I’ve had quite a few chats over the years with some chefs over wine and food. And I remember one interesting night when they told me for most of them what was the very first dish they had to show that they knew a bit about cooking and not just some wannabe.
You see, restaurants don’t test cooks or chefs by what grandiose signature dish that a person can make like in Masterchef. What REALLY tests a chef’s abilities is doing the very BASICS PERFECTLY. As such, you’ll be surprised by how simple the true tests are.
- EGGS. Virtually every one of them have told me that they had to make an egg as a test of their skills. For some it was to make the perfect omelet. For others it was making the perfect soft poached egg.
- FISH. Roasting fish is difficult to get right. Fish is a pretty delicate meat, and it’s a thin line between a moist, flavorful, flaky fish and a tough, dry piece of fish jerky.
- HOLLANDAISE. This is one of those really tricky sauces. Not many restaurants even make it unless they do a regular breakfast trade. Is the heat too high? Now the egg yolks are curdling and the sauce has a grainy mustard like look and texture. Sauce split? Well, the fat has separated and the emulsion has gone out the window. Not silky enough? Strain it through a cheesecloth. How about the lemon? There’s loads of possibilities that can blow up the sauce, and it all involves true skill and precision…. AND the ability to be able to think on your feet to see how it can be saved.
(from Jaime Oliver – How to make Hollandaise)
- MAKING A MENU. You think that all Chefs’ challenges involve cooking? The chef is also responsible for making the menu AND any daily specials. This is a balance of COSTS, PRICES and the Chef’s MINDSET. I know of at least one restaurant that gives a prospective chef a list of ingredients, and tells him/her what will be that day’s menu. This is a test of CREATIVITY but also MINDFULNESS. The restaurant is a BUSINESS first and foremost, so the chef will have to know what the dishes will COST, whether it would appeal to customers and how much the restaurant could possibly charge. This tests the chef’s ability to ACTUALLY RUN THE KITCHEN’S ADMINISTRATION. A chef who can’t control this can SINK the RESTAURANT, and this test would also show whether the chef is a spendthrift and what type of menu the chef would make. More importantly, chefs also figure out how to avoid FOOD WASTE as well, which is just as financially ruinous.
(from food waste intelligence)
- KNIFE SKILLS. I’ve seen some restaurants test the would-be chef with making a simple mirepoix. You see how even all of the cuts are, and how quick and efficient they are. For example, it’s not all that easy to brunoise veggies if you’re not handy with the knife.
(from Getty Images)
- CLEANLINESS. Now this one is an interesting trick test. I’ve actually seen this in action as a messy cook/chef is a disorganized and inefficient one. That translates into time wasted during a service. So what happens is that a dish that can be messy, like having a sauce and such, is asked to be made. You can see whether or not the station becomes messy right away or if everything stays clean and organized. This scene from Ratatouille about “clean sleeves” is very much like that test.
(from Disney’s Ratatouille – Keep your station clear)
- CONSOMMÉ. Holy heck this is so much harder than it looks. Imagine putting in meat, tomatoes, egg whites and stock, and then simmer it to make it cloudy… and THEN constantly skimming it and straining it to turn it into a CLEAR soup. Honestly, I fail at this one myself, as I just don’t have the patience to do this right.
- SOUFFLÉ. This has defeated me several times in the past. You can cook it too long and watch it go poof. Cook it too little, and you have runny soup instead. I’ve watched one helplessly as it inflated into a balloon and see it go wild. It’s a work of magic.
(from the World Food Project)
There are a few other tests I’ve seen that can separate a real skilled chef and a home cook, like roasting a chicken perfectly or knowing the doneness of a steak, but these are the dishes and skills that REALLY test a chef. If they can do this, there’s very little that they can’t do already, or will be able to do it with a little practice.