Saturday, November 6, 2010

Following Directions

I've followed Top Chef since its inaugural season way back in ought six. As reality shows go, it's very entertaining, probably because it is within an area of interest for me. Not only do I enjoy cooking and eating, but I've also worked as a cook, so a hectic professional kitchen takes me back to those days. One thing that is remarkable about the show is that the contestants are never allowed to use recipes. Sometimes that aspect is lost in the competition, but it's key to the show's concept.

When you work as a cook for someone else, you're supposed to follow the recipes they give you. It's weird to cook stuff you don't even like, and it can be tedious, too, but if it's not good, it's not your fault, because it's not your job to be creative. That's the chef's responsibility.

I used to say one should always follow the recipe as written once before making changes, but I've been disappointed too many times for that to be my mantra any longer. These days, I myself rarely use recipes, except when baking. When I want to add new dishes to our favorites, I generally either make something up using whatever we have on hand, re-create something we liked eating out, or read a recipe for the basic concept and ingredients and then go off on my own.

That approach works out for me, perhaps a little too well. Lately I think I may have damaged my ability to follow a recipe. Twice in the last week, I have tried to cook from a recipe and each time I have left out a key ingredient. First it was the leavening in some pumpkin bread and tonight it was the lentils in a mushroom and lentil pot pie. Oops. Both times I lost my way in the recipe when I started to ad lib in the middle: a little rosemary here, a few raisins there, you know. I think the problem was commitment: maybe I should either go with the recipe or not. (Or maybe I'm just getting old.)

I'm happy to report that crisis was averted in both cases. The results were not only edible, but tasty, too. Even so, had I submitted them for the consideration of the judges on Top Chef, I just might have been told to pack my knives and go.

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