If you are like me and have logged more hours on Food Network rather than the latest in reality TV or DragonThrone or WalkingZombieDrama then you may have become the family foodie. You no doubt are asked for recommendations for restaurants in any geographical location and you are kept on speed dial when things go wrong in other people’s kitchens. Perhaps you have been put in a position to make a meal or even cater a party from time to time. You are expected to bring your food-making skills everywhere you go and while it is a lot of fun it can be nerve wracking sometimes. Food is powerful magic and those who don’t understand it may not know about all the preparation that needs to be in place for the magic trick to happen.
An example of this is when I was asked to make tacos while visiting home in Baltimore MD. No tortillas at the store besides Old El Paso shells and nothing in the way of Mexican spices further than the McCormick taco seasoning pack. Still – I was able to make green chile pork tacos and even made tortillas fresh from masa flour. This was done all on electric range and with all dull knives.
There will be times when you will be tested like this. You won’t have the small curated collection of spoons, ladles, spatulas, turners, forks, thermometers, sous vide rigs, silicone mats, piping bags, or colanders. No noodle baskets or strainers, just the stuff from when the house was built in 1974. Four Tupperware bowls and a plastic resin spoon off the set of Yan Can Cook. You’ll need to adapt and flex your flexibility. You’ll need to draw on real cooking skills and be able to improvise on the fly.
Here’s some tips I have come up with to better adapt to using your best cooking techniques in any kitchen and in any challenging situation.
- Learn to use chopsticks. No guarantee of tongs or decent turners or spatulas. Chopsticks are cheap and can either come with you or be picked up at the sushi bar at your grocer.
- Learn to use paring technique that does not need a cutting board. Think peeling parsnips above your simmering pot. No cutting board – less folly, less countertop space.
- Use scissors – skip the knives altogether and snip apart your chicken and tear it apart with your bare hands.
- Bring your own knife – my EDC includes an Opinel No. 6 in carbon steel. Best steak knife ever and I break it out a lot at places that serve chicken and waffles with something like an over-sized serrated butter knife.
- Learn how to sharpen knives if the opportunity arises. Learn the ceramic mug trick to sharpen old knives you find in older kitchens. Finding an old German steel knife is not out of the question and with a little work you will have something to work with.
- Know your cooking basics and WHY behind each technique. Braising is braising whether in your 300 dollar Le Creuset or the tinny aluminum pot mostly used for brewing beer. This is probably the tallest order of the bunch but knowing the cooking principles soundly will make you that much better a travel cook.
- Stay organized – you can’t count on your mis en place – use what you got. I have used coffee mugs as prep bowls.
- Stay Clean – It ain’t your kitchen. Have a towel with some vinegar handy. That shit will save you from making a mess you can’t undo. Cuts grease like no other. 5% acetic acid will change your life.
- Be able to identify your assets– You should be familiar with enough tools of the trade that you can make a grilled cheese in a carbon steel wok or on a omelet pan from 1982. Find the best pan or wok or cast iron and go with that. Find your common ground.
- Find the salt. Find the pepper – keep your enemies close, your spices closer.
This is by no means a complete list. Are there any other crucial skills to being a good cook in any kitchen? Leave a comment below if I have missed something.