Walking through the door of the first professional kitchen I had worked in, was a terrifying experience! I remember there being an incredible amount of noise, clattering pans, doors being opened and shut and chef shouting at the top of his voice to anyone who was not moving fast enough! There were over forty chefs of all levels in the brigade, but it seemed far more as I cast my eyes around the kitchen.
Even though I had spent two years at chef’s academy, the first lesson I learned was to do everything the head chef’s way, not necessarily the way you were taught! He was an exacting man; you did not argue with him and you certainly did not change his methods.
There was a lot of sophisticated equipment that I had never used before, but the great thing about that was I soon learned what kit I enjoyed working with and what was the most necessary, or labour-saving and needed to be used with respect.
Working in your own domestic kitchen is nothing like a commercial kitchen but following certain methods will always stand you in good stead to become the home chef you want to be. Here are some of my top tips or hacks for a successful and happy kitchen life:
Your kitchen tools
First up – knives, you can never substitute good, sharp knives as an essential in your kitchen. Never spend your hard-earned savings on expensive knives and always try them for comfortable grip before purchasing. You do not need a huge set of them (a mistake many people make), as you will find after a while that you have not actually used some of them – ever!
- Chef’s knife or cook’s knife for cutting, chopping and preparing anything ’hard’. This is your trusty servant and should be usable for years to come.
- Tomato knife – great for peeling and slicing. It is serrated, so sharpening does not apply. Personally, I would not be without it.
- Paring knife – perfect for the smaller, more fiddly jobs in the kitchen, like taking the seeds out of chillies or peppers, or removing the ‘poo sack’ from the back of a prawn.
- Carving knife – a must for joints of meat and must always be kept razor sharp.
- Bread knife – great for slicing baguettes, crusty loaves or a pile of sandwiches. As it is serrated, you will not tear the bread or squash the sandwiches.
Really and honestly, this is your starter kit and you can add to it with boning knives, filleting knives etc, when you want to move on with your skills.
Moving on, and depending on the size of your kitchen (and cupboards), I would recommend the following:
- Selection of mixing bowls – glass or solid plastic
- Non-stick flat baking trays, various sizes
- Baking dishes – again, my preference is glass or heavier ones such as Le Creuset would manufacture.
- A hand mixer – if you have limited space, a full-blown mixer is going to take up a lot of space. You can do most things with a handheld mixer. Likewise, with a hand blender for soups and sauces.
- I would never be without my pestle and mortar for grinding harder spices. I find the small electric ones are great if you do not go too far with them, sometimes you need some texture and herbs can get very ‘sloppy’ using a motorised one. You have control by hand!
- When you feel confident, a mandolin is useful for thin slicing for dishes such as gratins. You can knock up a pommes dauphinoise or a vegetable tian in no time. Always use the prong to hold the vegetable and keep your fingers away from the blade!
Top tips from my favourite chefs
- Every chef has their own way of doing things but working from a solid foundation before you use your own methods is the best route to becoming more experienced and saving yourself time and tears. There is a certain camaraderie between chefs who have worked together, we share tips and tricks and are still learning after all these years.
- Read the recipe you are creating all the way through – twice is preferable. Lay out your ingredients in the order they are added to the dishes (known as ‘mis en place’) – saves a lot of time hunting in cupboards and cursing that you cannot find something! Never change the recipe or substitute ingredients or leave anything out. You can do that when you have tried to make the dish a few times.
- Follow recipe instructions to the law – if something needs to rest, let it rest and do not cut corners. You do not want a flop on your hands.
- Prep up vegetables in advance and leave in zip lock bags in the fridge with a little water in them. When ready to use, drain out the water and rinse the vegetables several times. Can save a lot of time. You can also use zip locks for seasoning, spicing and marinades – you can get more in the fridge if you do not use bowls for everything.
- Season early on – rub gently into meat or fish so that it seeps into the product. Do not go mad, you can always add a little more seasoning or acidity to adjust towards the end.
- If using fresh herbs, freeze them for a little while (about an hour). They are far easier to chop and handle if frozen. However, do not do this if you are using them for garnish, they will look awful!
- If you can, try to plan a few days ahead, to avoid wastage. You will be amazed what you can do with a chicken carcass! No idea? Boil up the carcass, strain through a fine sieve, and add vegetables and seasoning. Makes a wholesome soup or add lots of root veg and make a stew!
I teach children of school age to cook. I have one thing that I permanently remind them of – ‘taste, taste, taste’. It is the only way that your recipe will turn out as you want it to!