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[whitespace] Sleight of Hand

The cool of culinary artistry

By Marina Wolf

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE between a professional chef and a home cook? One hand tossing. How's that for a culinary koan? I used to think the answer was somewhere in the total dedication to one's craft, the finely honed palate, the even more finely honed knives, the $20,000 culinary school education. It's all these and one thing more: total nonchalance.

I realized this the other day while I was trapped against a giant stovetop watching a chef make a seafood stew. He reached into the containers of fish chunks and clams and pulled out exactly the right amounts. He tossed the contents of the pan in a practiced, one-handed shake, and splashed it all with wine, not even looking. His hands and arms were loose and relaxed, even while he carried on two simultaneous conversations and mugged

for a photographer. Joe Cool at the cooktop, and the whole thing took five minutes max.

Contrast this to my own recipe for seafood stew:

    Find cookbook: 5 mins.
    Mince garlic: 2 mins.
    Mince garlic again (it's not fine enough): 2 mins.
    Debone fish with fingernails: 7 mins.
    Saw fish into pieces with dull knife: 3 mins.
    Scrape burned pieces of garlic off bottom of pan and start over: 8 mins.
    Put shellfish in pan, consult cookbook: 2 mins.
    Poke and prod: 4 mins.
    Consult cookbook: 2 mins.

You get the picture. More than a half an hour has passed, and I haven't even gotten to the tomato products yet.

The importance of support staff cannot be underestimated. What I saw in action in the professional kitchen was the result of several layers of kitchen help doing all kinds of distasteful things to stinky food products, just to get them ready for a fine dining experience. Someone scrubbed those mussels, chopped those shallots, stirred the flavorful fish stock from time to time at the back of the stove. Some poor sap will scrub the floor when dinner is done, mopping up whatever spillage or splatter the chef may have overlooked or even incorporated as part of the flair that impressed me so much. A chef does not worry about running out of pans or not having enough minced garlic; somebody else is taking care of those things.

But professional performance goes beyond mere prep work, into some kind of ultra-laid-back Zone, made possible by repetition. If you're grabbing handfuls of fish every day for years, as the young chef had, you'll know the difference between 3.5 and 4 ounces of cod chunks, or some angry head-cook will feed you your own hat and then show you the difference. As a result, professional chefs trust themselves, in a way that doesn't involve any affirmations or internal pep-talks. They can rely on the body to do what needs to be done.

For most home cooks like myself, self-trust comes hard, if at all. Take that seafood soup, which I've made several times and it always turns out wonderfully. Logically I know that a lack of clams is not going to adversely affect the outcome, and that a little extra oil in the pan won't ruin the whole thing. And yet I forget these things. I don't trust my timid muscle and sense memory to know when the fish is just done, or to remember that the garlic will soften and melt into the stew, so it doesn't need to be a paste. I cling to the cookbook, hunch over it obsessively, and second-guess myself at every turn.

A chef doesn't have time for that. A chef goes with the flow, one hand tossing, and trusts that the flavor will follow.

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From the November 16-22, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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