By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
Much like the character Radar from the hit show M*A*S*H could hear choppers long before anyone else, a seasoned cook or chef develops a unique set of skills. To an outsider, this may give you pause and you may wonder, “How does an individual acquire such a broad range of adroitness?” The answer? Intuition and time. Lots of time.
Here are some examples of these traits:
Hearing. There are countless sounds in a kitchen, both abrupt and ongoing, but a chef can isolate something like a timer, no matter how faint, like a dog hears a whistle. We must remain ever alert.
Smell. As culinarians, we develop (or should anyway), a precise sense of smell. Yes, taste as well, but since we only taste five things: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami, but smell between 3,000 and 4,000 discernable aromas, depending on gender, we learn to pick out aromas that others may not notice. For example, a “steam well” is a space in a kitchen for holding sauce containers heated by hot water. Few aromas are more unique than when one of these wells is devoid of water. It is faint to the untrained nose, but a cook or chef can smell it a mile away.
Intuition. Reading people, particularly in one’s own industry, is not necessarily unique to a cook or chef. But as you become seasoned in this profession, you begin to see, hear and sense things that become automatic red or green flags. We may interview someone for an extended period of time, but we’re generally pinpointing a few essential traits that will be a snapshot of your entire time with us. What may be a negative for an accountant or carpenter could be the perfect trait in a young cook. And vice versa.
Speed. I’ve witnessed even the most “candy coated” of chefs sprint with Olympic-level and dodge obstacles with Bruce Lee dexterity en route to a pot ready to overflow with cream. A watched pot never boils? That may be true, but the unfortunate flipside of that is the second a chef turns his back, that cream will cunningly leap out of its captive pot and spill over the stove clogging your pilot light, as if to say “I got you this time.”
Ingenuity. Repairing things with MacGyver creativity is part of the unwritten job description. Give a chef some duct tape, butcher’s twine, a kazoo, three twist ties and aluminum foil, and we can fix—or at least stop the crisis—of just about anything.
Battle ready. A chef is in a constant state of readiness. We are always punched in and we are always on call. It’s as if the bat signal is always in the sky. Essentially, if the doors are open, we’re ready for anything. And don’t ever let another chef tell you otherwise.
Size matters. A chef has the ability to look at any prepped item, and, with very little thought or analysis, select the appropriately sized container. We can look at what’s left in a sheet pan or what hasn’t yet been scraped from a 40-quart mixing bowl, and always find the perfect sized vessel.
Chefs are no different or more hardworking than many of our fellow workforce. We may all have what today’s youth may refer to as “mad skills,” but these are just a few of ours.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.