I recently had the chance to sit down and chat with Raleigh chef and restaurateur Ashley Christensen. And I had a very specific question to ask her.
Last November, I attended a talk Chef Christensen was giving in November to promote her new book Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner and to talk about Raleigh’s close-knit and enthusiastic food community. Ashley owns a handful of spots in the downtown area, including a burger joint, a craft cocktail bar, a high-end establishment specializing in open-fire cooked dishes, and Poole’s, a hometown diner that serves some pretty fantastic elevated fare.
Toward the end of the evening during the Q&A session, I wanted to ask her: How do you get away from relying on recipes? How do you get to the point where you’re going on instinct and intuition? Time slipped away, however, and I didn’t get a chance to pose my question.
Later in December, I had already started thinking and compiling notes about a new writing venture to explore that very question. I’d been pondering the process of mixing ingredients together and had wondered how chefs are able to just know what works and what doesn’t, not to mention how much or how little to add.
Since I hadn’t yet gotten around to visiting Poole’s Diner, I decided to drop by for dinner one night. Being the middle of December during the height of the holiday shopping season, Ashley happened to be in the house signing copies of her book and chatting with guests. I figured this would be as good a time as any to chat with her.
I waited until she was free, walked over, and plopped down in the seat across the table. I wasn’t there to get a copy of the book signed, I explained — my son had already been kind enough to give me a signed copy a couple months earlier. I told her I just had one quick question:
How do you get away from relying on recipes and measuring everything?
She looked up and thought for a moment, but not for long because she already knew the answer. I’m paraphrasing here, but here’s basically how she put it.
Read a lot of recipes. As many as you can get your hands on. And try cooking them, of course. Try changing some ingredients around to see what happens. Mess up some things. But what it boils down to is looking through the recipe for moments where things change. When the sauce changes, when the meat sears, when the vegetables caramelize to bring forth new flavors. Once you can recognize those moments, you’ll better understand how to improvise while cooking.
It was then my turn to look up and think for a moment, but not for long because I knew there were other people patiently waiting to chat with her. I had my answer and thanked her graciously and congratulated her on her cookbook.
When I returned to my kitchen later that evening, I cracked open a few cookbooks and scanned through a few recipes. I soon found exactly what Ashley was talking about, right there in the instructions. All the times I’d read recipes, I’d never made the connection.
A few ingredients are combined and then a process — sauteing, blending, roasting, or even just sitting and marinating — is applied to them. The application of a process is precisely where the change occurs. Simply combining ingredients doesn’t usually initiate a reaction, but as soon as you do something to affect that combination, the elements work together to create change. For example, putting sliced onions and a knob of butter into a pan just gives you raw onions and butter. As soon as you put some heat under that pan, however, the chemical makeup of the onions completely changes. The butter helps concentrate the heat onto the cells of the onion, softening them and helping them release simple sugar molecules, which then brown to a sweet crisp, making your house smell so delicious.
Typically, once that initial reaction occurs, more ingredients are added and another process is applied until a second change happens. More ingredients, more changes, until the final result looks, smells, and tastes nothing like its raw ingredients.
If you’ve reached this point in my story and are nodding your head in silent agreement, I probably don’t have to tell you that this process of creating change isn’t exclusive to cooking. A blank canvas and tubes of paint are exactly that until colors are smushed together and slathered onto the cloth to create a new entity. Orchestral instruments are just ornate pieces of wood and brass until musicians take them up and drag a bow across their strings or blow into them in harmonious partnership.
And like that fiery oven or sizzling stove top, we ourselves are the agents of change in art and music, in social efforts, and in life itself. We apply the process and the heat and the purpose and we make things happen. And on a larger scale, each of us alone are simple elements, but when brought together in a single purpose, we are every bit an elemental force of change as the heat to a steak.
The possibility for change is always there. We just have to learn to recognize it when we see it.
In addition to a twenty-year career as a web applications developer, Alan McCoy holds a BFA from East Carolina University and is the author of Left of the Dial, a screenplay about a campus radio station in the mid-80s. His next project, the culinary web series About a Handful, is coming soon. Alan lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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