Exploring the art of non-utilized talent in the kitchen
Shortcuts get a bad rap. We can appreciate the purity of planting the seeds of every ingredient in your backyard and nurturing them all the way to the kitchen table – but today’s realities often demand a slightly alternative approach. Not all meals require the Michelin rated preparation routine. When striving for maximum Kitchefficiency, let’s talk about the concept of “extra processing”. Don’t do more work than it requires to exceed your ideal objective. Cater to audience expectations and don’t spend time on tasks that don’t contribute to this priority. Not everyone invited to your dinner party wants to wait 4 hours to watch you hand roll your pasta, no matter how impressive you think it is. And who are you trying to impress during your solo Netflix binge weekend? Keep it simple so you can enjoy your TV dinner sooner and knock out season 3 in one sitting!
In addition to extra, unnecessary processing, think about the concept of maximizing the resources and “talent” at your disposal. Rachel and I recently had the opportunity to take the “Paella and Sangria” class at Irwin Street’s Cooking School with Chef Jamia! It was an absolute blast – and that secret Sangria recipe didn’t disappoint. But more importantly, we got the master class on engaging a large group and absorbed some great tips on how and when to implement some time-saving measures into the process. I was curious as to how we would fit an entire 13 person Paella + Sangria meal within a 2-hour window. She encouraged us to tag team the prep, each attendee focusing on a different task simultaneously. Pretty amazing how quickly and easily you can chunk 6 pounds of chicken, peel 5 pounds of shrimp, slice and dice a hefty bunch of apples, oranges and strawberries, and accomplish a number of other prep items when you have an effectively delegated effort. We were drinking sangria before the grill was hot! In my experience with homemade paella (keep in mind we’re not pretending to be perfectly authentic here), the rice can be the most challenging topic. I’ve bought the $20 saffron threads that you need a magnifying glass to see and I’ve tried every different strain and grain recommended for “authentic paella rice”. While there have been some small victories, it has become more of a chore than it seems to be worth. We focused on not over-complicating this aspect. Trust some of the work that’s already been done by others and try utilizing a reputable mix for the rice portion. A simpler yellow rice with saffron such as the “par excellence” yellow rice containers will do the trick (and save you a few bucks). The final product exceeded all expectations, and we enjoyed an excellent, Spanish-inspired meal paired with Chef Jamia’s sangria!
After our eye-opening experience, I wanted to share some of our key takeaways and work on putting them into practice within our kitchen routines:
- Knowing your personal cooking strengths & weaknesses
- Utilizing a cooking partner and knowing their strengths & weaknesses
- Guest participation
- Purchasing pre-prepared foods for inclusion in the meal to minimize steps
Let’s (shallowly) dive to about 3 feet below the surface on these:
- Identifying and understanding your own strengths and weaknesses at any task is crucially important – and executing in the kitchen is no exception. Your first meal experience hosting the in-laws after they drove 9 hours is no time to cut each cranberry for your favorite holiday dip individually (Shout out to Lindsey from Sparrows + Lily for this great recipe). Save yourself 20 minutes and use a food processor (even though the recipe doesn’t say so!). There are certain tasks like chopping and mincing that are rarely a strength for a human chef versus the machine. We have the tools to make these tasks much faster – use them!
- Say you’re the kind of person who makes the exact same breakfast bagels with sautéed mushrooms every single day. Your partner-in-crime happens to be an excellent oatmeal connoisseur. Why rock the boat? Some days you prepare the breakfast bagels for both and let your PIC prepare the oatmeal concoction for you both on your day off.
- One of your guests is boisterous about the fact that you are cutting the onions wrong. Utilize this obnoxiousness and persuade this guest to “teach you” and ultimately take over that task!
- Rotisserie chicken. Enough said.
Remember, the experience of mealtime is supposed to be an enjoyable one. The preparation of a meal can enhance this experience in so many ways – and participation in the process can add to many guests’ expanded appreciation of the meal. Be observant and maximize those resources at your disposal and take advantage of those pre-mixed & prepared items where appropriate. Look at the whole experience from a bigger perspective, and relish the opportunities to engage more of your time within the moment.
Shout out any ideas or examples of effective group mealtime participation that you have experienced or any great pre-prep tricks that you utilize!