One of the greatest things about food is the infinite possibilities. Over thousands of years of human and culinary evolution, we’re still creating new fusions, tastes and cooking innovations. Yet, despite the fact that food has never been more diverse or ever-changing, there are some staples that every chef worth their (ahem) salt should know.
The elements highlighted below might not seem like the most exotic or obscure to grace a dish, but learning how to prepare them the right way serves many purposes: it sets you on the right track to become a more skilled chef, many of the skills required to make these meals are transferable across the kitchen, and of course, every new cooking skill you learn can enrich your life.
Here are some dishes (and one dressing) that you should master…...
1. Seared Fish and Meat
Pan-searing fish and meat is an essential skill for just about any chef (regardless of where you end up working). And yet, searing fish is a skill that eludes some beginners.
Pan-fried fish (from haddock to tuna steak and beyond) is practically ubiquitous in restaurants across both the East and West. And, before you conquer it, it can be unforgiving; fish can overcook in an instant, and when it does, the meal is ruined.
Similarly, if a minute-steak has been frying at the wrong temperature or (of course) for over a minute, it’s not fit to serve.
Learning to conquer the minutiae of pan-fried protein dishes is one of cooking’s most transferable skills, usable in a range of cuisine and restaurant types, whether you’re flash-frying squid in Tokyo or prepping a super-rare steak in Paris.
2. Roast Chicken
“Everyone should know how to roast a chicken,” Anthony Bourdain said. “The ability to properly prepare a moist yet thoroughly cooked bird, with nicely crisp skin, should be a hallmark of good citizenry.”
He also added, in more colourful language than we would use, that it’s as easy to mess it up as it is to get right.
True, this is not the most complicated nor obscure dish you will find, but it is an important one. It’s nourishing, insanely popular and it’s versatile. Even if you’re not serving roast chicken regularly across your cooking career, you might well be preparing the meat for use in other dishes.
Additionally, it will teach you how to test meat for safe temperature, how to prepare food safely (raw chicken is one of the riskiest foods for contamination) and, over time, you can add your own twists to it.
Of course, it’s one of the most commonly prepared ceremonial dishes in the western world too, so if you master this one, you will find a use for it.
3. Pasta Al Dente
We all know how pasta should not taste; chances are you’ve eaten badly made pasta in a friend’s house, at a school cafeteria or in a cheap restaurant.
However, you should know how to do it properly, or, more specifically, how the Italians like it. Pasta al dente means that it’s not boiled to within an inch of its life. In fact, in a good Italian restaurant, a well-made pasta is harder to the bite than what many people might expect.
“Al dente” is an Italian expression that literally means “to the tooth”. By definition, it is prepared to be firm when bitten.
This should also be an opportunity to learn to create a good sauce from scratch.
Master the timing of pasta al dente along with a tasty sauce, and you’ll have taken the first step to working in an Italian restaurant kitchen. As a delicious bonus, you’ll also be eating good Italian food for the rest of your life.
4. Salad Dressing
You will (hopefully) not be pouring salad dressing from the bottle when you’re working as a chef.
The humble salad is one of the most ubiquitous items on restaurant menus, staking a claim among appetizers, side dishes and even mains. And, assuming the ingredients are fresh, they stand or fall on their dressings.
Every dressing you make from scratch teaches you about building tastes and different flavour combinations. It’s exactly the kind of thing you might be asked to prepare at no notice in a restaurant.
And, naturally, once you become a salad dressing expert, making any leafy meal becomes much, much easier.
5. Fresh Bread
Baking is one of the most versatile and satisfying life skills you can acquire.
Learning to make fresh bread teaches you how to knead and bake, and then you can build on it by expanding to different kinds of breads, from focaccia to ciabatta to sourdough and beyond.
Not only do you learn how to make one of the most popular foods in the world, but it can set the foundation to becoming a baker or – if you really hone your skills – a pâtissier.
Mastering Your Craft
Le Cordon Bleu has been teaching culinary arts around the world for over a century. Whether your ambition is to become a chef, a pastry chef, a manager or a sommelier, one of our internationally recognised culinary diplomas and professional cookery courses can take you there.