Thursday, December 30, 2010

Yes, chef, right away, chef.

Photo credit: ammas.com
Listening to Jacques Pepin on NPR yesterday, he talked about the old school way of teaching cooks:
MONTAGNE: Do you think that chefs who've never experienced that long apprenticeship, do you think that they missed out on something?

Mr. PEPIN: Yeah, that's an interesting question. Not necessarily, no. We learn very, very differently now than we used to learn years ago, because we learn in a different way. We learn through repetition, through osmosis, you know, looking. The chef never told you what to do. He would say do this, and if you had dared to say why, he would have said because I just told you. That was about the end of the explanation. [Emphasis CJ's]

So you would work like that for weeks, months actually, and all of a sudden the chef, as it happened to me, told me, OK, you tomorrow, you start at the stove. I was terrorized because I say, I don't know anything about the stove. And somehow I went there and I knew how to do it.
I've always found common strains between cooking and chemistry (and so have many others), but here's where I see a fairly significant difference in training between the two. Cooking seems to be (because of the time pressures, doubtless) an affair where immediate obedience is key and people are always jumping to the head guy's commands and there's relatively little room for introspection.

Chemistry seems to be a place where there's always a reason for doing things the right way, and we're going to tell you why it's the right way, and we're going to randomly quiz you on "Why do you do it this way as opposed to that?" to make sure you understand. Unfortunately, sometimes the answer to expository questions is "because it works" as opposed to professional kitchens' "because I told you."

Doubtless I'm wrong somehow here; I've never trained as a professional cook, so take my words with the proverbial grain of salt. I am sure there are quiet moments of teaching and learning in cooking, just like in chemistry.

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