August 16, 2018
By Chef Adam Busby
It’s as common a phrase as “yes chef” or “needs more salt” in cooking school parlance. You wouldn’t use a paring knife to chop an onion nor would you use a French knife to peel an apple. Simply put, there’s a “right tool” for every job. Hold that thought.
As a chef, I find inspiration in the kitchen from many sources, but none more potent than through travel.
There’s a caveat though; I especially enjoy travelling to places known for their food, discovering the fundamental tools and techniques that make simple dishes ethereal. What I am after are countries and regions where traditions run deep, real deep, and where recipes that have been handed down for decades, even centuries. Where can I discover recipes and flavor combinations that have stood the test of time, recipes that are so iconic and impactful that once tasted become seared in your mind with an unforgettable flavor memory synonymous with a place and a time.
You know the kind I’m talking about…one bite takes you to a “why didn’t I know about this before” moment. Bars, cafes, restaurants, food trucks, hawkers, casual street vendors – all hold potential and there are always answers – it’s like looking for a few needles in a haystack and it takes an inordinate amount of time.
It may be interesting for you to know that in the majority of places I visit, a truly epic dish is usually accompanied by an interesting piece of equipment that has played a significant role in the way that dish is cooked, how it looks and importantly, how it tastes. Think of a tandoor oven and the way a naan looks and tastes freshly prepared. How about a gyros and the salty fatty crispiness of the lamb as it’s shaved from the vertical rotisserie? Could you really do justice to either of those items in an oven?
I recall a few years back, inviting a slew of chefs from southeast Asia to a conference at our California campus. We had preset stations in the kitchen with cutting boards, food processors, mixing bowls and tools in preparation for the three days of cooking that lay ahead. I had departed the kitchen to do something midway through the first morning only to return to a somewhat inspiring sight: Eight of the nine chefs were now sitting on the floor pounding and grinding a multitude of ingredients into pastes, sauces, rubs and marinades. Someone had found our cache of mortar & pestles; the food processors and knives we had so carefully sharpened and preset sat untouched on each station.
Crushing, grinding, mincing and chopping may appear to do the same thing in reducing an ingredient to ever smaller particulate but that is a misconception. A blade of any sort will slice across the cellular web of an ingredient, exposing only those cells cut by the blade. Crushing and grinding with mortar & pestle opens every cell of an ingredient releasing aromatics, oils and juice on a factor of multiples; the comparison in available flavor is, quite simply, astonishing. Try making a simple pesto at home using these two techniques and you’ll never go back, I promise. Really. The food processor is great tool, but don’t always assume it’s the right tool for the job. Recently I scanned the internet for a commercial culinary version of the mortar & pestle to see if there was an electric model for volume production. What I found was a smattering of pharmaceutical variants, far too precious and none battle hardened for a commercial kitchen. I’ll have to wait for a NAFEM member company to work it out for me, but in the meantime, it does bring up some interesting opportunities.
We know our customers love the authentic look of seeing unusual tools in use and our students are always eager to learn the technique(s) to become proficient in their use. I am always impressed at equipment shows to see NAFEM members’ ability to create the next latest tool and labor-saving device. I look equally forward to seeing what traditional tool will be discovered next and commercialized for the American chef.