Be a Better Cook: Tips from a Pro Chef (Vol. 1)

If you want to be a better cook, follow these tips from a professional chef (me!) to elevate your dishes, streamline your process and become more confident in the kitchen.

be a better cook

It’s hard for me to believe, but I’ve owned my personal chef and catering company, Le Petit Chef, for almost 10 years now! When I first started out, I had a regular full-time job in the wine industry and a part time job as a personal assistant. Cooking found its way into both of those jobs, catering the events at the winery and making dinners for my boss’s kids at the other job….and in what little spare time I had I would try to build clientele for my business so that I could pursue my passion full time.

After a few years of plugging away like this, that day finally came, and it’s been full speed ahead ever since! I’m unbelievably grateful that I’ve somehow managed to grow an actual thriving career around my favorite thing in the world (food). Some amazing experiences have come from the decision to start my business, including this remarkable online space where I can share recipes, connect with other food lovers and help people improve their cooking skills!

That’s what has inspired me to start this “Be a Better Cook” series, where I’ll share helpful tips that anyone who wants to be a better cook can easily apply. These are things I’ve learned over the past several years that have helped me to become more confident and efficient in the kitchen. I’ve already covered some of my most essential tools– the ones that fit inside my knife bag, anyway- and today I’m dropping some knowledge with ten tips to follow if you want to be a better cook. If you’re someone who wants to gain more self assuredness and fearlessness  in the kitchen, these are some key concepts I hope you’ll embrace.

Be a better cook

Learn the proper way to hold a knife!

This is the most basic of basic tips…so much so that many of you may know this already, but for the beginners out there, it’s SO important! You probably use a knife every day, if not several times a day, so learning how to hold a knife correctly is the one thing you can do that will instantly give you more confidence and speed up your workflow.

So let’s get into it: place the knife in your dominant hand and place your thumb and index finger around each side of the bolster. The bolster is where the metal edge of the knife starts to flare out from the handle. The remaining fingers can wrap around the handle (see the picture above). The other hand should hold the object you are chopping steady, and always protect those fingertips by curling them inwards, kind of like a claw. Your knuckles can act as a guide for the blade of the knife (see picture below). If you don’t already hold your knife this way, try it and see for yourself how much stability it offers.

Please, DO NOT rest your index finger on the top of the knife! I cringe when I see people do this. It’s just a wobbly recipe for disaster. Oh, and if you’re curious about my recommendations for a solid at-home starter knife- I like this WUSTHOF one and this Shun one.

be a better cook

Keep those knives sharp.

Since we’re talking knives, it’s only fitting that we quickly cover sharpness. As I mentioned before, your knives probably get used on a daily basis, so if you’re not regularly sharpening them, you’re actually putting your safety at risk. A dull knife has to work harder to cut through something, so as you’re applying more force than you would with a sharp knife, the risk for cutting yourself increases.

I sharpen my knives every few uses with my at-home sharpener, but I also make sure to get them professionally sharpened a few times per year. For someone who doesn’t cook professionally, I’d say sharpen at home about once per week and take them to get professionally sharpened once a year. I take mine into Sur La Table for professional sharpening. They only charge $5 per knife and at least once a year (maybe more?) they offer free sharpening for one knife!

be a better cook

Plan, plan, plan. Then prep.

I feel like I should start by saying the photo above is NOT my normal cooking attire, haha. This photo was taken during a shoot hence the dressed up lewk.

Anyway, this may come as a surprise, but the skill I attribute most to my success as a chef has nothing to do with cooking! It’s the fact that I’m really, really, ridiculously organized (some may call it anal). I also possess a legitimate list-making obsession. I create a spreadsheet associated with each job that contains the menu and corresponding grocery list, noting which store each ingredient will be purchased, any estimated costs I need to keep track of and a timed prep list of every cooking step (ex: 3:30-4:00 make vinaigrette, pesto, boil potatoes). If I have assistants on a job I will assign their duties here too, and I always plan to do as much as I can in advance, either the night before or that morning. It may seem like over preparing, but this ensures that things go smoothly onsite and I can always remain calm, cool and collected in front of my clients.

Now I hardly expect someone to be that involved when it comes to home cooking, but my point is all that advance planning makes the actual cooking process seamless and stress free! So think about how you can apply that to everyday cooking situations. Say you’re entertaining guests and have several dishes that you’re making. Or maybe you want to get into that whole Sunday meal prep game. It would help tremendously to jot down a quick list so that you can consolidate your entire process, figure out which steps will take the longest hence need to be done first, and determine which tasks can be batched together to save time. Then when you get to the cooking part you can kind of zen out on it because you’ve already done the thinking part ahead of time!

be a better cook

Read the ENTIRE recipe. All the way through. FIRST.

Have you ever gotten halfway through a recipe and then realized you didn’t have a certain ingredient or piece of equipment, and then had to scrap the whole thing? I totally have and it’s tragic! The easiest way to prevent this from ever happening again is to read through the whole recipe before you get started. You can visualize yourself moving through all of the steps that are involved so there are no surprises, gauge how long the recipe will take and get everything that you need laid out ahead of time, which brings me to my next tip…

be a better cook

Consider the art of Mise en Place.

If you’ve never heard of Mise en Place, it’s a French culinary term that is mostly applied in professional kitchens but should be applied in ALL kitchens. It’s one of the first terms students learn in culinary school, and even though I’m a self-taught chef, I apply this concept to both professional and home cooking situations. It means “everything in its place” and you can use it to streamline your own cooking process at home. This will most definitely help you to be a better cook.

In a nutshell, it’s a philosophy that is meant to guide your cooking by making sure everything for a given recipe is set out, peeled, chopped, measured etc. BEFORE anything hits the pan (or oven, grill or whatever the case may be). Having the foresight to organize these things ahead of time will majorly cut down on your stress levels.

Think about it. Have you ever begun to sauté onions in a pan, for example, and then you’re hastily rushing to get all your other ingredients chopped and spices measured out, meanwhile your onions are starting to burn and you have to take the pan off the heat while you finish everything else up and before you know it your kitchen is a disaster and you can’t find the pepper that you swear you just had in your hand…yikes! That is no way to cook, and I feel like that panicky feeling is a big reason why so many people don’t enjoy cooking. Yet all that anxiety can be easily avoided by applying one simple concept: Mise en Place.

be a better cook

Acidity is your best friend.

Ok, now we’re getting to the fun stuff: the actual cooking!

So many people think that salt is the only way to coax flavor out of food, and usually what they wind up with is overly salted food!  I tend to use a very light hand when it comes to seasoning with salt (although I love finishing a dish with some textured, flaky salt- more on that in the next tip). Instead what I use to punch up flavors is acidity. I think every savory dish needs some acidity to wake things up and add a bright note. Whether it’s a squeeze of lemon or lime, a hint of citrus zest, or a splash of vinegar (try adding a bit of balsamic to your next batch of marinara and you’ll never want to go back), acidity works wonders on savory foods. Consider acidity your greatest asset in the kitchen and you’ll find yourself reaching for another pinch of salt less often.

Adding something pickled is another wonderful way to add acidity. Ever top your tacos with pickled onions? So good. Even certain fresh fruits and vegetables in their pure form can be added to a dish to bring up the acidity level in a dish (green apples in a salad, tomatoes on avocado toast, etc).

be a better cook

Aim for contrast.

Something I always always ALWAYS think about when I’m building a dish from the ground up is going for a juxtaposition in both flavors and textures. Take the Tomato Jam and Whipped Feta Tartines pictured above. It may look like a simple stuff-on-toast concept, but there’s much more to it than meets the eye.

As far as textures, you’ve got crunchy toasted bread, soft, creamy, cheese, chunky stewed tomato jam and bright, fresh herbs on top. Now let’s consider the flavors: the whipped feta is briny, savory and rich, but also light from being whipped. The tomato jam is sweet and a touch spicy from a pinch of crushed red pepper. The fresh herbs offer a bright, clean note. The bread acts as a vehicle for these flavors, but I make sure to use a good quality, whole grain seeded bread so that the bread contributes its own layer of flavor to the dish. Finally I finish it with an extra pop of savory flavor (and crunchy texture) with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt. Do you see how all of these contrasts in flavors and textures come together to form a well-rounded dish? It’s really visually appealing, too, to have a variety of colors and shapes.

So I urge you to think about all those factors whenever you’re making a dish: soft vs. crunchy, sweet vs. spicy vs. savory, cooked vs. fresh, bright vs. rich, etc. I’m not saying that every dish should have ALL of the things going on, but if you start breaking each dish down and thinking about things in terms of contrasting flavors, textures and colors, you’ll find that you will more easily achieve balance and harmony in your cooking.

be a better cook

Think ahead about time-saving tactics.

The more you cook, the more you will come to appreciate anything that shaves off a few seconds here and there. Seconds add up to minutes saved in the kitchen, and a little anticipation of the steps ahead of you will get you in and out of the kitchen faster. I have several of these up my sleeve, and am thinking of devoting an entire post to this topic, but here are a few good ones for now:

  1. Batch prepping tasks. If you have to chop an onion for soup now and an onion for a sauce later, do them both at the same time.
  2. Keep an empty mixing bowl or an old produce bag within arms reach of your cutting board to throw vegetable scraps, eggshells and other debris into while you’re prepping, so you don’t have to walk over to the trash can every. single. time. you need to throw something away.
  3. I also suggest keeping a salt crock next to the stove. It doesn’t have to be a fancy one, just pour some salt into a small bowl and you’re good to go.  Not only does it make your seasoning levels much more accurate (because you can grab exactly as much salt as you need instead of basically having to guess how much is coming out of a salt shaker or grinder), standing over a pot shaking and grinding away takes much longer than simply grabbing a pinch. It may only save a few seconds, but they really add up when you consider my next tip….

be a better cook

Taste and season SEVERAL times throughout the cooking process.

Don’t wait until the end to add your salt and pepper. Season at every stage, from beginning to end. And taste everything too, several times. This is how you build depth and layers of flavor, and food that people can’t wait to take another bite of. I know there have been times that I’ve forgotten to taste my food until it was finished and realized, oh I should have added this or that but it was too late. If you’re tasting all along the way, you’ll be able to determine if certain flavors are lacking or overpowering and can adjust for those things. This step is so valuable if you want to be a better cook because over time, it will help you develop your flavor palate, giving you the confidence to step away from following a recipe blindly and adjust flavors based on your instincts. If a recipe calls for one teaspoon of oregano but you taste it and think it could use more, or you think some thyme would be good in there too, then go for it!

be a better cook

Let what’s in season guide your cooking, and buy the highest quality ingredients you can afford.

My last tip is something that I feel very strongly about, because it pretty much encompasses my entire personal cooking philosophy. I mentioned earlier that I’m a self-taught chef, so if I can build an entire business based on cooking this way, I know it will help you to be a better cook, too. I don’t rely on fancy cooking methods or extremely elevated plating techniques. My dishes are inspired by quality, seasonal ingredients with integrity, always.

When in doubt, look to what’s in season. It’s so intuitive and simple, I almost didn’t want to include this tip, but then I realized maybe not everyone cooks this way and it’s worth mentioning. Have you ever bought a butternut squash in June? It’s pale in color- almost white- and super bland, right? But buy that same ingredient when it’s at its peak in the fall and it positively sings. It’s vibrantly colored (which means it contains more potent nutrients),packed with flavor, and it’s instinctively what we want to be eating around that time of year, so it’s naturally satisfying.

If nothing else resonates with you, stick to this mantra and I promise it will transform your cooking. In my opinion, nothing compares to the intensely fresh flavor of organic, local produce. Not only that, but it’s better for the planet. If I can help it I will always buy local produce that was possibly picked that very same day over something that has had to sit on a truck for days or weeks before it reaches me.

To that same token, buying high quality ingredients is also very important if you’re really serious about elevating your cooking. Try a side by side comparison of a good quality olive oil and a cheaper alternative and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I’m very judicious when selecting ingredients, scanning labels and heavily examining my produce for the top notch finds. If you start with good quality ingredients, you really don’t have to do that much to them because they taste good on their own already. It may cost you a little more, but it’s a wise investment. Starting with the foundation of the best ingredients you can find will give you a massive head start in the road to becoming a better cook.

So there you have it, my top tips for anyone who wants to improve their cooking skills. Next in this “Be a Better Cook” series I think I’ll tackle some fun kitchen hacks and shortcuts, and possibly cover valuable tips for certain cooking techniques like grilling, searing and blanching…if that’s something you want to learn more about. Anything else you can think of? Let me know in the comments, I’m all ears! I’d also love to know YOUR tips on how to be a better cook- I’m constantly open to learning new things!

Photos by Meadow Rose Photography. This post contains affiliate links to products I use and recommend.

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Comments

  1. Halley

    This is amazing. I am pinning this for later, I loveee cooking and learning from a chef is amazing! I can’t wait to see what else you write 🙂 love your site.

    Reply
  2. Ayanna @ 21FlavorsofSplendor

    These are great tips!! I have definitely been guilty of not reading the entire recipe before I plan on cooking it. Then later realized I either didn’t have all the ingredients I need or the time need to prepare it properly. I’m definitely saving this as a good reminder.

    Reply

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