What’s your cooking DNA?
Just before I started my journey towards becoming a professional chef in Fenruary 2013, I spent some time reflecting on the significant recipes and culinary influences/experiences that have shaped the kind of cook I have become. I believe that anyone interested in cooking and food has their own unique cooking DNA – and identifying your cooking DNA building blocks can help you take your cooking to the next level, as well as understand and develop your personal culinary ‘signature’.
So how do you identify your cooking DNA?
Start by thinking about the cooking you experienced (and helped with) as a child – which dishes did you first want to learn to cook yourself? And which do you still cook now? These are some of mine:
- The amazing gruyere and cheddar cheese soufflé my Mum cooked when I was growing up – a variation of a recipe from the classic 1970s Dairy Book of Home Cookery, from which most of my first tentative forays into the kitchen came.
- Granny P’s saucy lemon pudding – one of my favourite childhood memories. Served with lashings of cream.
Moving on to your teenage years – who influenced you? Which dishes or recipes take you back there? For me:
- The lodger who introduced me to pasta at the end of the 1980’s – I still cook her tagliatelle in a creamy mushroom, garlic and white wine sauce in almost the same way.
- Breton buckwheat galettes (crepes), from family holidays in Brittany as a teenager – particularly the local speciality - scallops and leeks in a creamy sauce… yum!
- Being given a second-hand blender at university and discovering the wonderful world of soup.
Which books and tools have made the most difference to your culinary adventures?
- Those classic mid-1990’s Sainsbury’s recipe cards - much yummier (and less healthy) than the ones you get today!
- Nigel Slater – Appetite – a book I turn to again and again.
- The Henckels knives given to me a decade ago by a great friend, which neither of us expected would one day become the tools of my trade.
- The BBC Good Food website for great recipes that work every time.
- The KitchenAid mixer my boyfriend bought to tempt me to move to Tasmania…
Which restaurants have played a pivotal role in your history? The places you choose for family celebrations or meeting up with friends….?
- The Churchill Arms in London – I have never found a better prawn Pad Thai, even in Thailand!
- Tasting menu at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen for a big family birthday dinner back in 2006 – the burrata and gnocchi blew me away.
- The Canteen restaurants (and now I live so far away, the Canteen cookbook is still a favourite)
- The fabulous Bumbles1950 restaurant in Victoria, sadly now closed, but oh so inspirationally creative - its 7-course degustation menu hooked me at first taste
Perhaps getting to know great produce has been important to you, as it has to me?
- Lobster, crab and mackerel straight from the sea during childhood holidays in West Wales
- Growing various vegetables, fruits and herbs in my London garden – the heartbreak of repeated slug attacks and the joy of the first courgette, chilli and blueberry as well as home-grown basil pesto and my personal favourite - home-grown tomatillo salsa
- Riverford Farm organic vegetable boxes, delivered fortnightly when I lived in London – great for stretching my vegetable boundaries – like what to create with swiss chard?
- Combining two passions on a walking and food-tasting holiday in Tuscany.
- The yummy new cheeses and wines I discovered and sampled at Cheese at Leadenhall
And then there are those idiosyncracies and culinary experiences that make your cooking DNA truly unique:
- My fundamental belief that cheese and ice cream are two main reasons for living. Most cheeses qualify, but the ice cream has to be quality vanilla, or Haagen Dazs pralines & cream.
- For me, there is no substitute for butter, preferably unsalted – it just tastes better.
- Bacon does absolutely nothing for me.
- Discovering the wondrous dessert known as lemon posset in, of all places, my work canteen.
- Explaining to waiters (oh so many times) that I drink dry white wine with my rare steak – who says it has to be red wine, anyway?
- Opportunistic local cookery classes while on holiday in Thailand, India and Zanzibar.
- Cookery classes in London: at Cucina Caldesi I learned how to make pasta and gnocchi from Giancarlo Caldesi himself; at Divertimenti I learnt how not to cut myself while chopping an onion and at Leiths I unexpectedly found myself in a Healthy-Cooking class run by Jennifer Joyce, the author of Skinny Meals in Heels.
Summing up the building blocks of my cooking DNA you could say:
- I cook more with vegetables, pasta, cheese and seafood than I do with meat.
- Dairy rules, particularly cream (naughty but nice!). Low-calorie/low-fat barely feature (the Healthy-Cooking class was accidental - a friend couldn’t go last minute and gave me their place)
- A range of international culinary influences but an enduring love of Italian food.
- Chocolate does not even register as an influence, but lemons and white wine certainly do…
- A haphazard collection of cookery experiences and classes, but no overall framework – I was missing some basics, but had mastered a cheese soufflé.
So why not give it a go yourself – make a list of your cooking DNA building blocks and see what conclusions you can draw - what features strongly and what hardly gets a mention? Maybe ask a friend or partner to look through your list and tell you what they see (and don’t see) too. Are there any surprises?
Then the fun really begins… how do you want your cooking DNA to develop?
For me, getting to grips with meat cookery was the big one – something I lacked confidence and experience with. Filling in the basics was also important – making stocks and sauces; learning which cookery methods suited different meats and fish, and how to prepare them - portioning a chicken, filleting a fish, trussing a roast, preparing seafood. And last but not least, broadening my range of desserts beyond lemon….