I recently made the comment to my uncle that, in order to be a better cook, I thought I should eat out in more restaurants. He gave me a quizzical look and returned to me the question, “why??” I stumbled out an answer, that I really don’t know much and I want to see what is out there, which is true but doesn’t really capture the essence of my feeling on the matter.
Cooking, to me, is an exploration in life. In its most direct and simplistic application, food provides the energy that allows us to live, grow, function. It keeps our bodies running. But in another aspect, it forms the backbone of our cultures, our identities, and how we relate to one another. Its a way to experience the world’s richness without even leaving our own kitchens. Food is such a dynamic medium–we all conceive it according to our own experiences, tastes, and pleasures. And never before have we had such a wealth of opportunity at our fingertips to try the cornucopia of food available to us today!
I believe my enjoyment of food comes, in a large part, from allowing myself to be exposed to a wider variety of ideas and flavors than comes naturally to me, and so, I would be doing myself a disservice to ignore how other people perceive food, and how they have rendered it in creative, exciting ways. Besides, cooking is a trade that requires lifelong learning. I’ll never know all there is to know about cooking. I learn from exposure to creativity, making myself aware of as many new skills and ideas as I can. I’m not so concerned about originality as I am mastery. And mastery isn’t found in a vacuum.
I don’t mean McDonald’s and Applebee’s, by the way…but I don’t necessarily mean Michelin Starred restaurants either. Don’t pick a restaurant that serves the same bland menu nationwide. Try to find a good local place, any place that serves good, wholesome, uplifting food.
Eating out….it’s an opportunity to try new flavors, or taste ingredients that aren’t native to your tastes or are used in an unfamiliar way. Ethnic restaurants may provide a sample of vegetables you didn’t even know existed.
You may find new ideas about how food should be presented and displayed…the versatility of sauces, and relish the little additions and garnishes that make the dish stand out. It makes you more imaginative. Maybe you will come to understand the essence of a dish differently when, one day, it is served to you in an unfamiliar form from what you’re used to.
Good cooking serves to inspire. It might introduce you to something you never knew you liked, or unique methods of preparation. You might be shocked at a certain flavor combination, only to take a bite, see fireworks, and realize…this works…this really, really works. Learn from the creativity of chefs in your community.
Sometimes, restaurant cooking might teach you what NOT to do. You may find that a certain preparation doesn’t really impress your companions, or maybe doesn’t have the awe-inspiring results you thought it would. Maybe fennel just really doesn’t belong on that dish. Maybe the chef tried to stretch the meatloaf with extra breadcrumbs, and fools no one. Maybe you find you really don’t like ethiopian food, and maybe it isn’t worth the time to track down korarima to make that authentic berbere spice mix.
It pushes you away from complacency. It encourages you to continue learning and practicing.It takes you away from the stress and mess of the kitchen, to a place you can be waited on and enjoy your meal. It teaches you to taste food, to savor food.
Musicians go to concerts. Athletes go to games. artists go to gallery openings. Cooks and those who appreciate cooking should support their brothers in the field and encourage one another for the betterment of the local culinary community.