How To Troubleshoot Your Cooking Woes With A Chill French Laundry Alum
Jason Berthold is here, you guys, it's all gonna be fine.
November 10, 2017
By Richie Nakano
Cooking at home is one of those things everyone feels like they should already know how to do, without having to learn or practice or screw up regularly.
Once you get beyond your own crippling cooking-related fears and insecurities, find a recipe you can partially understand, and gather your wildly expensive ingredients (really? did I just spend $80 to make burritos?) you have to actually cook. Despite the daily onslaught of cooking shows, easily digestible Facebook recipe videos, and not-so-humblebrag Instagram posts of perfectly lit casseroles and quiches and stews…cooking perplexes the masses.
In the complicated hierarchy of professional cooking, there's one place still seen as the pinnacle of achievement, technique, and discipline—a place where you go to sweat your way to the elite 1% of cooks: The French Laundry.
Chef Jason Berthold [Monsieur Benjamin, San Francisco] spent five years in Keller's universe, putting in time at both The French Laundry and its East Coast cousin Per Se before leaving to helm the kitchens at RN74 for Chef Michael Mina for five more years. Eventually, he wound up reunited with fellow Laundry alum Corey Lee and opened Monsieur Benjamin—the rare bistro that perfectly walks the tightrope between homey comfort food and precise technique. He gave us some tips on troubleshooting your cooking woes at home.
"I'm a little bit OCD about my kitchen at home," Berthold says. "I definitely treat it like I treat the kitchen at work, and that [means] never running out of anything. It drives my wife crazy, but I view it as convenience and having control. Keep things stocked; if you cook at home frequently enough, things are getting turned over. Try to shop for multiple days, one or two specific meals that you know you want to make, and then have some things on hand that give a little bit of leeway."
The Problem: Every time I cook a single meal it somehow winds up costing $150.
Solution: I think that's one thing that turns people off from cooking at home is just the sticker shock of what it takes to buy every single thing in a recipe. A well-stocked pantry makes cooking fun because the last thing you want when you're all fired up to make a recipe is to go out and have to buy every single thing from olive oil to Dijon mustard to Maldon salt to all the herbs…you’re like 150, 200 bucks into that kind of stuff. If you're cooking frequently enough, learning about what pantry essentials [you like to] have on hand is really important, just like a chef does. We keep things on hand. Maybe you’re in the mood for farro with this lamb dish tonight, or we're gonna do basmati tomorrow. You've got some base herbs. You've always got onions and garlic. For me, a selection of vinegars is really important, too.
The Problem: I own two plastic handled hand-me-down sauté pans and a set of Cutco knives, and I'm also broke.
Solution: I've said this my entire career, but get a set of knives that feel good to you. Also, a good cutting board for those knives. You don't want to have a shitty little plastic thing that's sliding around. A good cutting board is key because it makes the knife feel good, right?
Cookware is obviously important, and as chefs, we kind of geek out about cookware and spend a lot of money on things and bring them from all over the world, but people who aren't into that just need to understand how important cast iron can be. I use cast iron at home all the time now, and that came from my apartment having a shitty stove that just doesn't get very hot. With cast iron, you can preheat the hell out of that thing and then turn it down to three-quarters when you start cooking and you've still got another little bit to push through when you're searing a steak, or scallops.
The Problem: But wait, I need more equipment and there’s too much stuff to pick from.
Solution: Get a set of good mixing bowls, metal mixing bowls that you're not worried about dropping. I can't stand those fucking Pyrex bowls that are like nesting bowls. They're heavy, they're bulky. Nobody in restaurants uses glass mixing bowls. None of that stuff. I [just need] big enough mixing bowls. If you're gonna make something, you want to be able to actually get in there and toss it around and not have it spill out the sides. I think you need six, seven, eight mixing bowls if you're an avid cook. Go to the restaurant supply store: they've got all different sizes, different gauges, and you're not gonna pay as much as you would for some of those gourmet stores.
The Problem: I have my kitchen set up, but shopping for groceries gives me hives.
Solution: I definitely make lists. Written lists. I've tried those quick runs where I just need five or six things, and inevitably I get distracted in the store. I look at something else and end up forgetting one thing and it totally sucks. So yeah, I very, very much make lists. I write my list knowing the store I'm going to, from the first aisle to the second and the third, I write them in that order. It's like putting a puzzle together. If you're going somewhere that you're familiar with, you know that you typically walk in through the produce department, then you go over to where the bacon is, and then you hit the seafood counter, and then you go over to the dry goods ... I map it out that way.
The Problem: OK, my kitchen is ready and I have my ingredients NOW WHAT
Solution: Having a plan is essential. You've got your pantry items over in one place, your oils and vinegars and your salts in one place, your spices in another place. Mixing bowls and utensils, if you have a rack, you can have them out, measuring cups, things like that. But more so than the organization of your supplies, I think the organization of how you start your task and how you start your prep is really critical to success. The minute you walk in with your grocery bags, think about how you break that stuff down and where you put it. Think about what the biggest projects are gonna be, and start on those first. Those are things that we do in restaurants: when I get home from a grocery run, I try to consolidate and make everything smaller. Get the corn shucked, get the cabbage chopped, get some of those bigger, bulkier things broken out into smaller pieces.
Wait, this recipe is in grams and I'm not Canadian.
A digital scale is important. In my time being a professional chef in the last seven or eight years, I've seen people go over to utilizing scales for recipes even when they swore them off years ago. I've seen Italian cooks—who want to pour stuff in and pinch stuff and taste it and simmer it—come to appreciate the benefit of knowing.