A Semi-Autobiographical Guide to Cooking Like a Pro, Part Four: Judge

You’re relaxed. You’ve practiced and looked and listened and smelled and touched and tasted. Hopefully you now have some food. Ideally, of course, all of my sage advice has worked wonders and your time in the kitchen was fun and fruitful. You’ve cooked like you’ve never cooked before and turned out some tasty grub. That, however, is for you to decide.

As much as you need to relax and not worry too much when you cook (not to mention give yourself permission to fail), at some point between when you’re done cooking and when you serve your creation you need to step back and judge the results. You need to do this in order to follow some of the best advice for cooks ever: Never apologize.

Never apologize, you say? Yes. I saved this one for last because, as a Midwesterner, it has been the most difficult bit of kitchen wisdom to learn. I was raised in a culture in which cooks apologize for all the food they make—good, bad, ugly, perfect. They apologize for making too much or too little, they brush off compliments like ninja warriors deflecting shurikens: “Oh, it’s easy,” “It wasn’t any trouble,” “It’s just a recipe I got from a magazine.” What they never, ever say in response to someone telling them that a casserole or a batch of cookies or a buffet dinner for 50 is delicious is a simple “Thank you.”

The idea, as promoted by the doyenne of modern American cuisine, Julia Child, that a cook should never apologize for the food they serve, struck me, when I first heard about it, as simply impossible. I had never seen anyone do anything else. The closest, I think, was at some point when I was growing up my mom started saying “I’m glad you like it” when we thanked her for making a favorite meal. Not an apology, to be sure, but it gently hinted that the food was not necessarily so great and left lots of room for the possibility that the compliment was merely polite rather than heartfelt. And it sure shifted the attention back away from the cook.

So as I cooked for friends and family in my college years, the soups and cakes and dinners I served were always accompanied by plenty of caveats. If someone liked the Hungarian Mushroom Soup I made from The Moosewood Cookbook I quickly explained that I didn’t add enough sour cream or that I forgot to buy the dill for the garnish. When people raved about the backyard barbecue I threw with friends for everyone’s families after graduation, I was sure to mention that we’d bought the ribs and just put the salmon on the grill and it really wasn’t that big of a deal.

Over the next decade I slowly figured out how to care deeply about food in general while also not turning every dinner into a ruling on my character and worth as a human. I was figuring out a cake was just a cake, but I still felt the need to explain to people all the ways in which that cake could have been an even better cake, why the dinner they were enjoying was not as good as they said.

And then I went to cooking school. I could paint an idealistic picture of a warm kitchen and busy bees soaking up knowledge and skill sets with joie de vivre as our teacher wandered among us critiquing our results and encouraging our efforts, and that wouldn’t be completely inaccurate. Tuesdays and Thursdays, however, we had menu workshops and worked in groups. Time management and team organization were the name of the game.

We were divided into two teams most days, assigned the recipes, appointed a team leader and then our instructor walked around helping, critiquing and often trying to instill a mild level of panic in us, acting like we were actually in a restaurant and needed to get things on the table. The final mode always sort of killed me because we were only cooking lunch for ourselves.

Towards the end of the term the menus turned complicated and there was always at least one thing that was impossible to do within the time allotted. That made every menu a test. A test of cooking skill, a test of ingenuity, a test of allocating team resources and talent to its best use. It was all very Top Chef before Top Chef.

That day it was the dessert. I was assigned to make a pavlova—a giant one—in less than three hours. I decided to take it as a compliment (“Well,” I imagined my team leader thinking, “if anyone can make a giant pavlova in three hours, surely Watson can.”) although the possibility that it was a punishment is equally probably (“I hate that Watson bitch, let’s see her try and make a pavlova in three hours!” Evil laughter follows….).

For some things, where improvising and trouble-shooting could actually produce a good facsimile of the item, this was a good lesson. You can “speed up” marinades by leaving out any oil, upping the salt and adding more acid, for example. Rising times for breads can be hurried by creating little saunas for the dough by putting their bowls on top of lit ovens and cloaking them in kitchen towels to get the yeast moving fast and furious. (It doesn’t do anything to enhance the flavor of the resulting bread, but that dough will rise fast.) Warm water baths can bring things to “room temperature” in the blink of an eye just as spreading food out on large baking sheets and then popping them in the freezer for a few minutes can cool things off in a jiffy.

For meringue, however, it struck me as a giant waste of time. There was no way and under no conditions with the equipment at hand that the pavlova would be dried out in time. I grabbed a dozen eggs from the fridge and separated them as quickly as I could, dropping the whites into a large bowl sitting in an even larger bowl of warm—not hot!—water to take the chill off them so they would whip up faster and fluffier. I whipped them, added the requisite sugar towards the end but making sure it was fully incorporated so it wouldn’t separate out while baking, and spread the results into a sort of flattened, wider mound than the recipe called for on a parchment-lined baking sheet in hopes that the greater surface area of the thinner circle would dry out faster. I got it in the oven within 15 minutes and taped the door shut so the meringue could cook in peace (and stay at the optimal temperature).

We stretched out the various lunch courses—starter, main dish, salad—to bring dessert out as late as possible. But still.

The inside was uncooked and we knew that when we cracked into the seemingly perfect shell and the fork was met by a soft shoosh of un-set meringue, not the crunch the recipe specified. And we tried to troubleshoot it, but we knew that small, individual servings would not go over well (that wasn’t the assignment) and would be as mocked as anything else. We were set up to fail. So we decided to fail with grace.

We put the meringue raft on a cake stand. We covered its center with berries. We topped the whole thing with whipped cream. And we paraded our creation to the table.

The larger circumference of the dessert was remarked upon. The meringue was tapped and proclaimed undone. My first instinct was to offer up a detailed account of how we had identified the timing issues and tried to mitigate the impossibility of the task. My second instinct was to apologize.

Yet somehow all those months in culinary school had re-fired the synopses in my cooking brain: They finally made the connection between confidence and deliciousness. I took a page from Julia Child and refused to apologize. We nodded in agreement as the instructor commented, and then we cut into it and presented the portions of pavlova to our classmates like it was the most awesome, delicious, inspired pastry creation of all time.

Any cook worth a pinch of salt puts something of themselves into the food they make. Apologizing for your food is apologizing for yourself; and you are fabulous. Don’t take back yourself or your food.

Our half-baked pavlova? While our instructor was quick to point out the way the texture differed from that called for in the recipe, our classmates were too busy spooning it into their mouths with concentrated delight to listen too intently. If you judged it based on how it looked and tasted, not by what the recipe described, if you didn’t know that the shell was supposed to be a dried and easy-to-crack meringue shell, why, you just might imagine that the almost crispness of the shell and the fluffy interior made a rather nice pairing with the slices of beautiful red berries and soft whipped cream we served with it that day. You just might have thought that the dessert was pretty damn good.

Judge the food you make. Only then will you know whether to serve it with pride or throw it away. Uncooked chicken should be put back in the oven; chicken burnt beyond recognition should be tossed; chicken that didn’t turn out quite as you had hoped should be put on a platter with a pretty garnish and served with a flourish and some hot sauce on the side and never a mention of other plans.

What you had hoped was to serve your guests some chicken. And guess what? That chicken is edible.

On this point we come full circle: if you’re relaxed and keep in mind that it’s just a cake (or a pot of soup or a grilled trout), you will also realize that there’s really nothing to apologize for. So yes, judge your food. Judge it harshly, if you wish. Then sit down and enjoy your supper.