Before culinary school, I learned my cooking techniques by watching PBS every Sunday afternoon. There was Yan Can Cook, The Ragin' Cajun who "gua-ron-teed" his food was tasty and New Jewish Cuisine. On the extra special days there was an episode of Lidia's Italian Table and it made me wish she was my own Grandmother. The Food Network existed, but wasn't offered on Brooklyn cablevision. This lineup enriched the meals I made for my hard working single Mother and ensured I wasn't clueless on day 1 of learning to cook professionally. At that time I was still in the stage of "make everything exactly as seen on TV".
Two years of culinary school left me qualified to make salads in Manhattan's premier restaurants. I ached to handle the "real food" and experience the adrenaline of the cooking line. In the time I was Queen of Salads I watched, worked hard, and learned even more from what was going on around me. How to adapt a menu item when the main ingredient isn't delivered. How to evolve menu offerings in tune with the season outside the door that I was too busy working hard to notice had changed. Listening for the sound of food that was cooked perfectly over the screaming of new orders entered by waiters. Learning how to prepare fine ingredients was worth making almost no money. After a long time and serving the sweat off my forehead that dripped into vinaigrette (common in every restaurant) I made it to the line. I was elated. I endured splashing grease, burning pan handles, and even accidentally tossed a completed hot plate at the sous chef's groin. Yes, this recipe led to quick burnout.
After being in the food business without cooking in a restaurant everyday, my outlook on food has changed. Now, food is just that. Breakfast/lunch/dinner - not a dish that evokes the second coming of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, a restaurant critic in disguise. No reason to have an anxiety attack over chicken breasts.
Everyone who knows me knows I am a harsh critic of television chefs of today. Now I get the Food Network and it's often on as background noise. With my training I am free to expand upon their dishes and make them great. Most food presented is dumbed down for the (below) average home cook. It is a learning experience to see what's important to the main meal makers of today. It seems no one wants to make a meal that takes longer than 30 minutes. Sandra Lee has a whole book about 20 minute meals and Robin Miller even has a 10 minute meal section. According to Chefography, Sandra Lee has sold more than 1 million cookbooks. No longer having to adhere to a printed menu, I ponder what to make for dinner. Robin Miller provided the flavor profiles and a difficulty rating easy recipe. I made it professional and tasty. Her recipe for a Thai chicken dinner salad featured a vinaigrette of peanut butter, fish sauce, a lot of sesame oil, chicken stock and lime juice. Not bad but it looked like thinned out peanut butter. What's interesting about that on a pile of lettuce? The vinaigrette I created after watching that episode included ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar, sriracha chili sauce, natural peanut butter, lime juice, sesame oil and canola oil. I tried to adhere to the Asian credo of the 'hot-sour-salty-sweet' aspect of a successful dish. Poured over marinated stir fried beef, sugar snap peas, bean sprouts and lettuce, dusted with cashews, my palate was thrilled. The real kind of thrilled, not the fake yumm-yumm the presenters make when tasting their dishes at the end of the show. I never thought I'd have Robin Miller to thank for a dinner idea. More on this topic in the future.