Ask a Chef: What Makes a Great Cook?
Preparing food in a restaurant kitchen is a fast-paced, high-stress orchestration of physical movement, basic knifery, cooking and plating skills, speed, cooperation, multi-tasking and flavor ventures. And it’s all under the baton of the menu’s maestro, the head chef.
I talked with a sampling of top-notch chefs in the region to get their unvarnished takes on what they look for in a cook, a sous chef, and the art of flavoring dishes to an affirming “Oh, wow, that’s good!”
Chefs have a common pursuit with their cooks and cooking: to raise the eyebrows of food-loving customers so they’ll come back for more. Here’s what they had to say:
Chef, New Moon Café, Nevada City
I look at knife skill, and how they work in the mix of what we are doing. I look for imagination and integrity and not being afraid to do what it takes to do something. If you can’t multi-task in a kitchen, you better get out. You have to know how to move together, be together and not be a sore thumb sticking out. We call it the dance. The whole thing is we’re having fun. If you can’t have fun, do something else. I have one kid who started in low-end kitchens in coffee shops. He’s going to be a star; he wants to make everything perfect. I’m excited by people like that. I can teach him how to do it.
Owner/partner, Magpie Café, Sacramento
A good restaurant cook should be able to be consistent, to make the same thing over and over again in the same way. Keep your station clean, organized. Never forget, someone is actually going to eat it! If a customer has had a BLT and comes back to have the same BLT, we want them to have the same experience. Creativity is highly important. Cooks are always looking for ways to make a dish better, more beautiful, more consistent. The path to becoming a great chef is to cook something 500 times a day, correctly.
VERONICA AND MARISOL HERMOCILLO
Co-owners, Taqueria Mi Lindo Apatzingan, Rio Linda
(translated by their niece, who shares the name Marisol Hermocillo)
At our restaurant we’re all family and all cooks. Our recipes are from our moms and grandmothers. We have to be fast. We don’t have to follow a recipe, because we all know the food. Sometimes when we run out of food, we close up early. We don’t change a thing from the mothers’ recipes. It’s simple with fresh ingredients, and it’s made fast.
Chef, Hock Farm Craft and Provisions, Sacramento
Mostly it’s being able to listen, keeping your eyes open and being aware of your surroundings. If you don’t understand something, ask. [Cooks] need basic knife skills, plating skills. Beyond that, a lot of it is personality. All cooks make mistakes. Great cooks don’t repeat the same mistakes.
I think it’s important to take a little bit of risk. You have to have an eagerness, a willingness to put headaches aside and say, “I’m needed, this is what I’m going to do.”
Executive chef, Grange Restaurant & Bar, Sacramento
You’ve got to like what you do. Have passion. Come with a sense of urgency and willingness to learn. If you have those qualities I will teach you and take you to the next level. Some people naturally move around a stove and work station and quickly multi-task. I have cooks tell me what we’re going to make for our featured weekly soup. Or what we have to make a sandwich on the lunch menu. Then they have vested interest in a menu’s development.
Co-owner, South Sacramento
I think it’s a trifecta of three things. First, an unbridled creativity, and a foundation on the basics of cooking, whether you learned it from a grandmother or in culinary school. Second, time management. It’s so important to be able to execute dishes in a timely manner. Third, being able to be quiet. The quiet ones are thinking. They’re usually the ones that are wildly creative.
Owner/chef, The Press Bistro, Sacramento
As a cook, listening is one of the key things. If they listen to how things are done and can repeat that, and they can multi-task, that’s good. We have had cooks without any experience. But they’re willing to learn, they’re hardworking. In a small space there’s a lot of stress. If they don’t work as a team, it won’t work. We like when cooks understand our style and how we work. We like ideas from cooks, on what pairs with something and how you execute it.
Chef, Sampino’s Towne Foods, Sacramento
I just cook my favorite things. I’m surprised how many people have the same palate as me. Out of 40 people, 39 say it’s seasoned perfectly. I try to cook a santé, healthy. I use fresh herbs and make my own chicken stocks. I love spices, and I mix my own batches of fresh herbs. I try to be creative and consistent and try to add my own influence.
Chef, Carpe Vino, Auburn
To excel, cooks have to work well in the kitchen with others. They really have to put their head down when they need to; have to work clean and be organized. On the technical side, knife skills are huge. I teach skills that maybe some don’t have. Reliability is huge for the sous chef, to have everything ready by 5pm. I’m the palate of the restaurant, the sous chef’s job is to execute that, and know how I like it.
Executive chef, Iron Grill, Sacramento
Multi-tasking is a necessity for a cook. Some cooks do two things at a time, others do six or eight. To know what flavors pair well with others is huge. Cooks have flavor techniques; we want to know, “What techniques do you know?” Listening is huge, too. People may think their way to cook something is better, and it might be, but they have to do it the way we want to do it. So you have to work well with others. Be organized, clean, efficient, a hard worker, with good communication.