There is a component to cooking that makes it more than a science, more than chemistry. Without this, cooking is reduced to a simple mechanical procedure of following a set of instructions and mixing a certain number of ingredients. I don't know what that component is, maybe it is the personality of the chef, maybe the chef's love of food or some other ethereal aspect of the cooking process. Whichever it is, this is what makes great cooking an art form and somehow gives it a flair of magic.
"Silly bugger", you think, "what's he on about or rather, what is he ON?" But wait, I have an anecdote to tell that exemplifies the importance of cooking with love perfectly.
J, a friend of mine, used to work at a Caribbean place as restaurant manager. Lovely and popular place, the Caribbean soul was what made it great. That very Caribbean soul also made it very hard to be a manager... As much as the Caribbean guys working there were the secret behind the soul, charming the customers, making everyone feel special and welcome, they were also impossible to keep on a schedule. Even though J used to set up every day with a meeting to start the night at 4:30, hoping that the Caribbean guys would show up at 5:00, the usual routine was that 5:15 and 5:30 was the more likely time to see a full crew in the kitchen and front floor. That was just the way tings worked. If the Caribbean guys didn't feel it, it didn't happen, and nothing could change their way.
People came there for two things: their beef jerky and their goat curry. This anecdote is about the goat curry. Since this was their signature dish, J paid a lot of attention to making sure this was always top notch. Sometimes though, the Caribbean soul made it hard, especially the nights when chef didn't want to make it... "No, mon, sorry, mon. No feel the curry tonight, not want to do it." J usually got his wish through though, luckily for the customers (not to say the owners...).
To make the goat curry, the head chef used to leave goat in marinade for two days before using it. He always prepared the marinade in the same way, he always made sure to allow the right time to soak in the marinade. So why was it that the quality of the goat curry varied so much, J wondered?
You see, J had discovered that some nights people couldn't get enough of the curry, they couldn't stop talking about it and they would mention as they left how good it was. Other nights, people were completely unimpressed. Studying this for a while, tasting the curry on different nights, J decided that this was no fluke. There really was a big variation on the quality of the curry sometimes. Not often, but too often to feel comfortable.
Since this was not acceptable, if people came there to get great goat curry it of course must be cooked to that standard every night, J sat down with the chef and asked him if he did something different to the goat sometimes. Maybe he forgot something, some nights, or was in a hurry and took the goat out of the marinade too soon? Chef was deeply offended. "Forgot something, mon? Taking goat too soon, mon? Me na' know what you talking about! Me make this curry in me sleep, mon!" Muttering, chef left to go and marinate the next batch of goat. Two days later, crap curry.
Was there a pattern? J sat out to study exactly how chef prepared the curry, and after two weeks of intense scrutiny J could safely say that every batch of marinated goat was prepared with the same ingredients, the same amounts in the same way. Cooking was done in the same way every time, that could not account for the difference. Quality did still vary though, and it was definitely related to the marinating since if the quality went down, it always did so when a new batch of goat was introduced.
So if it isn't the recipe, and it isn't the process, what else could it be? Frustrated, J thought back to the past two weeks. Sitting in the bar, thinking about the whole mystery of the marinated goat, chef suddenly barged through the door, late as usual and in a really foul mood. While walking to the kitchen, J could hear him muttering under his breath something about "Crap lousy day, mon, no need this crap tonight... Sick and tired of we having to... No feeling the goat tonight, mon... No feeling it."
Aha. Could it be... No. That's too silly. But still, all the other factors were out of the equation. What if... What if the quality of the goat curry varied with chef's mood while doing the marinade...? With no other option to pursue, J followed this highly unlikely train of thought and kept tab on chef's emotional state as he arrived at the restaurant the days he was making a new batch of goat.
Indeed. There was some sort of connection. Days when chef arrived singing and smiling, carrying the Caribbean sunshine in his heart where he went, spreading the love to the people around him, goat curry two days later was perfect. Other days, days when chef "wasn't feeling it", goat curry from that batch of goat was less than impressive. Impossible? Silly? Well, you might think so, but I think there is a connection.
Food made with love and care tastes better than food made without. There is a secret ingredient, available to anyone who sets their mind to it, and that ingredient is commitment and desire.
Need more proof? Compare soulless McDonalds or Burger King to burgers made by your mum when you were a kid. No wait, don't, you will make your mum really angry. Don't even think the thought. But see what I mean? Surely there is a rational explanation to the mystery of the goat curry, but that's not really the point, is it? Maybe when chef was happy he massaged the goat meat more vigorously, or paid more attention to turning the meat over while marinating making sure it was thoroughly soaked all over.
That's what love does, makes you pay more attention to detail. And that attention to detail is what can make cooking go from good to great, without any secret ingredients or special mad skillz.
Like any relationship, really, constant fuelling is needed to keep the flame alive.