Monday, March 19, 2012

Are Recipes Necessary?

So  Scotty Harris posted a tweet on Facebook by chef and prolific cookbook author Sara Moulton citing a question (s) - first posed during a panel discussion by respected food-blogger Carol Blymire- that I've been turning over in my mind for at least twenty years:
 "are recipes really necessary? do we need all that detail?"
It's pretty obvious to me now that the answer to these questions is "it depends." However, it was not always so obvious.

For the longest time I believed that recipes were only for novices and those who were too insecure to trust their memories and cooking skills. I believed that if you had a solid command of technique, a sound understanding of the physical properties of food and an ability to imagine how a dish will taste before you cook it, you could do away with written recipes and cook extemporaneously. Of course, I still believe this and, most of the time, that's exactly how I approach the process of cooking. I rarely look at recipes and don't buy or own very many cookbooks.*

However, there are many occasions when highly detailed written recipes are indispensable.

Recipes are essential in virtually any commercial context you can name. This is especially true in situations where the food is going to be mass-produced and where small variations in weight/color/shape/flavor can have big impacts on profits and customer experience. Imagine trying to produce 1000lbs of  hot dogs everyday, 5 days a week without a recipe and someone to check the quality of the output against the recipe template. Nuts. Even at the "artisan" level of commercial production it's important to work from recipes. Whenever I make a batch of sausage, I write a recipe for the batch -even if I have made the same thing a hundred times before. That way if I make any changes I'll be sure to remember what I did.

Perhaps it is needless to say that highly detailed recipes are EXTREMELY important to me in my consulting business.  I mean clients hire me to create products that they can reproduce. How is that going to happen if I don't give them an accurate recipe?

Anyone who puts together a restaurant menu without codifying the recipes for every dish is going to have serious problems controlling quality and costs. Unless you have a recipe for each menu item, you cannot calculate what it costs to produce the item nor can you accurately determine what to charge.  It's not necessary to have all your line cooks looking at recipes before they prep for service however, it is much tougher to train new hires if they don't have a recipe to guide them.

So yeah, there are most definitely times when recipes are absolutely essential. But yet I think that some of us would do well  to cook extemporaneously without bothering to look at a recipe or measure ingredients.  If you are at the point where you feel you know how most ingredients taste and change as they cook. And if you know how to all of the basic cook's tools and know all the basic cooking techniques, there really is no reason why you need to be anywhere near a recipe during most casual cooking activities.

 *I've been cooking since the age of 15 and have only managed to collect about sixty cookbooks in the intervening four decades.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Meat Market

Jeremy Stanton
owner of The Meat Market
This past weekend I was up in Great Barrington, Ma with Mike Pardus on a much needed break from routine. One of the places we visited was a meat market that specializes in meat from locally raised animals. The meat looked great, but what really impressed me was how nicely the place was laid out and the vibe from the owner and staff. These are genuinely nice people who take a lot of pride in their work.

The business is a "no stone unturned" operation with lots of "value added" products derived from the animals they butcher. They also do VERY cool catering menus with stuff like spit-roasted steamship rounds (whole hind legs of beef) and whole fish baked in salt.

There's lots of great looking and tasting charcuterie and salumi and frankly I'm envious. I'm also thrilled to have seen tangible proof that there really are people out there reinventing the American butcher shop.

The Meat Market 389 Stockbridge Road Great Barrington MA 01230 | The Meat Market | The Meat Market 389 Stockbridge Road Great Barrington MA 01230:

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