’d be serious trouble at home otherwise.

One guy I worked with for a number of years had developed his own distinct style of cooking. It was always simple, but graphic and beautiful in its construction, always needing fewer steps than I would take to get the same result.

When I first knew him I wondered where this style had come from. As I was running round the kitchen, blindly trying to figure out how I was going to achieve the almost impossible task I had set myself, this guy would be standing in a corner, chatting and smiling, his job done just passing time waiting for the first customers to arrive.

It took a long time for me to realise this was part of his goal, he wanted, like the rest of us, to produce some great food but he needed to do it within certain time constraints so he had the space to charm and chat. In the same way as the hunter stands over his kill, proud and victorious, he needed his food to be great but with a slightly different motive.

He would stand in front of what he made. ‘Look I did this’, obtaining the reaction he required, admiration and interest, focusing on an audience of one lone female, sometimes two, but normally just the one. The result would develop into an unspoken game, a sort of mating dance would occur; without either speaking directly of it, hey it really worked for him.

Often the shout would go up in the kitchen where is he? To be found in the restaurant or sharing a cigarette out the back with a female customer, front of house member or she who just happened to be passing by, as long as they had a pretty smile and would respond to his line, the dedicated cook, almost like the artist outside his garret. They inevitably would fall, it was quite poetic. He did make some great food, maybe for different reasons, but those reasons kept him sharp.

So the great cook can come in a number of packages, the obsessive, working in the high heat of the restaurant scene, or quietly getting on with their personal journey in more unexpected parts of the cooking world. They are a relatively rare bird, not as uncommon as finding a pearl in a dozen oysters, but the starting process is similar, a small piece of grit, an incident, just as they are starting out, an inspired word spoken just when it counts, gets inside them making them push harder and harder to know and understand more and more. Building up their skill layer upon layer until eventually they form their perfect pearl of food knowledge.

Getting the opportunity to sample the results of this process is uncommon, and quite often the individual will go unrecognised, why? Because with this amount of pent up talent, all concentrated in one area, the words highly strung, and difficult to work with come up again and again.

The poor mere mortals working in the presence of the white heat emanating from there very core, have to navigate around so as not to get burnt. Not understanding that what they see as getting the job done, and well if it’s not quite perfect, that’s ok isn’t it? Guys, after all it is just a plate of food! Not to this cook it isn’t, its tantamount to ruining their life’s work, and the reaction seen as petulant hysteria is because the people working around them, just don’t get it.
Someone needs to be there for these painful perfectionists who’s willing to handle them with fireproof gloves, recognising what they’re getting back from them is well worth the pain of dealing with their sometimes over demanding angst.

Of course I exclude myself from this part of the category having always been charming to work with. All who have ever worked a kitchen with me would vouch for this, except maybe the kitchen porters/cooks who had to clear up the devastation I tended to leave behind. The cry going out “he only made a couple of dishes, how did he cover the whole kitchen in it?” OK nobody’s perfect.

So if you do come across one of these rarely talented people, make sure they are appreciated and understood, because the results they can produce will make for a lot of very happy customers. All the places these guys cook tend to get very busy, and a busy restaurant is a good place to start for a successful business. Give them the extra rope they need, let them cry on your shoulder, even if you can’t understand why. Take care of their needs, for like the natural pearl they are rare and very valuable. Oh, and take care of your waistline it’s likely to start expanding.

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