The Senses of a Cook
The senses of the cook are just like those of every other fully functioning individual on this planet. We come complete with sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, just like everyone else. But the senses of a good cook, much like our knives, are honed to an edge. Each of our senses are used for specific tasks in a kitchen. For those of you at home who wish to work in restaurants, these are some of the basic skills every one of you should add to your wish list.
Sight is a commonality that we all share, and is hard to develop as far as being a cook. The aspects of sight that we have to develop are estimating and plating. To be able to "eyeball" a piece of meat, a reducing liquid, a bit of oil is something that we gradually attain over time. For instance, the first time I portioned a side of salmon into supposedly 6 oz filets, I came out with slices that weren't even close. I might as well have closed my eyes while working. Now, after many attempts, I can "eyeball" the job and come out pretty close. When we brown mirepoix for a stock or we reduce cream for a broth, we judge the best point of the procedure using our sight. There is no buzzer that goes off, no perfect time read off of a recipe card that tells us when to deglaze or when to add more ingredients, only the moment of clarity we attain using our eyes. Sight is deadly important in plating food as well. A perfect cohesiveness to all the items on the plate allows for a beautiful and elegant presentation of a dish, versus the sloppy mess tossed down on your plate at a cafeteria. The more times you plate an item, the sooner you will realize when you have plated it wrong, or that it looks incorrect.
Sound is an amazingly important ability around the kitchen, because sound allows you to focus and keep track of a number of tasks at once. Sound also allows you to instantly tell if you are cooking an item correctly. Let me demonstrate. Imagine that you are standing in front of a cutting board in the middle of a kitchen, staring straight ahead. In front of you and to the left you hear a slamming sound. The new guy is using the ricer wrong and from just the sound of it, you know he is going to break it if you do not say anything. To your left, your partner on the station is cutting carrots. A methodical CHOP, followed by several little chopchopchops tells you he is working his way steadily through his project. Behind you, someone is preparing a dressing using the blender, but the normally smooth running of the machine is inhibited with a kick and a sputter every few seconds. The machine is set up incorrectly or on it's last leg. In the back you hear the clink of the dishpit. In the front of the house you hear the drag of chairs across a wood floor. Without looking up, you can tell the progress of a number of the people you work with. Sound is also a dead giveaway as to whether or not your pan is at the right temperature. If you are trying to brown bones for a stock, and you throw an oiled pan in an oven at 200 degrees for a few minutes, try throwing a single bone in the pan. You may hear a tiny little fizzle as you heat up some surface moisture. But meats and bones do not brown until you hit 330 degrees. Do the same experiment, but have your oven at 400 degrees. Throw in the bones and what happens? Almost an explosion. An instant sizzle so loud it sounds like you're next to a waterfall. At school we call that "the good sizzle", and it is the fasted ways to that perfect sear on your meat for the best flavor.
Touch. For steaks and chops. Is an amazing ability when perfected. Other than that, I don't use touch much. Overworking an item usually does not keep it in great shape. But talk to any experienced grill cook, saute man, or roaster. Watch as they pull ribeyes, filet mignons, pork chops, fish, burgers, chicken, and everything in between off the grill. With a subtle poke in a few places, maybe a light push on the fish against the tissue, these individuals can tell you how far along and how much more til done. The resistence of certain cuts of beef, breasts of chicken, filets of fish, grinds of hamburger each has a sensitivity to them, and it takes an awful lot of overcooked items to perfect that touch.
Smell. Smell is a pretty ugly word for a pretty amazing thing. Smell probably deserves it's own article written about it. Smell is your first pet as a kid, when you buried your face into their fur. Smell is Thanksgiving dinner, when all the food is on the table staring you in the face and you have to say grace before you can dig in. Smell is opening the door to the walk-in, where all the perishable food is stored and instantly knowing that the power went out the night before. Smell is flavor. Ever notice when you have a cold you cannot taste anything? The particles of matter that come off the food that we are eating float through the air in our nasal cavity and hit receptors in our nose. Oddly enough, our sense of smell is also linked to the memory center of our brain, allowing us to make memories based on smells. Oftentimes in school, they ask us to write about our favorite food memory. Nearly every one of my fellow cooks always related that memory back to a certain and identifiable smell, an association they formed with that molecule at that moment. In the kitchen, we determine the flavor of something by eating it, and based on that flavor we make adjustments. Although we are tasting it, we are technically using our sense of smell to determine the flavors. More often than not, the sense of smell is used in the kitchen to make sure ingredients are still fresh. Everyday we come in and take a bite of everything to determine freshness.
Taste. You would think that it is the world in this little essay. Like I saved it for last for some sort of spectacular conclusion. Taste is simply the amount of salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami elements a particular thing in your mouth has. You adjust the taste of the dish you are working with like you adjust the antennae on an old television. Just keep adding things in small portions until you get the perfect picture of what you want the dish to be. More often than not, in the kitchen that just means adding salt. Every chef I have ever worked with has had a rule. 'Add as much salt as you think it needs to taste good, then add another pinch.' We use our taste in the kitchen to determine the proper balance of the dishes.
It is the combination of taste, touch, smell, sight that go into enjoying the food that comes out of the kitchen. The sight of the perfectly plated item is what you first see. Then the smell of the various herbs and spices of the dish permeate the air around you, enticing you to pull the fork from your napkin and pierce the dish in eager pleasure. It is the combination of taste and smell that allow that first bite of food into your mind to blow you away with a lull to your tastebuds and overwhelming flavors. These abilities are common to everyone. To be a good cook, you need to sharpen your senses to be able to work in a number of other focuses.