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Notes to a Young Chef

An excerpt from my forthcoming cookbook An (in)Appropriate Amount of Butter

In October 2018, I got a call from a father who wanted a cooking class for

his son and himself. The father explained that he and his own father bonded

over sports, but his son has no interest in sports...but the kid loves food.

The father was just trying to find a way to encourage that love and further a

bond with his kid. Upon hearing that, I knew I had to find a way to take this

gig because all I really heard was a man aspiring to be a good father.


There is not much that can be properly taught in 90 minutes. Yes, you can teach

one or two dishes, but that isn’t teaching cooking. I decided that I wanted the

class to be about concepts, not specific recipes — how to construct a salad, the

professional steps of pasta, why caramel and risotto are verbs. At some point,

it also occurred to me that having the rapt attention of a young culinary mind

obligates a chef to impart broad lessons and communicate big themes too.


So I started with the question: what knowledge/lessons do I wish I had acquired/

learned much earlier in my culinary journey. I spent a good amount of time thinking

about it, workshopped the question with a few chefs I love, and the project

eventually became my “Notes to a Young Chef”. I swore to myself that I would

just give it to the kid and that I wouldn’t get it printed on archival paper and put

it in a frame. Of course, I had it printed on archival paper and put it in a frame.


Some of the notes need no further explanation, some could use a few more

words (by design, I wanted my young student to think about the advice and

try to figure it out on his own but I would offer clarity later if he couldn’t).

While I did realize that I was outlining a great deal of my culinary philosophy,

I didn’t know that I was also writing the opening words of this cookbook.

no level of talent reaches its full potential without humility

the pen is the second most important tool in the kitchen

don’t be a chef unless you cannot stop yourself

egoless cooking—always

any savory recipe that doesn’t include shallots is structurally deficient

default to red onions

always have roasted garlic on hand

add flavor not water

cooking shows on PBS not competitions

yelling is a terribly ineffective management tool

never be a slave to the tyranny of your own ideas

tip excessively well

once service starts, the person washing dishes

is more important than the chef

learn Spanish

cook first for the soul, then the palette, then the eye

there are only two kinds of food—good and bad

play with your food

cook like you’re poor

respect and honor the animals, farmers, and

fishers by doing excellent things

quarter your brussels sprouts

high heat is for show-offs

generally speaking, women are better chefs

safety is always more important than speed

be willing to walk a mile to get an extra inch of flavor

don’t trust a chef who is the hero in all of their own stories

go to museums, stare at art until you understand

how this makes you better

Escoffier said service is the most important thing

nothing is more important than hot food, both things are true

change your socks every six hours

never wear the same shoes two days in a row

salt and pepper is a reflex, not a step

hold sacred the surface of your cutting board

and do not foul it with non-food

Serious Eats is my primary reference

sous vide is an excellent cooking method but don’t let it be a crutch

truffle oil is like a tambourine: best used sparingly

and only by those who know how

music is an ingredient*

learn how to do everything and then use the people who do it better

“I don’t know” is a perfectly fine answer

nevercrowdyourpan

slow is almost always better than fast

nothing is clean unless cleaned by you or someone you trust

no, that knife isn’t too expensive

soy sauce is the most under-utilized ingredient in western cooking

let the good be the enemy of the perfect

you learn all you need to know about a restaurant through family meal

you’re never too busy for please and thank you

mini-cupcakes are always appropriate and superior to their big brothers

drink more water

ramps are magical

pecorino is more interesting, generally better, and less

expensive than parmesan, but parm has better PR people

function over form…except when not

failure is a part of learning, if you never fail, your ambitions are too low

bacon, hot sauce, champagne—nuff said

to paraphrase Picasso: Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like a chef

fois gras is overrated

if you’re ever lucky enough to be the boss, be a boss who makes your team proud

run towards the challenge