On August 2nd, I competed on Food Network's intense cooking competition show "Chopped." I've been cooking professionally for 6 years (Miss Elisabeth's Catering), but I was terrified to go on the show. It wasn't just the crazy time constraints that I was afraid of (20 minutes for appetizer, 30 minutes for main course and dessert). It was the fact that I would be dealing with bizarre mystery ingredients, and that I would have to invent dishes on the fly. I was, like so many other cooks, a recipe dependent chef. I treasured my cookbooks and I turned to them often for direction and inspiration. That is, until I competed on Chopped--and won! In many ways, the show completely changed my approach toward cooking. I now know what it takes to be a Chopped Champion. And if I can do it, so can you!
First of all, you have to practice. The more you cook, the better you get. And if you really want to improve your culinary skills, I highly recommend sticking with cookbooks and recipes for a good, long while. You may think following a recipe is stifling your creativity. But a really good recipe is an invaluable resource--it teaches you critical techniques, and, more importantly, how to combine certain ingredients and flavors to create a great finished product. Think of recipes as culinary training. They are an exercise, a way to get your mind in culinary shape. The more recipes you work with, and the more cookbooks you read, the more you will learn. Eventually you will be able to draw from that knowledge and apply it to your own dishes. I think recipes are one of the keys to taking your cooking to the next level and really developing your own style.
When I was preparing for Chopped, I read through dozens of my favorite cookbooks as if I was studying for a final exam. I reminded myself of basic techniques and basic recipes--from how to make a proper Hollandaise, to how to create a quick pan sauce.
I also practiced. I had friends bring me 4 mystery ingredients and set the clock, and we would hold serious practice rounds. During the first few rounds, I panicked. The basket loomed on the table in front of me and I knew my fate was sealed. I was going to have to work with whatever was in there with no recipes to turn to! It was an awful feeling.
But when I opened that basket--both in my practice rounds, and on the show--an incredible calm came over me. I realized that it didn't matter what was in the basket. Whether you are cooking scallops or chicken or lamb heart, it's all the same. After years of cooking and following recipes, I was able to apply everything I had ever learned, regardless of what the mystery ingredients were. Cooking had become totally natural to me. My instincts took over and I went into auto pilot. If you feel you've got a good number of recipes under your belt, give yourself a Chopped challenge to test yourself. If you go into a total panic once you open up that basket, figure out what it was that seemed most difficult to you. Maybe you didn't know how to butcher a chicken. Or how to deal with an unripe plantain. I guarantee some recipe, somewhere, will teach you the skill you need to master the challenge!
A strong basic knowledge of culinary techniques and flavor combinations is one of the keys to becoming a Chopped Champion. But there is another aspect of this challenge that is just as important: Time management.
Every dish you will ever make is made up of a number of separate elements. To create a successful dish, each of those elements needs to be addressed with equal consideration and at a specific time. So, for example, during Round 1, my mystery basket included Baby Octopus, Tokyo Scallions, Swiss Chard and Lime Pickle (Click here to see my recipe). I thought potatoes would add body to my dish, so the first thing I did was get some potatoes boiling, since I knew they would take the longest. I also knew that I wanted to make a ceviche of sorts with the lime pickle and the octopus, and that that would need to marinate for a bit. So I immediately set to work chopping up the lime pickle, some red onion and the scallions. Because time was so short, I wanted to get as much flavor into the octopus as possible, so I chopped that up too. The time ticked away, but I was under control, addressing each ingredient as I went along, always keeping the finished dish (and the clock) in mind. When the 2 minute mark came, my dish was pretty much complete, so I ran for my plates, plated the dish and finished right on time.
Obviously you will rarely have to cook under such ridiculous time constraints. But the lesson here can be applied to any dish and to any time frame. If you come home from work and have 2 hours to serve a 6 person dinner at 8:00, break the dish down into parts and assess what needs to be done in relation to the finished product. Don't think of a dish as a big jumble of things that somehow needs to come together. That is too overwhelming. A dish is a sum of its parts. And the easiest way to figure out what needs to be done, and when you need to do it, is by making lists. When I was first starting out as a caterer, I made lists for everything, and I cannot recommend this enough. It is the key to mastering time management. So, for example, 2 hours to prepare dinner for 6 at 8 p.m. MENU: Chicken with Shallots and Mushroom Cream Sauce, with Toasted Sourdough Bread. PLAN: Chop shallots and mushrooms at 6:00. Saute shallots and mushrooms in butter and olive oil at 6:30. Set aside. Season and sear chicken in olive oil at 7:00. Set aside. Slice bread, drizzle with olive oil, toast in oven for 15 minutes. 7:30 heat up shallots and mushrooms, add cream, chicken stock and chopped tarragon and simmer. Return chicken to pan to finish cooking. 7:50, Chicken on serving platter, bread on serving platter. Done!
So there you have it. A strong knowledge of basic cooking techniques and time management. That's all. Master this and you will be amazed at how much your cooking improves. And who knows, maybe some day you too will be a Chopped Champion!