Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heating vs. Cooking

It's always a good day when I get to make stock, even though when I look at the prep list and see it there I sigh because it is a fairly laborious process. But it brings to mind one of the key misunderstandings about what chefs do versus what home cooks do. I read about the concept of "heating v. cooking" in The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, one of the best chefs of our generation (or any generation for that matter).

It breaks down like this: You throw a steak on the grill and you are not really cooking anything, you're simply applying heat. The steak does the rest itself. All you have to do is make sure you do not overheat it. If the steak is good and you season it properly... Ta da! You're awesome.

Cooking, on the other hand, is a transformational event. Take stocks for instance; bones, carrots, onions, celery, and a few tomatoes. At the end of the cooking process you have something totally different from the ingredients that you started with and for people unfamiliar with the process the stock is so far removed from the ugly mix of browned bones and caramelized vegetables that gave birth to it that it seems like magic.

And it is magical. When you're doing it yourself, moving through every step of the process from the browning of the bones to the deglazing of the pan to the addition of COLD water (very important) you feel as though you are using your knowledge of the craft of cooking to weave a spell. You are, in a way, creating something from nothing. Taking cast off portions from the butcher, bones covered with gristle, cartilage and tendon and through the application of certain skills you can turn that into a silky smooth sauce the color of a perfectly cooked steak which contains in it the very essence of the reason we eat beef in the first place. Amazing.

This is cooking at its very finest. The difficult and technical parts of the work have always attracted me the most, and it is a shame that the day to day job is such that it tends to sap the will to undertake these projects from us chefs. Our jobs are neverending marathons that we must sprint through in order to take the time to really cook and not just heat the food that you all eat.

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