Everyone needs to eat. Very few people eat only raw food. The vast majority prefers their food to be cooked. The need to cook thus stems from the need to eat. It is as simple as that.
By cooking we transform our food. From what is provided by nature, to what we eat for health and enjoyment. During this transformation, we expose the natural product to heat, change its structural components, add additional flavours and in doing so, we change the way the natural product tastes, looks and smells.
In short, we try to transform the natural product into something “better”. If cooking does not improve the taste, flavour, smell and texture of the original natural product, it serves no purpose and it is better to consume the raw product.
From it earliest days, right after the discovery of fire and its effects on raw products, humans devoted a great deal of time and creativity on improving their cooking skills. They devised new methods and techniques, new implements and tried new combinations of ingredients.
The quest for more and better food lead to cultivation and farming. And over time, as life got easier and people got wealthier, cooking and farming developed into full-time professions and farms and eateries became commercial enterprises.
In the modern world as we know it, food, cooking and eating is a commercial system. One in which every aspect – growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal – is specialized, largely mechanised and in most cases, fully commodified. Never before has the distance between pasture and plate been as large as it is now, and never before has the effects of food on human well-being been as destructive as now.
Many people I know claim that they cannot cook and having tasted their food, I agree. Completely. I have come to the conclusion that the biggest problem today is the lack of knowledge. Something that is relatively easy to fix provided that there is dedication and commitment.
The will and desire to cook better. Yet, in our modern times, these have been replaced by the greater desire for convenience and ease of use. As a result parents do not teach children the basics of cooking, ingredients and food and overtime each generation forfeits yet another body of crucial food and cooking knowledge.
I believe everyone can be at least a decent cook. Decent enough to prepare a few tasty and nutritious meals in the little amount of spare time our modern lifestyles allow for.
It starts with understanding what kind of cook you are, or at least want to be. Cook-as-craftsman or woman is perhaps the first category. Much like the guy who flips burgers for a living, the purpose of this kind of cook is to fill or feed.
Only the most basic ingredients and techniques are required. Flavours, textures, aromas and freshness are second to the eater’s desire to be “full”. Pap-en-vleis, hamburgers, boerewors rolls, fish finger sandwiches, slap tjips, and kapana (sadly so) are staples for these cooks.
They have no desire to learn or grow and the best complement to a meal cooked by them is “thank you, I am full”. Unfortunately, most people who cook food (casually but also commercially) would qualify as cooks of this kind.
The next category of cooks strives to be much more accomplished. They posses a much wider range of skills and knowledge and as a result assert more of their personal identity on the eater. More often than not they focus on classic dishes, techniques and combinations, cook and serve them well. They care a lot more about what they use, how they use it and how their eaters respond to it.
They seek knowledge – of ingredients, flavours, textures, aromas and techniques – beyond the basics and generally have a good understanding of all aspects of cooking. They constantly seek improvement yet remain respectful of what works and what does not. Their purpose is “delicious” rather than simple and cheap but they are accomplished enough to understand that all three could be accomplished with the right amount of application.
In my view all professional and commercial chefs, and a good few dedicated home cooks, should fall in this category. If you are a professional chef, and not in this category, you have wasted your education, and should consider a career change or at least a serious upgrade.
This country needs more good plumbers, vegetable farmers and honest politicians but has its’ quota of so-so chefs.
As for home cooks, it’s a lot harder than what you think. It takes time and dedication and costs money.
The last category of cooks is the most exclusive, and just so it should be. The chef-as-entertainer. The scientist, the magician and the artist, all rolled into one. The “one-in-a-million-wow-man-or-woman”.
The one who changes lives, even if only for a short time.
For whom cooking is a discovery with scientific method and uncontaminated artistry. True transformation and transcendence. Ecstasy on a plate, and much more expensive than the actual drug, I may add.
Let us admire them, be inspired and learn from them. But do not dare imitate or copy them. For it you fail, it would be spectacular.
Any attempt to categorize is problematic and this one is no different. Many cooks are likely to have one foot in one category and the other in another. That is ok. Just fine, for the purpose here is to make you think about the way you cook, your reasons for cooking and hopefully to help you understand that cooking comes with responsibility. For it is a service. Something much larger than the self, it is a service to others, whether they pay or not. It goes beyond and is more important than the mere immediate goal of “filling up” or keeping the business afloat.
Being an accomplished cook requires dedication and knowledge. A sense of responsibility – toward nature that provides and those who consume. If you can not do good, at least do no harm.
Be focused in your mission and enjoy what you do. Teach others – spread knowledge and technique.
For as cook or chef, you have the power to drive more people into our already destructive food system.
Now, that would be a bad thing, would it not?
This week’s recipe could not be easier to make. It is healthy and full of natural flavours. So you’ll need only the freshest ingredients. Fresh salmon poached in olive oil with smashed potatoes and steamed asparagus. What can be simpler?
If you can’t find fresh salmon – try SeaSource – they should have – use any other firm-fleshed white fish. Good cooking does not come easier.