When In Doubt, Think Happy Thoughts

Oakland’s chef Nelson German on the single most important hurdle to confident cooking—brought to you by PAM Cooking Spray.

December 1, 2017 ● 3 min read

As told to Cassandra Landry by Chef Nelson German | Photo ChefsFeed    

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PAM Cooking Spray believe, like we do, that building your confidence in the kitchen starts with killer tools and trustworthy ingredients. Much as we wish it were true, we mere mortals are not born knowing how to cook. Eating? Sign us up. Pulling off a civilized weeknight dinner that doesn’t end in more sweat than seems appropriate? That takes a little more practice. 

When it comes to finding your culinary voice, Chef Nelson German of Oakland’s alaMar Kitchen & Bar is a firm believer in leaps of faith. You have to cast doubt from your mind and forget the stakes. It’s just you and your food—once you find that rhythm, inspiration is everywhere. Essentially: you do you. 

The fact that you can tell stories with cooking is what motivates me.

When I experiment, there has to be a place I want to be, or a memory. Then I can start throwing a couple things in, to try to make it new and different—but I have to have a base. When there's that memory, there's already the love for it, and then you want to expand that, and tell a story.

We're not just cooks; we're artists. For me, food is art.

I didn't really have somebody to teach me when I was younger. I would definitely watch my mom, but I wouldn't ask her questions or help much. It was her thing, and cooking for me began as a secret hobby—a curiosity, basically.

My mom was elaborate about her cooking, and the cool thing was she would experiment with other cuisines. She’s Dominican, but she would cook Italian or Asian dishes sometimes. She would play around with things. In order to build confidence with your cooking, you have to be open to that risk. You can't be afraid to experiment.

It was always a tradition in my family to go out to a restaurant every weekend. One weekend when I was about 13 or 14, I wanted to stay home. My parents and my little brother left, and I had to do my thing with what we had. I made myself a burger. I wouldn't say it was amazing, or perfect, but it was great start. It had flavor. Of course, growing up in a Dominican family, everything has to be fully cooked, so at that point, I wasn't into eating things medium-rare.

I felt like the man. At that point, we were always going to McDonald's for burgers, and to know that I could make my own thing, that tasted way better, was huge. But my mom didn't even know I did it. The old school way of thinking in Dominican culture can be very machismo, so for us, women did the cooking. I didn't really show anyone what I was doing, or brag about it, or talk about it, because that was always in my head. It was only once I got a little older that I stopped caring what anybody thought. My friends wanted to see me cook, wanted to taste my food. We wanted to show off to the girls. It really became a passion after I went to culinary school and got to see what a restaurant and the business was all about.

With anything new, there’s an intimidation factor. You don’t want to disappoint your family or yourself, you don’t want to waste what you bought. But afraid of failure or not, when somebody really loves to cook, you can see them take the risks.

Getting great feedback from my instructors and other students in school helped, but feeling comfortable with a knife and feeling comfortable seasoning things in a technical way helped the most. In my household, it was always the same old spices—salt, pepper, oregano, dried cilantro, Adobo. So learning about things like saffron, paprika, and cayenne pepper made me feel like I knew what I was talking about a bit more. Saffron, in particular, was very exotic to me. We learned the different styles and utilized each one, and I was amazed by it. You have this little red string in your hand, and it can create such great flavor and color. That's the one that stays in my heart.

As chefs, creating something simple, but still new, excites us. Some are motivated by molecular gastronomy; others like comfort food. Whatever it is for you, think happy thoughts. Remember the whole Peter Pan thing? That’s how it is for me. Recipes don’t always give me confidence, because you're just following someone else's memories, someone else’s art. I think you feel more confident when you just go for it and create something for yourself.

Back in the day, when you asked your mom, or grandma, for a recipe, all they’d tell you was, “put a little bit of this, a dash of that.” There's never a certain amount, right? They were more confident about the way they cooked because they were just going for it. They can have the amount in their hands, and not know exactly what the measurement is, but they know it's exactly right—for them.

If you ask five Dominican moms or grandmas to explain the same dish, each one will be different. That’s how it should be!