Critic-Turned-Cook: The Coolest Things I Learned While Working in Professional Kitchens

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Inside a professional kitchen. [Flickr: Tyla'75 / CC BY 2.0]

I am a much better cook than I was a year ago when this journey from the keyboard to the kitchen began. I'm not trying to brag—my husband told me so the other night after I made a Tom Douglas recipe for halibut, the first of the season fish seared on the stove and finished in the oven. I plated the beautiful fillet on a bed of lentils, with sautéed fiddlehead ferns and morels on the side, and a gremolata-bread crumb mixture on top. Hello, Spring! (Oh, and then we had chocolate fried pie for dessert.)

I wouldn't have even attempted those feats of culinary daring a year ago—at that time I ate out most every night to keep up with my weekly review schedule. I rarely got the chance to spend time in my favorite room in the house. But after trading my pen for a pan and working in nearly a dozen different kitchens, I've picked up some amazing techniques. I am still in awe every time I walk in a kitchen and watched the seasoned pros do their thing with such style and grace. They make it look so easy. It's not.

Like Thomas Keller says, it's about repetition. It's not just about making one great dinner for your family—It's about making 100 great dinners a night, seven nights a week. Knowing what I know now, I truly do not understand why we tip servers and not cooks. If you loved your meal, please tell the server to tell the crew in the kitchen. Those compliments do stoke the fire.

To mark the one-year anniversary of getting my official health department food handler's card, here is a short list of some of the coolest things I've learned as a cook.

What I Learned as a Cook

  • When sautéing a piece of meat or fish, slide it, don't set it into the pan. And then give the pan a little jiggle and it won't stick.
  • You can remove the char from an overcooked steak by dunking it in white wine and rubbing gently.
  • Score the top of a thick burger when you put it on the grill and it will cook more evenly.
  • Use both hands when shaping cookie dough—like gingerbread or Russian teacakes—iinto balls. Gets the job done in half the time.
  • Dust your hand-cut fries in the lightest coating of flour to make them extra crispy.
  • When making ravioli, store the pasta in cornmeal. Never sticks together that way.
  • It is possible to do the "Stairway to Heaven" drum solo with a pair of tongs and a grill.
  • Always announce "behind you" or "coming through hot."
  • Comfortable shoes are the key to happiness in the kitchen (I got mine at ShoesForCrews.com).
  • Always, always, always keep raw chicken on the bottom shelf of the fridge.
  • When making mayo, listen for the emulsion to thicken as you add olive oil. Then stop.
  • Don't forget to get a huge cup of water to sip while you work or you just might flame out during service.
  • Prepping bacon makes your hands silky soft.
  • Be nice to the front of the house.

There's so much more. What I've learned could fill a book, and, yes, I just finished a proposal. Now to sell that sucker. Coming through HOT!

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She recently started a new project on her personal blog, inspired by Michael Ruhlman, she's exploring "An Egg A Day".

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