Socrates takes on The Cook as told by Plato

Socrates seeks universal definition of “homemade.”

A work of fiction by Eric Damkoehler

I found this letter in my attic, with no date on it, written in an ancient handwriting, in an ancient language.

I spent the better half of a year obsessed with it’s contents. I studied it, and made several attempts at translating it on my own, though I could never quite satisfy my curiosity. At one point, I was certain I had broken the code into an alphabet, and re-wrote the entire letter into jumbled words, and searched dozens of dictionaries to find a possible match. To no avail, until finally I had several historians research the letter, of which here is the best, and the least expensive account:

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How to Avoid Rookie Cooking Mistakes

Five suggestions to improve your kitchen skills.

5. Learn how to hold a knife.

The very first thing every aspiring cook should learn, be it a food enthusiast, a culinary student or an inexperienced person cooking for a paycheck, is to hold a knife properly.

Knife skills are important for several reasons. It should be understood without mention that improper knife handling can lead to many painful and embarrassing trips to the medicine cabinet, or hospital. Beyond the obvious, though, there can be sometimes permanent, irreversible damage to ones joints, in the form of carpel tunnel syndrome, if someone is using the knife in a strenuous way.

The “pointed finger” manner of holding a knife is the most common mistake made by amateurs, and it involves the index finger pointed straight down the top of the knife. This way of holding a knife inhibits the ability to maneuver the knife, and will become quite painful if the handler makes more than 30 or 40 cuts, much like a poor throwing motion will cause a baseball player to get frequent dead-arm.

One of the most important lessons I learned as a young cook (working for a paycheck) was to hold my knife where the handle meets the blade, with my thumb and index finger on the steel. Several years later I learned how to safely use my left hand as a stopper, and I haven’t cut myself in the traditional way since (I’ve cut myself because of other reasons—like flipping knives, or simply not looking at the food I was cutting).

Hold a chef knife like this:

PicMonkey Collage222

4. If you aren’t cooking, or helping, get out of the way.

Most modern-home kitchens are planned and constructed in a way which promotes efficiency. If you were to draw a straight line from the sink to the stove, from the stove to the refrigerator, and from the refrigerator back to the sink, you would have a triangle. This triangle layout was designed so the cook can easily get back and forth from the most important places in the most efficient way.

What is the best way to stop this efficiency? Put someone drinking wine and marveling over the wonders of food directly in the middle of the triangle.

When my sister, the artist, makes Christmas dinner, she has every right (a right she is not shy to exercise) to tell my brother and I to get lost. As though it isn’t difficult enough feeding a family of chefs, my sister has to listen to us correct her every mistake. On this occasion, we are invading her space, and not only are we not helping, but we are actually hindering the process.

If you’re the home cook, protect your space. Put some stools or seating out of the way of the triangle and have your guests do their socializing there.

If you are the culinary student, or inexperienced cook in a professional kitchen, make yourself small.

The inexperienced cooks probably don’t have as much to do as the ones who have worked in a place for a long time. At crunch time, when the busiest cooking is going down, that’s the worst time to stand idly in a travel path, yet it is the most common time for rookies to get run over.

Don’t get run over; shrink yourself.

A unique quality of kitchen people, even the large ones, is the ability to shrink. They can do this even while carrying heavy sheet pans above their heads, and pass another large person doing the same, in a space not large enough for one of them to comfortably fit.

3. Don’t cry over sliced onions.

A great indicator of a person’s cooking experience is how they react to sliced, diced, chopped, minced or peeled onions. Do they bring tears to your eyes? Is it because you’re just so happy to be cooking? Great, because if you do it long enough, those onions will have no power over you.

In the meantime, refrigerate them. According to my experience, a couple of days in the refrigerator will have very little noticeable affect on the texture of the onion, and absolutely no impact on the flavor. If you won’t compromise on the temperature, try running the room temperature onions under cold water before cutting. Refrigerating or cooling the onions will reduce the amount of tears you shed.

If they still make you cry, maybe it’s because you need a new knife, or need to sharpen your old one. A sharper knife will slice through the onion with less resistance and splatter less, releasing less Propanethiol S-oxide, which is the gas that causes the irritation in your eyes. Though I have no understanding of the chemistry involved here, I also suggest that you clean the tomato juice off of your cutting board before cutting the onions. I have found through my own experience that failure to do so will increase your tears.

Finally, when those tears boil over, and you have very little choice but to close your eyes, stop cutting and go to a freezer. The walk-in freezers in restaurants are a great place to find a crying rookie cook, not because he or she was yelled at, but because their sympathetic boss told them that was the best thing to do for onion eyes. The cold air blowing in your face will immediately relieve your pain.

2. Taste everything, everywhere, every chance you get.

The only way to apply your new cooking skills is to get in the kitchen and cook. However, you won’t be doing it all the time, and when your not cooking, make sure you’re tasting. I don’t mean eating, I mean tasting.

Eating and tasting are two different things. You may eat in a lot of restaurants, but you may not be tasting the food. If you add hot sauce to everything, it will all taste like hot sauce. If you add a lot of salt to everything, after a certain point your taste buds will dull. If you’re like me, and you add ranch to everything, anything served without ranch seems to be missing something.

When you eat, slow down and try to identify the tastes of the foods. Don’t bother the waiter or chef for an ingredient list or recipe every time you enjoy something, just savor it and try to repeat it yourself. When you taste the version of your own creation, play with the seasoning until your taste buds agree it’s the same.

Taste everything you serve, but not to excess. One of the worst feelings a cook gets is after he has taken a break to wolf down some dinner or lunch. You will notice a sharp decline in his enthusiasm after he returns to work.

Eating too much before cooking, or during, causes you to resent your job, whether you are the host of a dinner party or the culinary student on internship. Once you have a full stomach, and your body starts to digest the meal, your ability to quickly perform your duties will deteriorate.

The trouble is, of course, that working with food makes you really hungry, and cooks will often load up their own plates, without thinking about cleanup, or dessert. Just save some energy for that last push, and don’t eat to the point of a food-coma.

1. Do not stand idle.

There is nothing more aggravating to a professional chef than seeing a subordinate cook doing nothing. Often, the culinary student or rookie cook doesn’t mean to anger the temperamental boss, and this idle time is not always an indicator of a poor work ethic. It’s an indicator of inexperience, and perhaps, a poor training regiment.

The reason is usually simple—the cook doesn’t know what to do next. He has finished the prep he’s been assigned, and maybe the chef is too busy to give him further instructions. At this point, the rookie cook should clean, ask somebody else if they need a hand, wash dishes, scrub pots—anything.

One of the best things a rookie cook can do is put away dishes. This job usually brings the cook to every area of the kitchen, and often the dining room. Wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out where that funny looking pot goes will open his eyes to many other things. One day of putting away dishes and the cook will know where everything in the kitchen is, and maybe even learn where things belong.

The same concept can be applied to the dinner host, whether you’re serving your direct family or several business clients. Idle time shouldn’t be spent leaning against the counter, rather, get a jump on the dishes. Idle time should be spent setting the table, unless you’re the eat-first-ask-for-a-fork-later type, in which case you should fold some napkins.

Remember, a watched pot doesn’t boil, so go ahead and let the science take over for the heating time, and use some spare minutes to clean the refrigerator or the cabinet under the sink. Anything you do while the pot is heating will be time gained at the end of the meal, when you’ve probably eaten yourself into a stupor, and the last thing you want to do is clean. 

Photos Courtesy David Damkoehler

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