At first glance, the phrase “to cook food well” seems to have a superficial meaning. It seems to simply refer to a chef’s ability or technique. Or to jokingly refer to well done meat, meat with all the juice, flavor, and life cooked straight out of it. But I think cooking food well means much more than that. If you assume that to have one of the great meals of your life the food must be the result of “cooking well”, then the phrase expands to take on a whole new world of meaning. The great meals of life involve food that is fresh, vibrant, and delicious. Food this good is based on two things happening simultaneously: it was prepared using recipes and techniques that come from a rich cultural heritage, and was prepared by a chef dedicated to making the best food possible. These two conditions set the stage for a meal that can teach you something about yourself and perhaps broaden your understanding of the world.
For instance, any sociologist will tell you that food is a repository of cultural information, a sociology lesson on a plate. The cooking techniques and dishes of a people reflect the climate and geography of their home country. The choice of ingredients can illustrate the social divisions of a society, showing the economic and class boundaries that separate the rich from the poor. Food can also show the bonds that bring a people together, such as the special meals prepared for festivals and celebrations. Food has the power to carry this information because in every culture, it carries a wealth of ideological meaning. People attach this meaning and importance to food because food is crucial to survival. Everybody must eat. And when someone cooks a culturally authentic dish for you, they are not just feeding you. They are communicating with you on a most fundamental level. They are giving you something that helps keep you alive by satisfying a gut-level need of your body, and telling you a story about who they are and about the people to whom this food is important, all at the same time. To cook food well is to understand that the by cooking this meal, you are delivering a potent message, an almost magic gift with the power to sustain life and to tell a story of a people.
To create this magic message requires a commitment to creating the best food possible. Incredibly good food, the kind of food that is full of the flavors, colors, and textures that can deliver on the promise of being a great meal, is not the product of institutional cooking. Rather, it comes from a chef who is dedicated to making good food. A chef that will not take shortcuts for convenience or to increase profit. A chef that will look for and use the best ingredients available, often what’s local and in season, with no compromises. This chef, this person with the dedication and vision to create great food, is not necessarily someone who works for a sophisticated, high-class restaurant. They may be a nobody, someone who isn’t famous and never will be. But they are someone who knows how to cook. They may be a street vendor, or a friend’s grandmother, or a short-order cook in a roadside café. They may have no degree from a culinary institute or they may be famous, but whatever their background they know how to cook food well.
Cooking food well is about more than just creating food that fills an empty belly. It is about giving the eater an experience that transcends simply satisfying hunger. It’s about telling the cultural history of the food, the origins of the dish, the spices, the technique…it’s about communicating the wealth of knowledge that comes from authentic cooking with each bite the eater takes. It’s about making the best food possible out of the best ingredients available, or what you can afford, to make something you know is good. It’s an investment in the health and happiness of who you are cooking for while honoring the people who brought this dish into being. This, my friends, is cooking food well.