1.“Dull Knife, Dull Chef” — Always Keep Your Knives Sharp.
A sharp knife is much safer than a dull one, as it requires less force to cut through food. This makes a sharp knife far less likely to slip when cutting. Even putting safety aside, a skilled cook can only make precise cuts with a knife that can slice any ingredient with little force. These cuts will be made quickly. As a culinary soldier, safety, precision, and speed are prerequisites for even stepping into a kitchen.
2. Control the heat, do not let the heat control you.
Cooking entails applying heat in various forms to ingredients. “Cooking” may come in the form of boiling, baking, broiling, roasting, searing, sautéing, braising, poaching, and many other techniques. Knowing which method is best for different raw ingredients (and understanding why) is the keystone of cooking. This wisdom takes years to acquire. However, gaining experience with these different methods and learning something new each time is a beautiful part of a cook’s culinary journey.
3. Use All Five Senses.
Know the difference between the smells of reducing balsamic vinegar and burning balsamic vinegar on the pot's edge. Understand the difference between cooked shrimp and uncooked shrimp. Feel how well a steak is cooked over and over until, with one poke, you can say, “Medium rare — take it off.” Become familiar with the sounds of different foods; each food has a unique sound when heat is applied. Learn to differentiate these sounds and understand which are music to a chef’s ears and which say, “Uh-oh — take it off the heat.” Finally, develop your palate every single day. Try everything—taste every sauce, stock, mix, and anything else you create.
4. Work Clean
Nobody enjoys cooking with a dirty cook. When your workspace is a mess, it severely limits your effectiveness. Work from the left side of your cutting board to the right side while disposing of waste continuously. Dispose of waste, clean as you go, and do whatever it takes to keep your workspace nothing short of immaculate.
5. Eat and Cook Locally Grown Produce
Don’t let anybody tell you, “it’s the same stuff.” The difference is night and day. Unfortunately, America has adopted a way to mass-produce food that makes the ingredients much more processed, not nearly as tasty, and less healthy than locally grown foods.
A cook is only as good as the ingredients they begin cooking with. Locally grown ingredients are much better than the trash that goes through long supply chains.
Fruits and vegetables begin to lose their nutritional value just 24 hours after being picked. Locally sourced foods are fresher, grown naturally, taste incredible, and maintain nutritional value. There’s no denying that buying these ingredients is slightly less convenient and slightly more expensive. At the end of the day, consider the value vs. the downsides. If you cannot understand how the benefits outweigh any inconveniences, perhaps you are in the wrong place.
6. Taste As You Go
Be mindful of the three T’s of cooking: Taste, Texture, and Temperature. The more you taste and smell as you cook, the better your food will turn out. Taste before you start cooking and every few minutes as you cook your meals.
Texture is part of flavor. The starting texture of your ingredients and the changes that occur as you cook them is crucial to the final dish. Throughout the cooking process, keep an eye out for changes in the texture of the food.
Magnify your sense of taste with your sense of smell. Basic flavors like sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy are the ones you can taste. Much of the overall sense of taste encompasses smells, too; pay attention to everything you can smell as you cook and adjust accordingly.
7. Use Recipes as Inspiration — Not as Marching Orders
If you’re baking and a recipe calls for exact amounts of certain ingredients, then, by all means, follow the recipe as it’s presented. Other than baking, though, do not google a recipe and “finely chop 2 cups of carrots, 2 stalks of celery, and 1 whole yellow onion.” This is not cooking. This is carrying out a set of direct orders. Have faith in yourself, and allow yourself to stray from a recipe or combine ideas from multiple recipes. That is what cooking is about. In his book, Think Like a Chef, Tom Colicchio (Bald Top-Chef Judge, Chef/Owner of many notable restaurants, including his flagship restaurant, “Craft”) speaks of cooking as a craft. I challenge you to shift your paradigm from simply preparing food to engaging in a craft.
8. Season Your Food Properly
The one thing that can make a big difference in how your food tastes is how you season it. Salt’s most important role is to enhance other flavors in your food. When seasoning with salt, apply it 12 inches above what you’re cooking. Use your fingers to sprinkle the salt, covering all areas evenly. Don’t ever use a “shaker” or any of those gadgets; a Bed Bath & Beyond ninja “tool” is one of the fastest ways to get thrown out of a professional kitchen. Season your food before you cook, while you cook, and, if needed, after tasting, when you’re done cooking.
9. Utilize Mise en Place, Always
The French phrase "Mise en place" translates to “Everything in its place.” Pre-measured amounts of each necessary ingredient make cooking go much more smoothly and make you a much better cook. Mise en place also helps to prevent avoidable errors. There is a common, systematic, and methodical approach that all respectable cooks adopt. Every time you cook, putting together a good mise en place lets you start with a structured, intentional, and deliberate mind.
10. Cook With a Fiery Passion for the Ones You Love
Commandment #10 is non-negotiable. It’s an absolute must and a universal law: If you do not have the inner passion for food, your loved ones, and living your life fully, then you will never craft great food.
You can be the most technically skilled chef out there. You could have worked in New York City’s three Michelin-starred restaurants; this doesn’t matter. You will be a good cook, without a doubt. But you will never be a great cook who can spread love through cooking.
I love quotes. I used to keep a dry-erase whiteboard at my station at every restaurant to write my quote of the day. The quotes were from people like Aristotle and Dr. Seuss. Surprisingly, my favorite quote is not from one of history’s greats. It comes from a fellow chef I worked with who had a passion for cooking and a supernatural ability to fire up any kitchen’s staff. One Saturday night, after completing another fully booked service, we talked about the connection between love and cooking-how wonderful it is to make the world a better place through the craft we both loved. I’ll never forget this quote: “Cooking for someone is the most intimate connection one human can have with another.”
If you thought cooking was boiling pasta and whipping up a sauce, you would never understand a real chef. Keep cooking with a deep passion. Every day, you can spread positive energy, culture, life experience, and delicious food throughout the world.