Ask the Experts

Cooking Conundrum

I finally moved into an off-campus apartment this semester with a newly re-done kitchen. I’m most excited about avoiding the Dining Hall food, but I’m not the greatest cook just yet. How can I take my cooking skills to the next level?

First of all, congratulations on choosing a great hobby! While 98% of Americans say they prefer to cook their meals at home, many of us don’t find the time to make this a reality. We should: in addition to being fun and rewarding, learning how to cook can be great for your health. Studies tell us that people who cook for themselves are much healthier – which is no surprise, because we also know that eating a lot of take-out and restaurant food is quite bad for you. In fact, just living near a fast food restaurant means that, statistically speaking, you are 5.2% more likely to be obese!

While home-cooked food is often (but not always) better for you than the foods served by popular restaurants, take-out spots, and fast food eateries, there is no denying that restaurant food does seem to have a special taste to it.

Part of this, of course, is due to the chef. While you are no doubt a great cook, a chef may have a degree that requires between nine months and four years of schooling – to say nothing of the years they spend working their way up to the top job at your local eatery. That is a lot of experience going into each meal that you eat at a restaurant!

Of course, practice alone is not the reason for the success of those chefs. They also have a few other advantages.

For one, commercial kitchens are outfitted with the very best in kitchen appliances. Top-of-the-line ovens can cook food in different ways: for instance, some ovens can act both as conventional ovens (which have heating units on their tops and bottoms, allowing for both broiling and baking) and convection ovens (which move hot air around for fast cooking). Some luxury kitchen appliances can replicate these things in the home, so it is possible for hobbyists to get some of the key tools that the professionals use. According to one of the more tech-forward appliance retailers, their customers are most excited about the longevity they get from their appliances above all else. It’s true that in this case, quality really does matter.

Top restaurants also pay a lot of attention to ingredients. For instance, elite steakhouses snap up the best meat – called “prime grade” – at such a rate that most of it actually never reaches your local supermarket, making it hard for you to start with the same quality beef that your favorite restaurant has. With that said, there are still plenty of ways to improve your ingredient selection. High-end grocers and specialty shops like farmer’s markets and local butchers can help you find ingredients that your typical supermarket just cannot offer. Quality matters more for some ingredients, like seafood. According to one large bulk seafood retailer, their most challenging steps are sourcing from the best clients, and shipping in a timely fashion to ensure both quality and freshness for their customers.

Of course, there is a reason that restaurant food is often less healthy than home-cooked food. While prime meats need little seasoning, restaurants do season their meat – and less high-end establishments can be very liberal with their use of flavor enhancers like butter. Diners, casual dining establishments, and (of course) fast food joints are particularly guilty here, which is part of why the percentage of calories we consume outside of the home ballooned from 18% to 32% between the 1970s and the 2000s. So if you are trying to replicate a steakhouse steak, light seasoning and prime meat is the way to go, but a diner-style omelet is going to be heavy on the butter and cheese.

Finally, restaurants have ambience and focus on presentation. Though these may not sound like things that actually affect the quality of your meal, studies show that they actually do. Experts say that science proves that what you see can affect how things taste.

So there you have it: to cook like a restaurant chef, you will have to practice, use quality appliances, invest in quality ingredients, season wisely, and present your dish well.

“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.” — Julia Child

Martin J. Young is a former correspondent of Asia Times.