Tag Archives: professional kitchen

Pop Quizzes & Potato Salads

Two weeks into my voluntary indentured servitude at the restaurant, Chef handed me a stack of A4 papers stapled on the left corner… a take home exam. It asked for detailed descriptions on how to make basic sauces & classics such as duck confit & rice pilaf. Then there were sections for mini dissertations on the key points of big pot blanching and the right way to cook & cool root vegetables. The final two pages housed a list of ingredients & French cooking terms for memorization (think—aiguillette, cuisson, cubebe) and the names of prominent chefs & their flagship restaurants. It was a given that the corresponding quiz for the final two pages would be given at the moment one least expected it.

My innocuous super power (everyone has one) is the ability to memorize just about anything. Thus I kinda’ kicked butt on the second part of the exam. A week later, convinced it was a fluke, Chef gave me the test a second time. I missed one. (I still have nightmares in which I am hunched over one of the stainless steel countertops staring blankly at the word SOUBISE).

Needless to say, in all the places where memorization played no part I stunk it up. Embarrassing, but I learned a lot. Not the least of which was to master the fundamentals and not be afraid to ask or research anything I didn’t know rather than absentmindedly going through the motions.

Below is a simple recipe that utilizes two of these fundamentals—cooking potatoes and making mayonnaise. Prior to working in the restaurant I always used store bought mayo. Now I make my own, often “fancying” it up with garlic, herbs or other condiments. And occasionally I’ll use the Japanese mayonnaise Kewpie because contrary to what other blogs may say there is no acceptable homemade version.

The process of whipping up a mayonnaise is simpler than what you’re probably conjuring up in your head, and it’s worth the effort.

As for the potatoes, the technique below yields potatoes with uniform texture that hold their shape when you toss them with the other ingredients. I guarantee the next time you serve a potato salad, guests won’t be wondering if the main component is last nights’ leftover mashed potatoes.

My husband blames my Canadian blood for my unhealthy obsession with mayonnaise. Maybe he’s right. Love it or hate it, mastering emulsification (blending two ingredients—such as oil & vinegar—not normally found together) will aid you greatly when you advance to the realm of “fancier” sauces. And hell, at the very least you’ll be prepared should someone ever decide to give you a culinary aptitude test.

Mayonnaise Ingredients:
1 egg yolk
¾ cup neutral oil (such as canola or grapeseed)
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. lemon juice
¼ tsp. sugar
Salt & pepper to taste

Potato Salad Ingredients:
2 lbs. yellow potatoes
1 medium shallot, minced
2 tsp. minced tarragon leaves
Salt and pepper

Japanese Potato Salad Ingredients:
2 lbs. yellow potatoes
1 Japanese or Persian cucumber, peeled & thinly sliced
½ Fuji apple, peeled and thinly sliced
2 Tbs. Kewpie mayonnaise
Salt and white pepper

First the mayonnaise…
• Twist and form a ring out of a dishtowel. Place the towel on the counter and a large mixing bowl over it. The towel will securely hold the bowl allowing you to whisk the mayonnaise with one hand while drizzling in the oil with the other.

• Drop the egg yolk into the bowl. Add a pinch of salt, whisk. Drizzle the oil in slowly, whisking quickly. Chef liked to point out that all the action is in the wrist. Your elbow shouldn’t be moving.

• Once you have the beginnings of a sturdy emulsion, add the vinegar & lemon juice. Continue whisking, adding oil as you go along. I like to add a ¼ tsp. of sugar because I think it rounds out the flavor, you can add it or leave it out.

• If you want a firmer mayonnaise keep adding oil until you reach the consistency that you want. The more oil you add the thicker your mayonnaise will be.

• Taste and season accordingly.

On to the potatoes…
• If you’re making the French inspired potato salad, peel the potatoes & cut them into wedges (I usually get eight out of one potato). Place the potatoes in a small pot. Cover with cold water. Salt generously.

• If you’re making the Japanese version, peel and cut the potatoes into quarters and then slice across, into ½ inch thick triangles. Place potatoes in a small pot. Cover with cold water. Salt generously.

• Bring the potatoes to a boil over high heat. Once they come to an aggressive boil turn the heat down to medium. Continue cooking until you can insert a skewer or fork easily into the flesh.

• Remove from the heat. Place the potatoes under gently running cold water. Let them cool this way for a few minutes.

• Drain and dry on paper towels.

For the French inspired potato salad…
• In a large bowl combine the potato wedges, the minced shallot, mayonnaise (exact amount depends on your preference) and minced tarragon. Taste and season with salt and a few turns of the pepper mill.

For the Japanese potato salad…
• In a large bowl combine the potato slices, Kewpie mayonnaise, cucumber and apple slices. Season with salt and white pepper.

Chicken Liver Pâté with Apples and Cognac

Ever wondered why some restaurant meals taste so much better than what you’re whipping up at home? How they manipulate their steak so that the flesh reacts like a sponge when squeezed between your teeth, savory juices oozing as you bite down? Or stared suspiciously at a creamy risotto, its rounded grains relaxingly spread out on the plate, glistening as they mock your home cooked version that barely shudders even when violently shaken? Perplexed why those golden nests of pasta twirled in silky sauce look nothing like your go-to lady slayer, spaghetti “sticky strands with watery red goop” Bolognese?

Many a frustrated home cook has justified their shortcomings by laying blame on the evil kitchen duo, butter and salt.

Well they would be right… kind of. What this flippant response ignores is mastery of proper cooking technique. Yes, professional cooks use a great deal of salt, but they also know when to add it. They know that to build flavor, you have to learn to cook with salt rather than showering it on at the end, expecting that it will magically fix the failures in your dish.

Sure restaurant cooks use butter (in a French kitchen they use A LOT of butter). However, they also know the difference between using solid, clarified and beurre monte. Salted versus unsalted. Most importantly, they know that there is no acceptable substitute for top quality stuff.

But it’s not just butter and salt. A good cook knows when to use lime instead of lemon juice, champagne vinegar instead of sherry vinegar. The subtle difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil. What will happen if they use canola rather than grapeseed oil. And how the flavor will be affected if they add honey instead of crystallized sugar.

Knowledge and technique are the so-called tricks to decadent food.

I promised Chef I would never divulge any secrets I learned while apprenticing under him, but I think I can get away with spilling one tiny one… if you want to highlight an ingredients’ natural sweetness without bringing the whole dish into the realm of dessert try adding fruit instead of sugar.

In the recipe below I’ve used an apple to add a subtle sweetness to the pâté that could never be accomplished with honey or any type of sugar. As for the butter that is called for, toss out all the fake “healthy” fat substitutes in your fridge, and go out and get the real thing (I use Kerrygold, Pure Irish Butter).

Wanna cook like a chef? Start with the right ingredients, and take the time to learn how to use them.

1 stick butter + 1 Tbs. (9 Tbs. total) 
1 onion, diced
1 large garlic clove, sliced
1 shallot, diced
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 Granny Smith apple: peeled, cored and diced
¼ tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1 lb. chicken livers, trimmed
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 Tbs. cognac 

  • Melt ½ a stick (4 Tbs) of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, shallot and ½ tsp of salt. Gently cook for 4 minutes, stirring often. Add the thyme. Cook for one minute more.
  • Add the apple and nutmeg. Continue to cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove mixture from the skillet.
  • Return the skillet to the medium heat. Melt the other ½ a stick of butter. Add the chicken livers, ½ tsp of salt and ¼ tsp of black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes turning the livers occasionally to insure even cooking. Add the onion and apple mixture to the skillet. Cook altogether another 4 minutes, or until the liver centers are just slightly pink (you can cut one open to check doneness).
  • Add 2 tablespoons cognac. Stir through and remove from heat.
  • Place mixture in blender. Process till you get the texture you want. I like my pâté to be very smooth so I do it in two batches. While it’s running, carefully scrap down the sides of the blender with a thin spatula to ensure an even smoothness (this will also give the blender a hand with the processing of the somewhat dense mixture)
  • Add the final tablespoon of butter, blend through.
  • Taste and add a touch more salt and pepper if you desire.
  • Place the mixture into the dishes you will serve it in. I typically hold it in two ramekins. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. This pate can be eaten as soon as it cools and sets. However, it tastes even better the next day.