Recipes can be Tricky

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between restaurant cooking and home cooking, and between restaurant recipes and home recipes.

In a restaurant, you try to do everything way in advance, like at least a few hours and usually a day before you serve, and then just do the last bit at the very end. At home, you want a recipe that you can cook start to finish in a half hour. A recipe that takes a half hour start to finish is fatal in a restaurant: You want something that takes all morning to prepare, then can be held an arbitrary amount of time, and then finished and plated and served in just a few minutes. If it can’t be held – paella, risotto, Peking duck – restaurants often require advance orders or warn you it takes a long time to make.

And then there’s the recipe. In a restaurant, a written recipe is like crib notes or a set list. You know the song, and you’re going to perform it again and again tonight. Braise, hold, sear, plate w/ gremolata, side haricots. But you have to do it exactly the same way every time and the unstated details are endless.

It’s not written down on the notes, because you already know that the beef should be cut into exactly 6 ounce servings, that you must season, dry, and brown before braising, that the liquid is beef stock with wine, that it should be hot already, that the gremolata must be made with exactly the right ratio of lemon to parsley. You know, in advance, and from practice, that the beans must be blanched and shocked before service, and then heated with shallot oil when ordered and topped with toasted almonds when plated. Those instructions are written down somewhere, probably, but you’re not referring to them. Even so, you follow them strictly, because your food has to be consistent. You have to make that dish the same way all night, and you have to do it again next week, and it has to be the same as last time.

At home, a recipe is more detailed and also less strict. A cookbook recipe can’t assume you know all the details. It will tell you how to brown a piece of meat, how hot to make your braising liquid, suggest substitutions. If you don’t follow the instructions exactly, it’s not generally a big deal. Chef isn’t going to come over to the garde manger station and say your dice are wrong, and nobody’s going to mind if the chicken isn’t seasoned the same from one plate to the next or one week to the next.

I was thinking about this because I tried to write down how we cook our weeknight stir-fry the other day, and realized that I had no idea how much of anything we put into it. A few glugs of fish sauce, maybe? If I don’t want to get a spoon dirty I’ll just pour chili paste in straight from the jar. In a restaurant, you’d measure and weigh your portions of meat, but at home, we use whatever’s on hand, whether it’s a little extra or a little short.

This week we added corn and tomatoes because we had them lying around and they’d go bad if we didn’t. It turned out great and I kind of wish we’d measured what we did because it was better than usual. I can tell you exactly how we do it, but it’s still not a recipe. To properly tell someone else how we usually make the dish, we’ll have to measure more than we usually do, changing what we’re doing in some small way to give it the contours of a shareable set of instructions.

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