The Recipe for Success by Chef Julia Kendrick Conway

A colleague was complaining the other day about customers constantly asking him for his recipes.  Another lamented that the executive chef in his restaurant would not make his recipes available to the cooks on the line except for on an as-needed basis; i.e. the prep cook knows the prep portion, and the line cook knows how to finish the dish.  It got me started thinking.  How many of us really rely on our recipes?  I’m not talking about the scaling and costing benefits to having a precise recipe, I am talking about the creative touches that make a dish your own.  Honestly, how many of us really use a recipe this way?  Before starting to cook professionally, I was one of “those” customers that was constantly trying to figure out the secrets of my favorite restaurant dishes.  Even as a child, I would try and jot down the ingredients and flavors that I thought made up the dish.  This evolved into the palate I have today; and the ability to discern, based on flavor memories and knowledge of specific ingredients and preparation methods, what goes into a dish to make it taste the way it does.

Recipes are an invaluable tool in the professional kitchen.  They are a means of establishing and maintaining consistency in your end product.  They are essential to proper costing and pricing.  They are the basis for an inventory par list that enables you to produce the dishes on your menu.  They are the written “memories” of the evolution of the dishes.  My recipe binder, which is full of printed and Xeroxed sheets of paper in plastic sheet protectors, some with photos and drawings, all with a multitude of scribbled notes and tables of scaled out quantities for production, is only semi-organized.  Recipes are grouped functionally, by menu segment (appetizers, mains, sides, desserts) and arranged in subgroups in a fashion that only makes sense to me.  Main courses are subdivided by primary protein, while appetizers are arranged by style (comfort food, fusion, meatballs, miscellaneous baked…).  I am sure most of us dream of a computerized system that catalogs each and every dish that can locate and scale a recipe at the touch of a button.  Don’t get me wrong, these do exist, mostly in larger establishments and hotels.  But in our kitchen, the binders rule supreme.

When I compose a menu for a specific event or client, I pull all the recipe sheets, and with a yellow pad, I begin to list each and every ingredient required to produce the menu.  That is then transposed into a master Excel purchasing spreadsheet; a document that gets larger and larger as the season progresses.  This allows me to place orders in an appropriate and timely fashion so that we can minimize costs and eliminate last-minute trips to the grocery store for missing items.  Our par inventory is also on a spreadsheet, updated weekly.  Between those two documents, we are able to control our costs and assure product available for the week’s production.  However, as valuable as these tools are, these are just the bare bones of the true recipes for our dishes.

Many items on our menu evolve over time.  Perhaps a substitution for a backordered product becomes the basis for a new variation on an old favorite.  In some instances, a chef’s personal preference or palate dictates a change in seasoning or the addition of another enhancement to flavor.  Perhaps the tomatoes are just a touch too acidic for the sauce, then a pinch of sugar might be added.  Is this reflected in the recipe?  Most likely not, as the chef or cook makes these decisions daily in the course of their work.  Is the Australian lamb a little gamier than the California spring lamb used the last time this dish was prepared, then perhaps a more robust portion of garlic is required to balance the flavor of the finished dish?  Reduce red wine for the sauce?  What’s open on the shelf?  Cabernet does not taste like Syrah, which does not taste at all like Pinot Noir.

Every chef and cook makes minute changes to the base recipe each time they prepare a dish.  Not all of these changes are updated to the base recipe.  There are dishes I produce time after time, and I have reached the point where the measurements are by feel more than by cups, teaspoons or tablespoons.  Of course, artisan bread recipes vary based on the temperature, the humidity and the hydration of the dry ingredients.  Specific mathematical formulas are used to calculate the appropriate temperature of the water added to the dough, and the mixing, resting and kneading times vary based on the “feel” of the dough.  Can a written recipe direct these actions, replacing the years of practice and discernment of the chef?

I, for one, am a prolific sharer of recipes.  There is truly nothing in the kitchen that is completely new or completely unique.  All of my recipes are built on the foundation of generations of cooks before me.  We borrow liberally from each other, and are constantly learning.  I am more than happy to dash off a rough ingredients list and step-by-step tasks required to recreate one of my dishes.  What does not come through, however, is the accumulated knowledge that allows me to adjust the dish on the fly, making up for ingredient inconsistencies and changes in kitchen conditions.  Making Swedish meatballs the other day, I grabbed a quart of heavy cream, shook it up and added it to the drippings to form the basis of the gravy.  Unfortunately, the cream was slightly soured, and there was an unwelcome acrid undertone to the flavor as it lingered in the mouth.  Since these were the only pan drippings, I worked to correct the mistake, adding more cream from a new quart, reducing the sauce a little further.  Still not quite right, I added a pinch of sugar, which eliminated the offending flavor but still was out of balance.  Splashing in a bit of tamari for an umami boost, I finally produced a pleasing sauce.  Coincidently, the client thought they were the best Swedish meatballs they had ever eaten.  This improvisational skill comes only from years in the kitchen and a solid understanding of what each ingredient provides to the flavor of the finished dish.  It also comes from an understanding of food science and why certain ingredients behave the way they do.  This is definitely not something I could write down in a recipe.

So, to all my colleagues and competitors that think the recipe is the key to your success, take an honest look at your actual production.  I would be willing to bet that most of us are constantly evolving even our core recipes, making the dish even better over time from the accumulated knowledge and experience of the cooks who prepare it again and again.  Even if the customer or a competitor followed my written recipe to the most precise degree, the dish would not taste the same.  When I teach, I tell students that the recipe is the diving board to the pool of their creativity.  It serves the purpose to get you started, to get you out over the water, where, you eventually have to hold your nose, close your eyes and just jump in.  The recipe provides a framework, a structure and a reference point, but it is ultimately the creativity of the chef that makes a dish memorable.




Story and Images by Chef Julia Kendrick Conway of Assaggiare Mendocino

For more in her series, click A Chef’s Journey

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