Chefs reveal their shortcuts.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Dec. 21 2005 4:29 PM

Kitchen Confidential

Professional chefs reveal their shortcuts.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

When Mark Bittman wrote a confessional New York Times column revealing his newfound love of store-bought peeled garlic, one parenthetical piqued my interest: "[R]estaurants buy [Costco's 3-pound packages of garlic], and don't think for a minute that they haven't caught onto this enormous time-saver." That "don't think for a minute" got me thinking: What other shortcuts do chefs have hidden under their hats?

It took a fair bit of prodding to yield anything juicy. Chef Jérôme Legras of Aujourd'hui first offered a chopping "shortcut" he employs to ensure that each side of a cut-up piece of carrot is the same even shade of orange. Endearing, but not so useful. Michel Richard at Citronelle told me about a special plastic film you can use as a substitute for sausage casing—you know, if you're in a pinch when making your own. And Dan Barber's secret for coping with the end of tomato season? Avoid tomatoes! Granted, Barber is hailed for his reverent approach to farm-fresh ingredients, so coming clean could have consequences. When we spoke he said talking to me was like confiding in an analyst or a priest.

Advertisement

Eventually, though, more than 20 chefs divulged their secrets, and I learned that in the privacy of their kitchens, professional chefs are just like us. They want to do their jobs well, but with ease. And they're not above using ready-made pizza dough.

The most consoling news is that even the best chefs seek straightforward, uncomplicated recipes. Chef Craig Stoll admits he's amused by how "laughably simple" it is to make Delfina's signature spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and peperoncini. It's what he used to make at home for a quick dinner. As a restaurant-goer, I felt a momentary wave of melancholy upon hearing this: I'd always hoped there was some reason for professional pomodoro to cost 11 bucks. As a home cook, though, I was relieved.

Another ridiculously simple recipe: Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington cuts a wheel of Fougeru in half and spreads a layer of sliced fresh black truffle that's been macerated in Madeira across it. He then replaces the top layer of cheese, bundles the whole thing in Saran Wrap, and refrigerates it overnight to let the flavors marry. The next day, he brings it to room temperature, and voilà.

Pros cut corners, too. Ming Tsai prepares Blue Ginger's wontons with store-bought wrappers, rather than making them from scratch. Legras buys pre-peeled vegetables like garlic for his restaurant; when fresh morels aren't in season, his kitchen subs in dried. Canned tomatoes are a biggie—even Thomas Keller uses them. Other chefs take shortcuts that double as flavor enhancers. Barber's "pumpkin pie," for example, is made with banana squash, pumpkin's sweeter and less watery relative.

Chefs also advocate using your oven, which frees up space and allows you to tend to other dishes—or your guests. While I seek out oven-friendly recipes, I've never moved from stovetop to oven without a recipe's permission. The overwhelming advice: Take the leap. Holly Smith of Café Juanita says that most stovetop dishes can be adapted for the oven and notes that the roasted flavor adds depth. Michael Leviton of Lumière says roasting in a convection oven "seems to beat the product up a little less as well. There's not as much direct contact with the violent heat [as] in a sauté pan." In addition, Citronelle's Richard uses a microwave to melt chocolate and poach meringue, which means he doesn't have to stand over a double boiler.

Starches usually command much attention on the stovetop, and several chefs offered innovative alternatives. Smith champions "parcooking risotto": After a partial stock saturation, you spread rice grains flat on a cookie sheet—which keeps them from getting swollen and mushy—and chill. Then, when you're ready to serve, you put the cold risotto back in a pot, cook until it's al dente (about 10 minutes), and "turn off the heat and let it sit two to five minutes to set the starches." This tip left me buoyant: a way to serve risotto that doesn't require prolonged stirring! But then I thought of my smallish refrigerator—this may be better for two-fridge households. Bryan Enyart, managing chef at Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill, offers a similarly intriguing but impractical tip: "We dip [rice] in the fryer for about a minute and add the hot rice to hot liquid, then finish it in the oven. It cooks about four gallons of rice in about 20 minutes."

Deborah Racicot, pastry chef at Gotham Bar and Grill, offered an abundance of constructive tips. Racicot makes her cookie dough, rolls it, cuts out rounds, and freezes individual unbaked cookies for the restaurant; they're then ready to bake whenever needed. She also freezes peeled, sliced raw apples; later, she pairs them with frozen pastry, making for a "fresh" apple dessert served hot from the oven.

The benefits of freezing aren't limited to sweets. Annie Somerville of Greens freezes uncooked phyllo turnovers and empanadas and then cooks them to order. And whether you're making a savory treat or dessert, Racicot doesn't pooh-pooh premade pastry. Slatecontributor Sara Dickerman uses store-bought puff pastry at home, though she seeks out all-butter doughs. As a pastry-phobe who never quite knows when my dough "resembles a coarse meal," it was liberating to hear that professionals deem the ready-made acceptable for home use.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?