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  • Writer's picturegfmeade7

LABOUR GAINS


When chefs get asked about essential ingredients we hear all the usual answers of butter, salt etc. but for me the most important ingredient in a dish is time. I would add patience to this as without these crucial elements recipes are rushed, corners are cut and results will always be inferior. The problem these days is that time is precious and recipes have to be fast and easy as appetites and attention spans are shorter than ever. For the diner it is also true to be patient, the French say in order to eat well one must first learn how to wait.

   In this era of faster and faster food it might be good to take a step back and see where we have come from. In the 1980s the Italians started the now global Slow Food movement as an opposition to the speed fast food was taking over the planet. The idea was to look at how we can encourage seasonality, freshness and local food producers. It was also to see how we can combat the relegation of food and eating to just a necessary chore in our daily lives. Not that the Italians had ever lost this but by observing how America and the rest of the world was going they feared it would not be long before Italy too was corrupted.


Professional kitchens are another example of where time has disappeared. Chefs have very little food preparation to do now. When I started out in the 1980s one of the jobs that showed you had really progressed in a kitchen as an almost rite of passage was the deboning of a whole sirloin of beef so that it could be cut into steaks.


Now steaks are delivered pre-cut in whatever size you want. We had to make our own buckets of mayonnaise too and sides of smoked salmon not only had to be deboned too but sliced by hand to order, another skill no longer required by chefs. Filleting of seafood is a dying art, very few places buy whole fish now. Equipment has changed kitchens forever too.

I remember the first microwave being delivered to where I was working one time and the reaction from staff looking at it like it had landed from outer space. Since then other equipment has utterly changed the kitchen letting chefs do tasks that were unheard of to previous generations like vac packing and blast chilling. So the irony is that all this time saving technology has still not created the extra time to prepare food at a pace that allows recipes to be completed from scratch.


Labour saving devices have certainly cut the workload though, average kitchens only need a quarter of the personnel than before and some places can get by with only a couple of chefs cooking. Most ingredients arrive ready to hit the pan or to be plated immediately or first defrosted, touched up and then sent out straight to the customer. So many steps in the food preparation process have been done in advance for the chef that sometimes no chef at all is required at all.


Most chefs are not even qualified anyway today with little or no formal training behind them. All those hours of washing, peeling, chopping and mixing have all but disappeared from their daily grind. The downside of this is that traditional skills are lost with the dilution of cooking art essentials like in say butchery and baking. Very few kitchens are now producing food with recipes being made from the beginning.

Freshly made stocks are a rarity as most places will use bouillon packets. Huge food factories will make frozen desserts for a fraction of the cost of making them yourself in-house. Soups and sauces can be bought readymade, breads just need a quick heating up, lettuce comes in washed and fruit arrives chopped. With all these advances in the process, time is still the missing ingredient that makes food taste that extra bit special and not as a quick assembly job.  

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