As a student at the International Culinary Center, I also have a chance from time-to-time to attend to culinary demonstrations held by the school’s deans, who are preeminent culinary luminaries. These events are very popular, as much for the techniques being shown to us as for the words of wisdom that these master chefs impart to us during their talks. Last week on Wednesday, Jacques Pepin spoke to students and alumni about Classic Techniques and why they are so important to know for chefs or anyone who would like to cook well.
As Chef Pepin described it, Techniques are “Something that you repeat so much that it becomes a part of yourself, a part of your DNA.” With Technique + Talent, “at the end, you can do something marvelous.” He also spoke about how much work he put into learning techniques and practicing them until carrying out basic culinary tasks were just like breathing, like an extension of himself. His advice to the group gathered for the demonstration was to keep on learning and practicing these techniques until they becomes the same for us.
“One of the first things to do in the kitchen is certainly to sharpen your knives,” stated Chef Pepin. As culinary students are taught almost from the first moment they start (aside from being told to be on time and in proper attire for every class) keeping their knives sharp and mastering basic knife skills are fundamental components for success in their careers. Chef Pepin showed the audience what he meant by peeling an apple in one long, curling ribbon and also by removing the skin from a tomato and then shaping it into the form of a rose, each time discussing how keeping proper control over the knife and its movement was allowing him to take off just the external part of the fruit while the flesh stayed intact.
As Chef Pepin explained, in order to master Techniques, it is about taking the time and working on them. Peeling vegetables, chopping herbs, segmenting citrus fruits, working with eggs, these are all items that we can do more efficiently once we’ve learned the proper skills and techniques and keep trying to become better at them. In this culinary program, we spend hours upon hours and many lessons going over and repeating various knife cuts and preparations to try to hone our abilities and to refine our techniques. We also repeat the same lessons many times over such as the proper cooking of proteins and making sauces.
Taking a few eggs, Chef Pepin made mayonnaise during his presentation. This is one of the sauces that for me always seemed challenging to get right. Whisking together the egg yolks, mustard, vinegar, and salt, Chef Pepin emphasized that “temperature is very important.” All the ingredients should be at the same temperature to assist in making the sauce come together. He turned out a gorgeous, light yellow mayonnaise, seen in the photo with the tomato rose. Then, he poured a bunch more oil into the bowl and broke the sauce. You could hear a gasp of disbelief come from the audience. The point he was making was that “there’s no secret” as to why things break. There’s always a reason. This is something that is learned from mastering the technique of making an emulsified sauce like a mayonnaise. He then proceeded to whisk the sauce again to bring it back to its proper state.
To further bring home the point about mastering techniques as well as refining one’s knife skills, Chef Pepin also deboned a chicken and then put it back together in this neat little package. He also demonstrated cutting apart a chicken. Watching Chef Pepin talk to us while working away at the different techniques he was explaining, really made it clear that learning these fundamental skills to the point that they are second nature is a time-saver, and likely also a money-saver, and that good techniques should have a place in everyone’s kitchen.