I am inclined towards structure, discipline and routine - particularly the possibility of perfection through repetition, but each attempt an improvement of its precedent for a better outcome. I attribute this to arriving in Singapore a sheltered, ignorant kampung kid (sheltered even by fellow kampung kids' standards). Back in the late 1990s, I was very impressed by how the little garden city was so advanced to every detail. People there took great pride in making everything better as the country - at that time - was striving to be world-class in its infrastructure. It was a culture shock but I learned to appreciate it very quickly. In fact, through the years I became such a person, running things in life asking how it can be done better, faster, and so on.
Hence, with much self-imposed pressure to do well - no excuse for me not to! - I cried myself to sleep the night before the first day in culinary school, knowing my life will be different when I wake up. You see, my life in the recent years has been rather "free-form" - I love it very much but at times I fear creating my own prison instead of playground, and growing unappealingly lazy. In Malaysia I took French and scored 90.5 for the minimum certification for a French passport. Having settled down in New York, I was undecided about doing French despite the French Institute having so much to offer. It is an option but not the only one.
So that was basically how it started. I am very pleased to share with you things I have learned so you can decide if these ideas are good for your own kitchen. It will be naïve to assume all that is done in commercial kitchens can be done also in the home kitchen. So I will only list those that can and should be implemented by the home cook. Bear in mind this is independent of what you cook and how your kitchen is designed.
1. Designate areas for prepping, cooking and serving. Set up prep area with cutting board, knife, and a little trash bowl. Secure the board by placing damp paper towels underneath which you can discard after. By using dish towels, you are giving yourself that extra task of washing it, and if there are raw meat juices, it is not fun at all. Keep uncooked items away from dinnerware. Keep tools together with cookware. Use different towels for these areas to prevent contamination. For mileage, use good paper towels for prep area, Good Morning towels for cooking, and save your prettiest towels for serving and the older ones drying dishes.
2. Clean as you go. Clean up prep area before moving on to cook. Clean up cook area as you move through the stages. So that by the time you plate, you are left only with the last pieces of cookware to wash later. At every stage, you minimize clutter, have proper closure thus keeping a clear mind for what is ahead. Your focus should be on the food you make, not on looking for tools only to realize they are dirty or making space on the counter.
3. Buy containers with lids in large quantities and standard capacities for easy storage. They can be stacked up hence reducing footprints in any storage compartment, be it the fridge or shelves. The standard one-cup, one-pint, one-quart capacities are useful for portioning as well. I used to think using uniform containers for storage only applies to people who either buy dry goods in bulk or had read too much Martha Stewart magazines. But doing so does have a significant impact when storage space is tight and limited. Even if you have to remove some containers to retrieve the one at the back of the cabinet, at least they'd be easier to handle than boxes and plastic packages in various shapes and sizes.
4. Label and date the items for storage. You will know how soon to consume and when to throw them out. For hard-to-find ingredients, you may even want to include the shop from which you found them. I do this because not all my favorite items come from the same store (eg. a specific brand or lower price) and after a while, I forget which store I got them from. In the case of New York City, not every store in Chinatown sells candlenut or bak kut teh spice mix. Likewise in Kuala Lumpur, not every supermarket has Maille (the only brand that JL would pay for) cornichons and dijon mustard. All you need is a roll of masking tape and a permanent marker in your main kitchen drawer or stuck to the fridge door.
6. Plan the menu for all your meals for the week. This is closely related to the previous point. Go through recipes if you are using them, consolidate a list of ingredients to optimize usage and budget. Yes it can be a pain but better to find 10 minutes for this than be caught without a strategy by Wednesday morning. Some ingredients may even stretch across multiple meals cooked in different form.
7. Organize your fridge and freezer with food safety in mind. In general, cooked and ready-to-eat items (cold cuts, pickles, cheese) are placed on top. For raw meat, consider the packaging as it may be safer to hold them in a container or even a plate so that even if dripping occurs, it does not contaminate other items beside or below. A husband once helped his wife store raw chicken parts in the fridge, only for the wife to realize the plastic bag that held them had been poked through by some pointed parts. Imagine the mess. Err, no, it wasn't us but I can understand the extra work that came after.
8. Invest in quality cookware. And learn how to care for them so they last forever. To identify your key workhorses, think about your most frequently employed techniques and cooked dishes. I use a sauteuse not just for braising, but also dishes that are normally cooked using a wok (which is a "nice to have" for me). Rice is cooked in a pot on the stove as I can no longer afford the space for a rice-cooker (aka the Asian household staple). It is good to keep to the standard diameters for your pans, saucepans and pots so you can interchange the glass and metal lids. Use nonstick minimally and take good care of it.
9. Not all tools have to be expensive. A few, yes but chances are, these will last for years. In fact, nine out of ten tools in the home kitchen can be bought under five bucks (hello Daiso, Ikea and most Asian homeware stores). If and when they break, say thank you, give a good kiss, and get a replacement. More importantly they must have served you well.
10. Use kosher salt for cooking. It is affordable and because it weighs less by volume than table salt, it allows greater precision in seasoning, which means you are less likely to over-salt your food. Besides, most recipes especially western ones use coarse grain salt. Try dissolving one tablespoon of kosher salt and fine (table) salt each in equal amount of hot water, say half a cup, then taste them both.
12. Acquire knife skills. Invest in a good chef knife and paring knife. Treat them like babies. Wash and wipe them dry immediately after use. Learn how to keep them sharp. Learn to curl your fingers and use the knuckles to pace your cuts. Learn the correct way to hold your knife when you cut, move or pass it to someone else. And never, I repeat, never, ever, even try to catch a falling knife. It happens when you are careless, or standing next to a safety-hazard-don't-hire-him character. How one handles his knives reveals much about the person.
13. Learn to multi-task. Boil water as you prep. Sweat the mirepoix as your brown the meat, while the soup is already left simmering on the back burner. The key to this boils down to having a plan before you start. Remember the saying: when you fail to plan, you plan to fail. While you may spend three, four hours preparing a dinner party meal, bear in mind your active cooking time is usually a fraction of that time.
14. Develop muscle memory. One of the best things I experienced in school and restaurant kitchens. For example, when you first learn to truss a chicken, do it, cut off the twine, and do it a few more times. Indulge in me for a moment - I can truss a chicken beautifully within 20 seconds, thanks to my no-nonsense chef-instructor who got us to repeat it as many times as we can in five minutes, while he watched over us like a hawk so much my hands were cold and shaking.
15. Listen. While I have several contrasting playlists depending on how I feel and what is cooking, there is a sense of calm that heightens my awareness level (which leads to greater confidence) when I cook in complete silence. No background noises. All I hear is how a covered pot of liquid is coming to a boil, or how it is simmering very slowly, or how a drop of water sizzles and skitters across the surface of a well-heated pan, or the crackling of slightly wet, leafy greens hitting the oil for a quick sauté. True pleasure of cooking comes from all senses.
16. Taste. Be inquisitive. Taste ingredients in its singular form whenever possible, as in, before the ingredient is used with other ingredients. For a start, compare the same herb in fresh and dried forms; or the same spice whole and ground. Take note of the ones you like and explore new dishes with these ingredients. What a great way to extend your repertoire!
17. Eat out. Yes. Eat out regularly. But only at good places so you can learn from what they serve and how they serve it. Another thing about the husband: he treats me to some of the best restaurants in town (especially so in NYC) nearly every weekend. When he likes a particular dish, he would make me taste it, and we would discuss how it is done. Later on I would try replicating it at home. Everybody wins. Him, me, and the restaurant. However, there are many reasons why some things remain best left to the restaurants. I hope to write about this someday.
18. Never stop learning. The world of regional cuisine is shrinking by the day. Yet no one can claim to know everything. Everybody learns something new everyday. I remember when the chef de cuisine enquired about baby bok choy; and when a pastry chef got excited about his latest discovery of a flavoring ingredient that tastes so amazing, which turned out to be pandan leaves. Anti-climatic for our Malaysian-Singaporean folks, I know. But guess what: pastry chef is French, spent so many years working his way through the best kitchens, leaving little time for his family, let alone a trip to Asia. So don't beat yourself up not knowing what herbes de Provence is. Look it up instead and learn to use it. Embrace that the more you learn, the more you do not know. Just don't ask me about Latin American peppers.
19. Learn techniques. Not recipes. Do you know why sometimes your steamed egg custard has a grainy surface, and sometimes it is nice and smooth? Same recipe. But most likely different levels of heat when steaming. When you understand the concept of a stir-fry, the wok becomes your playground. Mastering the braising technique will empower you to make anything from coq au vin to lamb curry. All you would need is a quick reference of the key ingredients and some practicing. The thing about recipes is that five people in the same kitchen with the same tools are likely to produce five different outcomes despite using the same recipe.
20. Mise en place. I leave this one for the very last because it has been written too often in any article or book about cooking. For culinary students, it is one of the first concepts they get drilled on. Ideally you should get everything you need ready before cooking. Depending on the cooking technique involved, sometimes you can get away a little - like when you are braising and some ingredients are only added in much later. But when you do a typical Asian stir-fry that takes only minutes, it is unlikely for you to wing it. Not at the expense of the dish, at least. Overcooked pork liver all because you forgot the scallions? Ouch.
Take some time to digest and identify the habits you can start to improve your productivity level at home. It may not be smooth-sailing at first but given continual practice, these habits will be so ingrained one day you just work like that whenever you step in the kitchen.