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December 16, 2012

In the cooking game, there’s always more to learn. You could have a fifty year career in the best restaurants and still retire thinking ‘maybe I should have gone to Japan to learn how to fillet fish better’.

Every work day and every meal out is a reminder that there’s more to learn. You hear about a different method, see a new ingredient, watch someone who is better than you, and make a mental note to practice boiling vegetables until they’re as good as the River Cafe.

Cooking is a broad church. It requires a huge number of skills alongside the core ones of applying heat to raw ingredients. Butchery, baking, pickling, preserve making, curing, fermenting – each is a craft in its own right, to which people devote entire careers of continuous learning and development. And chefs try to master them all in a few years. Getting the balance right between learning your craft and progressing in your career is a tricky one to make, especially for someone like me who is brimming with ambition and impatience in equal measure. One the one hand it’s tempting to just get on with things too quickly, take a promotion, get a payrise, move on, get another promotion, open a place, just like that. On the other, it can be tempting to take your time, specialise, keep going back to the bottom in order to learn a new skill in a new place.

I spent a year and a half learning to bake before I became a chef. It was a fantastic experience and I learnt a huge amount. Enough, at least, to make some decent bread when I have a kitchen of my own. But I can’t help feeling that there is so much more to learn. I could do a year in a San Francisco bakery to learn about their legendary breads. I could do a year in Paris making baguettes or one in Sweden perfecting cracker breads. Six months as a miller would be useful in understanding flour science, and it would help to go somewhere like Hedone for a year to learn how they fit the cyclical baking process into the hectic time scale of a restaurant and come out with an excellent product.

To learn how to cook vegetables, two years at the River Cafe and another two under Alan Passard would almost cover it, plus a season or two working somewhere like L’Enclume who grow their own vegetables. Fish wise I’d have thought two years in Japan, a year with Nathan Outlaw and a year at The Sportsman would make you a well rounded fish cook. A butchery apprenticeship and a couple more years at a butchers would put you in a good position to learn how to cook meat. I could go on but I think the theme is clear – there’s a lot to learn. Of course, a year with Nathan Outlaw might just convince you that a year on a fishing boat is simply essential. Two years in Paris could easily extend to ten, just to work at a handful of the brightest places in the neo-bistro category. Every lesson you learn ends with a footnote – a little voice which wonders “surely there’s somewhere else to learn to do that better.”

You could follow that voice to the ends of the earth, and sixty years down the line end up exhausted, the best chef in the world, working as a commis chef in a restaurant no one has heard of, just to learn how they cook their carrots so well. It’s surprisingly tempting.

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