“Secrets” might be a bit of a stretch since I’m sure you can find these tips in any cooking tutorial on YouTube. However, I was no stranger to the kitchen when I was growing up, and I didn’t know all these until I started cooking with Sung.
Sung cooked for five years in Los Angeles. He started as a line cook at a fast food place where he fell in love with the profession. After working his way up at several restaurants, he was promoted to head chef of a trendy fine dining restaurant. That’s where he got to manage the kitchen, create menu items, all that cool stuff. And it’s also where he met me.
I’m lucky to live with a chef, not only because he makes delicious food at home, but because he’s teaching me the art of cooking. Today I want to share the most important things I’ve learned from sharing a kitchen with him.
1. Use good pans
For me, the biggest kitchen revelation was the type of pans that professional cooks use: carbon steel. Here’s a good description. This cookware is made of 1 percent carbon and 99 percent iron which makes it sturdy yet light.
A carbon steel pan cooks food like a cast iron skillet, but it heats up faster and is easier to handle. The heat conduction is similar to stainless steel tri-ply. The surface stays as slippery as brand-new nonstick, but there’s no synthetic coating or oven temperature limits. As long as you season the pan properly, it will last forever.
After cooking, I scrub the pans clean with hot water (no soap), dry them, then wipe the inside with some oil on a paper towel. Easy.
2. Get your meez together
Mise en place means “set up” in French. It’s also shortened to “meez.” In his legendary memoir Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain writes, “Mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks.”
“As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system … The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.”
Home cooking doesn’t require the same intensity as restaurant cooking. Still, it goes more smoothly when I have my ingredients lined up, vegetables already chopped, and seasonings next to the stove.
3. Turn the stove on early
I used to turn the burner on approximately two seconds before I was ready to cook. Rookie error! You never want to be standing around waiting for your pan to heat up, or worse, trying to cook food in a barely-warm pan.
In a restaurant, the burners stay on throughout the entire service. For home cooks, turn the stove on well ahead of time to make sure your cookware is thoroughly heated before you add food.
4. Add more butter and salt (and acid)
In her popular book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Samin Nosrat writes, “Play to each element’s strengths: use Salt to enhance, Fat to carry, and Acid to balance flavor.”
Flavorful food really comes from these simple components. Sung told me, “If you taste your food and it’s missing something but you’re not sure what, it’s probably acid.” Citrus, vinegars, tomatoes, wine: acids balance the fat in a dish and really bring out the other flavors.
Sung and I like to watch Chopped while we eat dinner. I am always a little horrified when competitors toss an entire stick of butter in the pan, but Sung just nods his head. As he’s said many times, the real secret to why restaurant food tastes good is the absurd amount of butter and other fats used in cooking.
Just as salient is the amount of salt used in the cooking process. Salt amplifies flavor. At our house we use kosher salt for cooking and sometimes finish with Maldon sea salt flakes. If you want your home cooking to taste better (and your doctor doesn’t have you on a diet), add more butter and salt to your food. It will probably still be less than a typical restaurant meal.
5. Clean up as you cook
This echoes a line from my favorite scene in the movie Ratatouille. Colette is training Linguini in the kitchen and bemoans the pile of filthy pots and pans towering over his station. She leans in and says, “I’ll make this easy to remember: keep your station clear … or I will kill you!”
Sung also reminds me (much more gently) to tidy up while I work. Back in the day, I would whip up a tornado of messiness in the kitchen because I mistakenly thought the chaos fueled creativity. Spilled flour on the floor, carrot peels covering the counter, every single bowl and spoon dirtied. It wasn’t cute.
Not only is it amateur to have a cluttered station, it’s a safety hazard. Now I strive to keep things as orderly as I can.
6. Dinner is served … at 7/11
This is not a secret about how chefs cook. This is a secret about what chefs eat. When Sung and I were first dating, I had this misconception that professional cooks were picky eaters. I thought they either cooked their own meals or only ate gourmet food. No and no.
After a busy Saturday night service, Sung and I would take the bus home and reward ourselves at the taco truck on the corner. But most nights, we bought our dinner at the 7/11 across the street. After cooking high-end food all night, Sung wanted nothing more than a $3 egg salad sandwich and a bag of Chex Mix.
So if you ever end up cooking for a chef, don’t be nervous. Professional cooks may have five-star palates but they tend to be a humble crew who will be delighted with a home-cooked meal. Like Sung always says, “Food tastes better when someone else makes it for you.”