Kitchen Apprentice: Becoming a Better Home Cook

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgSo far one of the most valuable things I've been able to take away from my time in the kitchen is my exposure to new foods, new ingredients, and the techniques used to prepare them. Some things I loved (roasted celery root, slivered pig hearts), some things less so (caperberries taste "like a fermented foot" as eloquently described by one line cook). Before working at The Restaurant, I'd never tasted vegetables like romanescu or puntarelle, much less prepared them.

Puntarelle was especially puzzling to me: what a weird-looking vegetable, and how annoying to prepare. For salads, the hollow stalks get snapped off, sliced in half lengthwise, julienned and dunked in an ice bath. The puntarelle strips have to be very thin so that they'll curl in the bath, which means a lot of nicked fingers for me. More than once, I've found myself frantically poking through a mound of puntarelle for a missing tip of a fingernail before tossing the bunch and starting over.

I know I am not the only one in the kitchen who does not look forward to prepping puntarelle, but I definitely execute the task with the least grace.

Most evenings, if I still have the energy, I go to Whole Foods after my shift to continue my education. Since my shifts are on Sundays, the produce sections are fairly picked-over and blighted looking by then. But where I normally would have passed on a bruised eggplant, I now know from my experience with family meals at The Restaurant that the blemished vegetable is perfectly fine, and probably tastes great.

I find new potential in root vegetables, cheaper cuts of meat, and herbs I previously knew little to nothing about. I know where to scrimp (I don't need organic lemons and avocados) and where to spend (invest in good olive oil!).

I also try to recreate dishes from The Restaurant at home, but using a limited budget translates to more dishes fortified by chickpeas and lentils. I don't have an immersion circulator to mass-prepare proteins or a restaurant-grade pasta machine, but I try to implement whatever techniques I can.

Before my apprenticeship, besides baking the occasional birthday cake or roasting turkey for Thanksgiving, the primary use for my oven was for storing muffin pans and a multi-tier steamer. Now, almost everything I cook gets roasted or flashed in the oven at some point. My pasta water gets more salt than it ever used to, and my attempts at fresh ravioli are increasing in frequency. The flavor profile of my food has changed as well: a lot less soy sauce, scallions and ginger, a lot more pepper, olive oil and chili flakes.

My mom likes certain restaurant practices that I now reinforce at home, like composting, but others have her convinced that I am slowly devolving into some Neanderthal in genus. Once, after sitting down to a steak dinner, I immediately reached out and poked the center of mine. In retrospect, it was pretty rude of me, but I acted without thinking, without realizing until I caught my mom's wide-eyed, semi-slack jawed gaze from across the table.

"Your hands! Why do you touch everything?! Here's a fork."

She hates how I'll pick up a piece of food with my fingers straight from a pan to taste it ("Spoons! We have spoons!") and she's not crazy about how I sniff things before I eat them either.

But if this particular decline in etiquette is any indication that my instincts are slowly maturing, I am excited to see how far it will go.