“What’s really going to make you unique sometimes is the way your brain is different than anyone else’s brain who ever existed on the planet. That’s valuable right there. Write down what comes out of the brain… And sometime an idea isn’t good until the second half arrives later.”
-Dan Carlin on the Joe Rogan Experience
My latest crop of dishwashers and prep cooks are all grown up and heading off to culinary school this year to begin their own sagas in this madcap industry. I wish them well and try to fortify them with whatever advice I can give, keeping my reservations about culinary school and the industry’s shortcomings to myself. They usually ask about knife kits (don’t buy ‘em) recipes (don’t worry about ‘em, yet) and lots of other minutiae that really won’t matter much in the long run.
I tell them one of the best things a young space cadet can do is keep a diary of their recipes, techniques, terms and half-baked ideas. Of course I don’t call it a “diary”… That word conjures up visions of boy band posters and fifteen year old girls writing unicorn fanfiction… Nope, I call it a “journal”, “prep guide” or “kitchen log” to keep my starry-eyed young warriors on board.
Now, the best of my new brood already have a journal on the go just like I did when I started off back in the early ‘aughts, but the rest are having trouble getting the ball rolling. I understand, we live in an age where our phones can take voice memos and recipes are either a click away anywhere, anytime. They aren’t wrong to think a journal is archaic.
But if they put the journal process (and it is a process!) off for too long they will miss all the benefits they could potentially reap down the road. I’ve been keeping a kitchen journal for the last fourteen years (almost finished book #4 baby!) and I truly believe it makes me a better, more creative chef. Here are a couple of reasons that I’ve continued to put pen to paper.
A chef’s life is a prep list writ-large: Every task, every employee, every piece of raw product, every finished dish and every moment of time compartmentalized in some form to create the matrix-like mosaic that makes up kitchen life. A young cook’s journal is the training wheels or building blocks of this system. How you learn to manage your recipes, menus and ideas will inform how you manage a kitchen. So why not start building that foundation ASAP?
Come up with a structure for your recipes and menus that is organized, yet unique. Your shorthand will become like an alien language beamed in from on high to astonish your fellow cooks (who, let’s be honest… just follow whatever the white-board tells ‘em to do) and generally bring a sense of order to your kitchen… You’ll be able to look back at all that chicken scratch years later and see how you’ve evolved from a cook into a chef.
Engagement with the Craft
Working fourteen hour days has a tendency to bleed that initial Food Network-born love of cooking out of pretty much everyone. Taking the time to bang out a recipe you learned, or a technique you saw one of the other cooks use during service or even just a couple weird flavour combinations will go a long way to keep you from burning out.
Repetition is key. If you dedicate just a few minutes a day (or even just once a week!) you will feel more connected to your craft from a personal, creative standpoint and keep that fresh air flowing. We cooks are creatures of habit and we all deserve a habit that at least makes us happier and potentially better at our jobs. Try it and then keep doing it. You’ll be happy you did later on when you re-visit it.
Mining Through Time
Every time I have an idea for plating or new off the wall flavour combination I write it down in my journal under the heading of “Gonzo!”and promptly forget about it. Months or even years later while skimming through said journal I’ll inevitably spy my note-to-self and be inspired to try something new or re-work an old recipe in a brand new way. It’s the same magic, creative hit that a well-written article in some food magazine or a really pretty food photo on Pintrest gives you.
But there’s a big difference between firing up your browser ‘n stealing a couple Martha Stewart recipes and actually working through a recipe start to finish yourself. The feeling of accomplishment and confidence that comes with plating a recipe you tooled through is the best kind of rush, and it all starts with writing down that initial, gonzo idea.
Building Your Own Style
Now that every cook has access to the same pool of articles and recipes online its way easier for all of us to get through the day without having to crack a cookbook or picking the chef’s brain, but the end results are much more homogeneous and less creative. With everyone picking their recipes from the top three results on Google there is an opportunity for someone with a unique collection of recipes to stand out… Someone who’s got a whole journal full, well they’d be a damn rock star!
The eclecticness of your journal will directly affect the uniqueness of your emerging style as a cook and inform the kind of chef you’ll someday be, so steal every weird recipe you can find and write ‘em down! Paste photocopies of recipe cards and menus into your journal, or clip ‘em to the back cover. Cannibalize cookbooks and shorthand all the best bits. Fill the margins with those gonzo ideas we already discussed. Every single scrap of content in your journal is a resource you can call upon when everyone else’s ideas seem boring.