Music Will Make You Improve Your Culinary Skills
Never underestimate the power of food
Food was sacrificed to the Gods. Many a beast and crops were offered at an altar. In the Bible, Esau offered his birthright to Jacob over a bowl of lentils. Food has often been a currency. The spice trade was powerful. Potatoes threatened to wipe out the Irish people. Food is serious business. It is taken too lightly in many developed countries. Taken for granted, we have lost much of the significance of how food ties communities together in celebration and union.
This casualness towards food has turned us into an instant soup culture. We used to raise or hunt game and harvest vegetables and grains. The preparation of the stock, milling wheat, and butchering meat, used to take months. Now we can create the same soup in seconds. A few beeps of the microwave and we have New England Clam Chowder. This is probably why processed food can’t light a candle next to freshly made food.
No, suh! A real “prawpa chowda” would have in it: clams caught in the icy waters of the Atlantic, Corola Potatoes grown in Maine, and other local produce from Western Massachusetts.
Let the Music Play
Cooking is a symphony. Ideas hit us and we rush to purchase and prepare our next meal. In a flurry of steps, hours of prep, and lots of washing dishes, a masterpiece of gastronomy is created. We leave the kitchen cabinet doors flung open because we are rushing through to the next note. Ducking and dodging inevitable concussions, a fire on the stove is averted. The doorbell rings and we yell out for someone to answer, we can’t let the leeks burn.
Windows fly open as the leeks burn. There are no more leeks, but wait, some scallions will substitute. Disaster averted. A final series of movements and shakes of spice and we have finished the dish. Poached Salmon with Lemon Vinaigrette and now, making their proud debut, fried scallions, YOU have just written a symphony!
Example of a Food Symphony
The musical symphony structure consists of an opening sonata or allegro, followed by a slow movement, such as an adagio. The next two sections have a minuet or scherzo with a trio mixed in; maybe two french horns and a flute. The finale is an allegro, rondo, or sonata. The grand completion of a practiced pattern of movements and sounds.
First, there must be an inspiration. You can pass through weeks of uninspired meals or you can create impacting experiences. Inspiration doesn’t mean something out of your skill set. It also doesn’t mean that there has to be dozens of ingredients. It just means using ingredients that inspire or connect with something, a memory, a goal, a celebration.
- Opening Allegro-the gathering of ingredients.
- Adagio-the prepping and planning.
- Minuet-small steps coming together.
- The Rondo-the grand finale. All of your efforts are put together. Any one thing missing, and the dish falls short.
Everyone can create their food symphonies. We may not be geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, or Philip Glass. Maybe you are like your junior high strings class instructor. It doesn't matter. They all share a passion and a desire to create. You have the power.
You can do it
Everyone can cook no matter what their skill level. I guarantee you it gives the same joy to a James Beard award-winning chef as it does a parent who makes a casserole for the school’s open house.
I have been a chef for over 20 years and I started with a Worcestershire vinegar, and peanut butter cake that I “baked” and presented proudly to my dad. Thank god he only made me take a few bites. I was baking a cake at age 5 because I saw an episode of Zoom, a kid’s television program.
I once submitted a Swiss steak recipe for an elementary school fundraising cookbook. I didn't even know what the hell a Swiss steak was, but someone told me they liked the recipe and it felt good that someone enjoyed something involving food that I had created.
The Language of Cuisine
Cooking is like memorizing lines to a script. You have to have your basic elements down before you can create without hesitation. It’s like being a professional vs amateur actor. Repetition and consistency are key. Can you do something the same fashion at a high level of quality over and over again in your sleep without thinking about it?
Does your food talk to you? It does if you listen and speak the same language. When people ask me how long you need to cook something, I tell them, when it’s done. I’m not even trying to be sarcastic. Well, maybe a little.
The food will talk to you and let you know. Yes, you check the internal temperature with a digital thermometer, and of course, taste and texture are important, but as you hone your cooking skill levels; you begin to transcend the shackles of time and temperature.
As you approach the existential feel of cooking a dish, you begin to see a dish before it is done. I liken it to seeing the symphony completed in your mind’s screen. It becomes a matter of catching up to the vision in your head. A great deal of this is a gift. Like perfect pitch, one can have a perfect palate. Both are still subjective, but we can agree there is a base level of sound and taste that is universal.
How do I improve my culinary musicality?
1. Repetition-the tried and true test.
2. Start with the basics-eggs is a great start.
3. Develop a style-be influenced, but don’t mimic.
4. Enjoy your failures. They are your learning tools.
5. Make favorite mistakes. Some of the best dishes come from “messing up.”
6. Training-take some classes. Watch YouTube videos. Pick up little tricks.
There is only one you and that you is the best at what you do. You can always learn. Find a short term culinary program if you need an educational structure, but by no means is school the only way. The world of food is endless. The United States is only the tip of the iceberg with interesting ways to eat and prepare food.
We all have to eat to live. If we don’t, we perish. If we don’t connect, we will perish. Food is a binding agent that brings us together. We share our history and hopes with each other when we congregate over a meal. Our cultures and origins link.
Creating dishes allow us to remember to halt our day. Enjoy your journey. Practice that signature dish. Hone it and start to branch out. There are no mediocre results, only mediocre effort. If you are immersed, then in time your skills will meet your efforts.
There is no greater joy than a smile and a compliment from someone eating your food.
Josh Kiev is an actor, chef, and would gladly eat a donut filled with hollandaise.