Defensive cooking requires an improvised, ready at a moment’s notice, back-up plan without panicking.
By Chef Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
As promised in last month's article, this month’s topic is the art of defensive cooking. I got this idea when watching the Food Network’s first attempt to Americanize the Japanese phenomenon of Iron Chef by creating a television show “Iron Chef USA” hosted by William Shatner as The Chairman of the American Culinary Academy. (Don’t believe me? See the YouTube clip.) The opening episode featured the new and rapidly rising Chef Marcus Samuelsson. One of his dishes was being problematic. William Shatner said something like, “Do you have a back-up plan?” Although nearly two decades later, I can still hear Chef Samuelson say, “I’m a chef. I ALWAYS have a back-up plan.”
Several years later, I was judging an FHA Hero statewide culinary competition in Fresno, Calif. The other judge on my team was the head of the culinary department at a local community college. In judging one item, he looked at me and said, “Everything can be fixed in a kitchen except burnt and stupid.” I looked at him and chuckled. “I don’t know, I’ve fixed a lot of burnt and a lot more stupid mistakes over the years.” He asked me for an example and I told him a story.
I was running a restaurant and had an extern from a top culinary school. We were catering a buffet style offsite Mardi Gras event for 75 people. The desserts, also buffet style, were to be pecan pie and bread pudding, both accompanied by bourbon sauce. My pecan pie recipe involves removing the pies from the oven before they are fully set. The recipe then (and still does) talk about carryover heat and that if you wait until the pies fully set before taking them out of the oven they will burn.
Guess what my intern from one of the top culinary schools did with 10 pies? He came to me and said the pies were burnt and that he would make 10 new ones. I explained that, unlike culinary schools which stock many ingredients, restaurants only stock what is needed between deliveries. Thus, I didn’t have any more pecans. He offered to go to the store and buy them out of his own wallet. I told him, slightly perturbed, to look at the clock. We were leaving for the location in about an hour.
He started freaking out and looked on the verge of tears. “Don’t worry,” I told him, “I have a back-up plan.” While the guests enjoyed their buffet dinner, we took small biscuit cutters and cut out the pie centers. We got about 65 pieces. We then used a larger cutter to cut out pieces of bread pudding. Instead of buffeting the desserts, we plated a new dessert: we put down a bed of bourbon sauce, then the bread pudding, and we inserted perpendicularly the just created “pecan crisp” into the top. The newly created dish had height and color all on one plate.
The poor extern was still shaken. “But we only have 65 desserts and there are 75 people here.” I told him to follow me. I got the room’s attention and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special dessert for you tonight. But, before we bring it out please feel free to help yourself to another round at the buffet. Just a warning, the dessert is good, but it is definitely high in calories.” Twenty minutes later we served the dessert. When finished we had nearly 10 left over for the staff! The bottom line was the event went so well we repeated it for five years until I moved to another position!
A more recent story happened at Thanksgiving. I teach one day a week at the jail. I have 12 men and few have been in any kitchen or have any cooking experience. We were making Thanksgiving dinner. The team assigned to apple pies made 12 crusts. The intention was six crusts for the pie pans and six for the top. Not listening to my instructions, they blind baked ALL 12. (Considering the phrase, “Easy as pie,” I’ve always wondered why my students and externs have such trouble with pies.)
There wasn’t enough time for them to make six more top crusts because of the other things they had to cook in our limited time. I told them to cook their other assigned dishes and I would show them what to do. My intention was to make a crumble topping for the pies. However, we had enough brown sugar but not enough oatmeal. “No problem,” I told the men. “Combine the oatmeal, brown sugar, a couple of big pinches of cinnamon, a big pinch of nutmeg, and pulverized the six crusts.” We then cut in butter and put the mixture on top. Later, some of the deputies and sergeants said that was the best apple pie topping they ever had eaten and they asked for the recipe!
(A bit of humor, as I am writing this, my students came tearing into my office. We had just finished our holiday cookie run of 8,000 cookies yesterday. “Chef you wanted us to make bread pudding, but we can’t. We used the last of the cinnamon for snickerdoodles.” I looked at them and asked, “Really, what do you think you could use instead?” “Ginger,” said one. “Nutmeg,” said another. “Ground cloves,” said a third. “We have pumpkin pie spice, isn’t that mostly cinnamon?” asked a fourth. The fifth student looked at me, “Chef, I think we should use a little of each. Let’s get this done.”)
I emphasized baking in these examples because most cooks and newer chefs feel that baking has the least flexibility. It is often said, “When baking you must follow the recipe (or formula) exactly or it won’t work.” If you and your students can do defensive baking then doing defensive cooking should be—pardon the pun—a piece of cake.
The key items to take away from these stories are to always have a back-up plan. The most effective plan must:
- take no more time than the original recipe or concept
- be within the cooks’ skill set
- use on-hand ingredients
- require only equipment that is readily available
Teaching planning to our students is difficult. They just want to jump in and start cooking. (See my pervious article, Teaching Students How to Plan Their Cooking.) They even get disconcerted when they hear the word “plan.” So, I came up with the phrase, Defensive Cooking. I teach cooking defensively in several ways:
- I give them recipes for which they don’t have all the ingredients or equipment and tell them they need to improvise.
- In the middle of cooking, I will come to their station and take away something, either an ingredient or a piece of equipment.
- I created Figure It Out Fridays where students need to handle everything on their own. My assistant or myself only say something if it is a personal safety or food safety issue. (See Anything Can Happen on Assessment Friday. )
The goal is to have your students always have a back-up plan in mind without thinking about it. Just like driving, where they always watch their mirrors and are prepared to break if a child runs into the street or a drunk driver drifts from the adjoining lane. It needs to become automatic. The culinary student needs to get to the point where they don’t panic and they just get it done.
This is reality big time. No matter where students work, in a restaurant, catering, corporate dining, or hotel they will sooner or later (probably sooner) need to improvise. More importantly, learning how to formulate back-up plans and not panic when things go differently than planned is a lifelong transferable skill that will apply in every walk of life.
Next month I will discuss showing students and administrators that what you teach is more than professional and personal cooking skills. You are teaching transferable skills that will last the students the rest of their lives. Teaching these long-lasting skills are imperative for the long-term success of your students and your program.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.