The Best Cooking Lessons I Learned From Celebrity Chefs
For the past nine years, I’ve written about food on the Internet. There are many perks to this job, but the biggest one, perhaps, is having exclusive access to celebrity chefs. I’ve interviewed everyone from Guy Fieri to Tom Colicchio and attended countless demonstrations and seminars at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and the Food Network Festivals in South Beach and New York City. While I have some fun stories (I accidentally poured beer all over Bobby Flay’s back at Rachael Ray’s Burger Bash, and Marcus Samuelsson walked in on me in the bathroom at a Riesling house in Aspen), the biggest takeaways are the cooking tips I’ve learned firsthand from these chefs. Below I share the best cooking lessons from some of the nation’s top celebrity chefs.
At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen one year, Giada De Laurentiis had her family in tow. She invited her aunt Raffy and nephew Jullian to the stage to cook with her. Jullian was just five, but Giada put him to work doing menial kitchen tasks. She cooked off a miniature patty that he shaped when she was making lamb burgers, and she didn’t get angry when he almost ruined her dessert by throwing a handful of minced parsley into it. Watching her cook with him, I realized that is the way I wanted to cook with kids. She positively encouraged him in the kitchen, and you could just see his interest in the food deepening.
Before I was a food writer, I was a Food Network junkie and Rachael Ray addict. This was years ago, when she was just starting out with 30 Minute Meals. I was also a beginner in the kitchen, so when Rachael taught the viewers the proper way to chop an onion, you can bet I paid attention. It’s a simple technique that I use on a daily basis. Slice the onion in half from top to bottom, so you are cutting through the stem. Cut the head off, but leave the butt on, so that the onion is still completely connected. Peal the skin off and discard. Curl your fingers and scour the onion horizontally then vertically. Thinly slice and you'll end up with a fine dice.
At a Thanksgiving-themed seminar at the Food Network Wine and Food Festival in New York, I watched Tyler Florence make an assortment of semi-traditional dishes. Instead of baking pumpkin pie for dessert, he made a pumpkin cake. He poured the batter into a large, flat 18-by-13-inch cookie sheet and baked the cake for less time than you would normally bake a nine-inch round cake. When the cake was done, he cut it into three long, even rectangles and stacked them into one rectangular cake. I had never thought to make a cake that way before, but have been doing it ever since. It’s a creative way to make a cake a little more special!
The Barefoot Contessa is hands down my favorite celebrity chef. When I’m sick, watching her show makes me feel better. I’ve probably seen every episode at least three times, and have a bunch of episodes saved on my DVR. She basically taught me how to cook and many a lesson on the art of entertaining. One that I practice at every event I’ve ever hosted? “Always serve a mix of homemade dishes with store-bought items.” For example, if you’re having a cocktail party and making bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes and grilled shrimp skewers, let the other appetizers be store-bought. Set up a beautiful cheese plate with fresh fruit, artisanal crackers, and lots of spicy salami, or fill bowls with marcona almonds and olives.
Bobby Flay is the original burger master, so it’s no surprise that I’ve forever remembered his burger tip. Bobby recommends putting an indentation in the center of each burger patty to ensure that it cooks evenly and ends up perfectly round and plump. He’s also a purist when it comes to seasoning the patties, and believes that minimal ingredients should be added to the meat mixture—just a little salt and pepper. He uses the toppings of the burger to flavor it. I disagree with him here, and whenever I’m adding sautéed onions, garlic powder, and Worcestershire sauce to a mixture of ground meat to make burgers, I think, What would Bobby Flay say?
Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries, and Shakes by Bobby Flay ($17)
Tim Love, the manly man’s chef from Texas, is a favorite on the food festival circuit. His seminars are rowdy and normally involve some sort of shenanigans where he takes shots or challenges another chef to a battle, which also almost always involves steak. Love’s a grilling master who told the crowd at one Food & Wine Classic in Aspen to finish a cooked steak with a generous squirt of lemon. This recommendation seemed odd to me—why on earth would you put lemon on steak?—so I went home and immediately tried it. He was right—the acid just gives the fatty meat a savory balance. You have to try it!
At a culinary demo in New York, Alton Brown made ice cream with liquid nitrogen. It was awesome to watch and even more delicious to taste, but what stuck with me was something he said about thickening custards—or any sauce, really. “If it does not come all the way to a boil, it won’t thicken correctly.” Always the instructor, Brown went on to discuss the science behind why a sauce thickens when it boils. Whenever I’m making homemade ice cream, I think of Alton Brown.
The king of Italian cuisine taught me to “cook pasta one minute under the cook time on the package and then finish cooking it the rest of the way in the sauce.” This is the most authentic technique for making pasta and results in a wildly scrumptious dish, whether it be a four-hour bolognese or a quick carbonara.