Fifty Minute Classroom

Jun 29, 2022, 2:10
Taste Like a Chef

Taste Like a Chef

28 February 2022

Tasting food for service is not the same as eating. Teach culinarians how much to taste, how to use the tasting utensil and how to minimize waste in a sample product.

By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
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I recently went wine tasting with some good friends who are not culinarians. They were doing all sorts of weird things with their mouths, lips and noses every time they tasted wine. When I asked them what they were doing, they stated they watched an online video by a sommelier on how sommeliers taste wine. I thought that it was humorous and sarcastically asked them when they go to a new restaurant did they taste food like a chef? Quite taken back, they asked, “How do chefs taste food?” I was a bit shocked to hear they didn’t know how chefs taste food.

I will use the term ‘chef’ to include all chefs and cooks for the purpose of this article. However, there are many differences between the two. Please read my 50 Minute Classroom article, “Teaching Culinary Job Titles” for more information.

Although students may have spent a lot of time in the kitchen, they might not know how to taste food like a professional. That is unless we teach them. I remember asking a group of students to taste the cookies they made and each one ate an entire cookie! I recall students would ask me if I would like to taste the lunch they made, and then come up to me with a plate with three or four chicken pieces, a couple of biscuits, a full scoop of mashed potatoes and a very generous portion of green beans. I would describe how chefs taste in both of those scenarios.

The first step in teaching how to taste like a chef is explaining that tasting is not eating. A chef tastes food primarily to taste if seasoning adjustments need to be made. Tasting for doneness and texture are the next two important reasons. A chef doesn’t taste to replace eating. A chef can spend an entire shift tasting food and would not have eaten the equivalent of one meal! Let me reiterate that: A chef can spend an entire shift tasting food and still want to go have lunch or dinner.

When chefs taste they will take a spoon or fork and take a very small portion of the item. They will put it in their mouth and let it sit on their tongue longer than a person would if they were simply eating. They will mentally ask themselves questions such as, “Is there enough salt? Is it too spicy? Is the sauce smooth? Is it done?” Most will then swallow the taste, but many spit it out. They aren’t necessarily spitting it out because it is bad, they just don’t want to eat too much. (Can you imagine the calories in tasting hollandaise sauce 40 times in one day if you swallowed each one?) Another reason for the very small taste is anything tasted can’t be sold. In pre-Covid times, profit margins were tight for the foodservice industry. Post-Covid they are even tighter. All good chefs must understand basic foodservice economics -- if they don’t, they will soon be unemployed and their restaurant will have gone out of business.

It is critical to note, the spoon or fork is never reused. If disposable or compostable, the spoon or fork is put in the appropriate container. If it is a metal fork or spoon, it is to be washed. A chef will never cross contaminate food by putting a spoonful in her mouth and then putting the spoon on another plate. Further, chefs generally never taste food on a plate ready to go to a guest or customer. For the hollandaise example, the chef would taste the sauce before it is ladled over the eggs. There are several reasons for this. Once the food is on a plate there is no point tasting it since the dish is already complete. Secondly, tasting from the finished plate will probably make a mess of the presentation. Presentation is important since we eat with our eyes first. (Presentation is so important it was the subject of my first 50 Minute Classroom article in January 2009.)

The next thing to note about tasting is the utensil should contain all the unique layers of a dish. For example, in tasting a lasagna the chef will make sure that she has on her fork the top layer, sauce, cheese and filling. Again, only one small bite.

If you don’t believe the tasting bite is small, watch any cooking competition online or on television where the judges are culinary professionals, not celebrities. The “Gordon Ramsey” shows, “Beat Bobby Flay,” or “Chopped” are good examples. It is so rare for a judge to eat the entire contents of the plate, that if it happens everyone else comments on it. From what I understand from friends who have been on these types of shows, judges usually eat everything on the plate when they have been filming a long time, skipped a meal, and are hungry.

Certain foods cannot be tasted without destroying them. For example, there is no way to taste a muffin or slice of sausage pizza and still have it go out to the customer. Chefs use several means to minimize waste of sellable product:

  • They will taste before the item is completed. Tasting a small bite of cookie dough or muffin batter isn’t necessarily the best thing to do because of the raw products involved, but chefs do it. Remember, I said a small taste. You aren’t going to eat 95 percent of the cookie dough like you used to do as a kid at home.
  • Cook up a small portion of the product and try that first before cooking all the product. For example, if you are making sausages and you want to taste the seasoning, you would cook perhaps an ounce of the sausage, taste it and then adjust the seasoning.
  • Taste just one dish component. For example, if you are adding peppers to a corn muffin and want to know how spicy the muffin will be, you can just taste a small dice of the pepper without eating a whole muffin after it is cooked.
  • Think about what needs to be tasted and only taste that part of the product while it is being made. If you are making pizza, you already know what the cheese tastes like since you used it yesterday. You know what the dough tastes like because it is the same dough you have made again and again. You know what the sausage tastes like because you cooked up a small amount. So, just taste the sauce.
  • You have multiple people taste the product at the same time. You would be shocked at the number of chefs who can taste just one Tollhouse cookie.
  • Take a small taste and use the rest for the family meal. For example, if you need to taste a baguette, cut off a very small bite and then the rest would be saved for the family meal.

Now, like any other culinary skill, the only way to get good at tasting like a chef is to practice tasting. In growing up, my kids use to say, “Start small and finish it all.” For tasting you say, “Taste small and don’t taste it all.”

Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 17 years.