A chef I once worked under was very taken with a book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, droning on and on about his “circle of influence” and “emotional bank account” until I was bored to the point of weeping, helplessly trapped at my cutting board.
To stave off the inevitable—my herb-coated knife in his throat—I mentally devised the following guide. Think of it as the shortcut to stepping up your culinary game.
This cooking school mantra, Clean as You Go, is NOT some practice suited only to cafeteria kitchens and cooking schools. If employed as an ethos at home, you’ll find you’ll be cooking better and faster right your own kitchen. So don’t pile dirty dishes in the sink. Put them in the dishwasher immediately: that way, your pasta won’t overcook as you clear room for your colander. Your workspace is your dance floor, uncluttered and perfect—counters well ordered and wiped, tools organized and at your fingertips.
2) Don’t use fake food.
Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many intelligent people harbor the following food criminals in their kitchens: jars of pre-chopped garlic in safflower oil, grenades of ReaLemon, onion powder, margarine, cooking wine, pre-ground pepper. You know nothing delicious can come of these.
3) Prep before you fire up those pans.
Don’t pile your shrimp in a hot sauté pan then realize that you need a cup of peeled and sliced shallots. Read your recipe, do all the chopping and slicing first, then focus all your attention on your pan. Your protein will thank you.
4) Taste your food.
This is a simple one, and often overlooked in the rush through a recipe. Taste what you’re doing as you cook, and adjust the seasoning as you go. Remember, you can correct too little salt or chili, but you’re stuck with it when you’ve added too much.
5) Let your pan or grill get hot.
Lots of home cooks slap the pan on the heat, then immediately overload it before the pan has the time to warm up. Stop it. Let your pan get very, very hot, and then begin to cook—your food will brown or sear (developing all those delicious caramel flavors) instead of boil. Also, never, never overload your pan: your food will steam rather than sauté.
6) If you’re going to cook, cook.
Now that kitchens have laptops and televisions, it’s so easy to drift off into dreamland, standing at the stove, tongs in hand. Folks, this is how steak turns into Alpo. For the short time that you’re working with fire, focus on the food—though no one will fault you for chopping onions to The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
7) Relax, it’s just food.
You know that cook who whips himself into a tizzy, fussing, worrying, and arriving at the table in such a state of nervous exhaustion that no one wants to eat? Look, it is just food and nothing’s perfect: it’s way more important that your guests have fun.