The Purpose of a Recipe - a Chef's Perspective
Monday, April 18, 2011
The Purpose of a Recipe
Among the many tools which a Chef has at his disposal a standard recipe template is among the most important. The importance of a recipe to a Professional Chef is both practical and theoretical. It is meant to include the technical aspects of a dish while also teaching the artistic combination of flavor and texture. A recipe communicates the ingredients and procedures the chef uses to make his creations. It is this tool which allows the chef to train and replicate his skill to his staff.
The Recipe: a Guide for Success
A Chef who keeps all of his recipes in his head must do all the cooking himself in order to make the recipes correctly. He will not be able to get consistency from other employees unless he puts it into recipe form to give to his staff. If the Chef scribbles all of his recipes on scraps of paper, again he will have difficulty maintaining a positive guest experience from his food. Of course, a recipe is not perfect, and the kitchen crew still needs to learn how to make final adjustments on seasoning and consistency in order to match the Chef’s palate. In this sense a recipe is a guideline, a way for the Chef to point his crew in the proper direction. But in the end, cooks need to know the palate and expectations of the Chef in order to reproduce the recipe to his standards.
Recipe Template as an Artistic Tool
Ultimately a recipe is a template by which a chef educates his staff to meet his criteria for flavor and technique on any given dish. The goal is that the staff would be able to replicate the taste, texture, and presentation without the chef’s help. In practice this means that the cook’s palate will be able to recognize if an ingredient’s flavor profile has changed and then make the correct adjustments on the recipe in order to still meet the chef’s expectation regarding flavor profile and texture.
For instance if a recipe calls for 1 cup of onions or garlic the actual quantity may change depending upon the season as well as the variety of onion or garlic being used. This is because onions and garlic have different intensities of flavor based upon the variety, the season, and the region grown and therefore the recipe will need to be adjusted accordingly. So again the recipe is a guide for the staff to understand the chef's intent.
Choosing a Recipe Template
There are many different programs for recipe templates available for the chef to use. Some use expensive proprietary software which incorporates invoices, inventory and recipes all into one program. Other templates use a Word document, Excel, Publisher or Access. Of the less expensive options my personal preference is Excel because it is such a powerful program and you can accomplish not only writing the recipe, but also costing a recipe. Another benefit of using Excel for your recipe templates is that you can put multiple recipes on each tab. So if your signature plate has a specific starch, a special veg, a unique sauce, a special condiment, and a specific preparation for the signature item itself, you can put each of these recipes on a separate tab in an Excel sheet and yet have them all together in one Excel workbook.
After choosing the program you'll use for your recipe template (Excel, Word, etc.) you'll also have to determine the recipe writing style you will use. Some chefs use a chef’s shorthand style of recipe writing which is useful for experienced cooks, especially if they have had culinary training. Other chefs write very detailed instructions for their recipes so that anyone can understand them. Most recipes you read online or in cooking magazines such as Gourmet or Bon Appétit use this second style of recipe writing.
Here is a good example of the difference between the two recipe writing styles: “Place the onions in a pan over medium heat and slowly cook until translucent” is an example of the long way to write a recipe. The shorthand method would simply state “Sweat the onions.” Both phrases mean exactly the same thing and experienced cooks will understand exactly what is expected by “sweat the onions”, but less experienced cooks would not grasp the concept. The chef’s shorthand method is actually more accurate and much faster to read in a professional kitchen. Other common shorthand terms used by professional chefs include: “sear the meat”, “chiffonade”, “reduce au sec”, and “blanch” are but a few expressions. Each of these words or phrases condenses an entire technique into a simple phrase or word.
In the end, the style of recipe writing which you use will depend upon the culinary education of the people you are writing the recipe for. Home cooks and staff lacking a culinary education or high-end restaurant experience will need the “supersized” version of a recipe with complete details of how to execute it properly. Staff who have a culinary education or who have worked in high-end restaurants however will benefit from and prefer the chef’s shorthand method of recipe writing.
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