It feels like yesterday when I interviewed for my first job at the Food Network. It was 1998, and the network was still in its infancy, doing shows like How to Boil Water. Even though I’d be starting as an intern (read: no paycheck) and smoke was billowing out of the prep kitchen during my interview, I knew I really wanted the job. When my interviewer, who happened to be the president of the network, asked how my knife skills were, I answered with a confident-sounding, “Excellent.” I then spent the entire weekend in my dorm kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America perfecting my julienne, chiffonade, and fine, medium, and large dice. I needed to be sure I could deliver on my word. I did—and paying attention to the basics paid off. I graduated from intern to food stylist to culinary producer to executive chef, prepping dishes for shows like Good Eats and Emeril Live, and guest judging for Beat Bobby Flay. Here are some tricks of the trade I picked up along the way.
Recipe for success. Read your recipes three times before you start cooking. The first time, focus on gathering what you need. The second time, measure everything and then clean and put away all unused items. The third time, start cooking only after you’re positive you have everything prepped.
Don’t be dull. Sharp knives make cooking easier. Most hardware stores will sharpen your knives or suggest someone local who can. It usually costs $2–4 per knife, and is way more effective than at-home sharpening tools. I recommend having your knives sharpened twice a year.
Stay clean. Cooking—especially multiple courses—often requires obsessive-compulsive organization and cleaning. At culinary school, you wash your own dishes and keep your work area spotless. Train yourself to work this way, and you will put out more composed dishes—and have less to clean up in the end.
Embrace fat. Whether it’s putting enough oil in a pan to sear something or basting a roasted piece of meat with butter for a gorgeous crust, fat is your friend. Behind the scenes on cooking shows, they oil everything—even the little prep bowls so the food slides out more easily. You need fat to cook, and you need it to make beautiful food.
About time. If you’re guilty of overcooked meat, mushy potato salad, and limp veggies, you may not realize that cooking continues after you remove the dish from heat. For roasted items, account for at least 5 minutes more of cooking. For meat, that means the internal temp will rise an additional 5 to 10 degrees. For boiled veggies and pasta, you can shock your item in a bath of ice water to stop the cooking immediately.
You can’t fix burnt. Too often, people try to cover up their mistakes. Frankly, some things can’t—or shouldn’t —be saved. Don’t be afraid to dump your work and start over.
Color block. A simple trick to serving a gorgeous plate or platter is to color block, which means keeping like colors together instead of mixing them into a jumble. For example, a plate of lemony shrimp risotto will look prettier if the risotto is on the bottom, the pink shrimp in the center of that, and some lemon peel or zest tops the shrimp, than it would if it was all mixed together.
Use a garnish. The “beauty shot” is what we call finished dishes that look perfect. Often, these have a little garnish that dresses them up. It could be a sprinkle of chopped parsley, a drizzle of sauce, or a dollop of whipped cream on a dessert. Just don’t overdo it: A little goes a long way.