The Chef Test Reveals The 7 Skills You Must Have
If You Want To Learn To Cook


Over the years, I’ve had to hire dozens of chefs and cooks. During their interview process, I don't have them cook their signature dish. Just like the handful of dishes you can cook at home without a recipe, a chef has practiced their signature dish many times and that doesn't help me to determine their overall cooking abilities. Instead, I want to see some basic skills.

This is my chef-test and it highlights the skills everyone should possess if they want to learn to cook anything at any time and be confident it will always come out great.

I'm going to share with you the seven basic skills that I think everyone should have to cook food consistently in the kitchen and be proud of the results. If you already have all seven of these skills and cooking techniques, you can work for me. On the other hand, if you have only one of these skills, that's fantastic! Why? Because I know you'll want to add other skills and learn to cook based on the methods behind all recipes and Make Your Cooking A Winner Every Single Time.

Here are my 7 chef tests to reveal their knowledge of basic cooking methods:
1. Use a chefs knife correctly and cut vegetables into three sizes
2. Anticipate when oil is about to reach the smoke point
3. Develop color during sauté
4. Thicken a liquid to make a sauce
5. Softly poach an egg
6. Roast a delicate item like fish
7. Tell when a grilled steak is done

I’ve blogged about fear of cooking, about doubts in cooking, about guessing in cooking, and now inconsistency in cooking. I'm sharing all of this with you because they all stem from the same basic root. Fears, doubts, and guessing come from a lack of knowledge about underlying cooking methods. In order to cook food like a chef, you need an understanding of the techniques that chefs use to cook food.

Think about watching a magician. Magic is always amazing when you watch the magician’s hands like he wants you to. However, once you’ve been shown how the trick works, you start looking for the re-direction. You now know his method, you can anticipate when he’ll repeat it and the mystery and wonder is gone.

The mysterious magic and wonder in cooking is destroyed by repetitive cooking method. These are certain basic skills that you can duplicate again and again. Just as a magician can make a playing card, coin, dollar bill, credit card, all disappear in the same slight of hand, you can cook chicken, fish, steak, vegetables, pork, in the same repetitive method and the magic will appear for you.

Here are the answers to my chef test:

1. Using a Chefs knife correctly
The first indicator of an experienced cook from a novice is the way they handle the most used tool in the kitchen, a chef’s knife. In culinary college, my students have to cut carrots into three sizes: Brunoise, Batonette and Small Dice. Brunoise (“broon-wah”) is the French word for an eighth-inch cube. It’s a tiny little cut that you’d find in chicken salad or soup. Batonette (“Bat-ton-et”) is a 2 inch stick that’s a quarter-inch on all sides. Small Dice is a quarter-inch cube. Small Dice comes from Batonette as cubes are always cut from sticks.

Pass: The result of this chef test should be three items that are precisely twice or half the size of the others. Consistency of cut is consistency of cook, so knife skills are very important for excellent results.

Fail: Items are cut into a wide variety of shapes and sizes, or items all cut to the same size.
If you’re using two hands on the chefs knife in a “mezzaluna” motion, you’ll create inconsistent cuts.

2. Anticipate when oil is about to smoke
The skill here is understanding the convective cooking process. When liquid in a pan begins to move as it heats up, it rises to the top of the pan and cools again. You can actually see this movement in hot oil. Soon after this convection begins, the oil will begin to smoke. You know you've got this skill down when someone can put 3 oils in front of you and you can tell them which has the highest smoking point by observing their reaction to heat.

Pass: The chef notices the oil changing from being perfectly smooth to beginning a convection process and adds the protein product to the pan just before there is visible smoke.

Fail: The oil smokes and you have to start again.

3. Develop color during sauté
Nicely browned foods are attractive foods. To develop a golden color in the sauté’ pan, you have to get the sugars to caramelize at 320 degrees Fahrenheit. The key is getting the pan hot enough to start. You can observe this and quantify the temperature in a pan by sprinkling a few drops of water and witness the reaction.

Pass: A chicken breast with a beautiful brown plate-appeal shows the ability to control heat so that the item develops color but doesn’t lose moisture or burn.

Fail: A chicken breast that is pale, that has shrunken, stiffened and lost moisture. This shows a lack of involvement with the preliminary steps in sauté.

4. Thicken a liquid to make a sauce
There are different thickening agents that can be used to make a sauce. For me, I would want my chef to be able to make a blonde, brown, or brick roux. Flour and cornstarch are wonderful thickening agents but you need to have an understanding of how much to use and this can only happen with controlling the process of gelatinization of starches.

Pass: A cup of milk turns into a thickened sauce that is shiny, velvety and without lumps. This sauce should be pourable, not plop-able.

Fail: A cup of milk that looks like mashed potatoes or cottage cheese. Without an understanding of how starches thicken liquids, it’s difficult to make consistently great sauces.

5. Softly poach an egg
This is a moist convective process and means that the chef would need to have an understanding of the difference between boil, simmer and poach. A common mistake of home cooks and chefs alike is always boiling items. Boiling is NOT a cooking method. Once you understand how to control the reaction of liquid in a pan, you will be able to perfectly poach a very delicate item like eggs without making Egg Drop Soup.

Pass: A nicely poached egg that looks like it should be in a magazine. The egg should have a bright yolk that sits high on the albumen and should be fully in tact.

Fail: An egg that has been busted up into pieces because of simmering or rapidly boiling liquid. This egg is dull, the yolk cannot be identified and won’t be in a magazine.

6. Roast a delicate item like fish
This is the ability to control dry convective heat. In controlling dry heat, there is a fine line between the coagulation of proteins at 165 degrees Fahrenheit (when the food would stiffen and shrink) and 212 degrees Fahrenheit when moisture starts evaporating. The key to cooking in dry heat is being able to cook in that temperature zone where the food cooks before it dries out.

Pass: A piece of fish that is fully cooked and retains its moisture without drying out. With delicate items, convective heat will dry the item before sugars caramelize, so I don’t expect the fish to be brown.

Fail: A piece of fish that is brown and dry, it’s much smaller that its raw state because of the drying effect of the oven. This chef doesn’t know how to retain moisture in a dry cooking process.

7. Tell when a grilled steak is done
The best test that I can think of for this is to hand my chef three steaks and ask the chef to cook them to order: one rare, one medium, and one well done. So how do you do that? Use a thermometer. Cooking with a recipe and without a thermometer is like driving down the road with a map while you're blindfolded. You've got all of the directions, but you'll never know when you've gotten to your destination....if you can even get close!

Pass: Finished steaks that have attractive grill marks and are equally browned, but cooked to different internal temperatures. The cook that uses a thermometer passes this test.

Fail: Three steaks all cooked to the same doneness, or the inability to tell which steak should be rare, medium, or well done. This chef can’t control direct source conductive heat and would create waste rather than sales for the steaks being sent back to the kitchen.

This is what’s going on in my kitchen! But if you want to cook great food more consistently and learn to cook in your own home, then you will want to pay attention to cooking techniques and have repeatable methods. These are the same methods I reveal in my webinar, Discover the 3 Secrets to Making Your Cooking A Winner Every Single Time.

Understanding these methods will allow you to make sense out of any recipe or to not use a recipe at all because of your increased understanding of how different cooking techniques work. You’ll be creating things the way you want them and be able to do it again and again.

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About Chef Todd

Chef Todd Mohr is a Certified Culinary Educator who has empowered home cooks all over the world with the reliable, dependable, repeatable METHODS behind cooking that build confidence, generate creativity and enable anyone to cook with the ingredients THEY desire.

10 Comments

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  • Chef Todd Mohr
    Chef Todd Mohr
    2:08 PM - 15 June, 2015

    Hi Cathy!
    I don't ever recommend a certain brand of knife because all manufacturers have "high-end" and "low-end" knives. It's not the brand that's important but what the knife is made from, the type of metal. This video explains better: http://youtu.be/ydvGhgsQoqE

    Your grilling pan DOES count as grilling because it's direct source conductive heat just like saute' and the barbeque grill. When you start to concentrate on HOW heat is transferred to food, your results will be better no matter the WAY you apply heat.

    I think you're about to dispel the "great male myth", which is that Men can always cook outside but not inside. With the repeatable methods behind grilling, you'll get more thoughtful results.

  • Cathy
    Cathy
    12:30 AM - 15 June, 2015

    I have a lot to work on, and I will enjoy the journey. I've been practicing knife skills and am coming along. Do culinary schools recommend particular brands of knives. Mine are ordinary and I will probably replace them. I really want to poach the perfect egg (it's a great method for my nutritional needs). I'll keep trying; maybe I need deeper water? And grilling -- I've never grilled except for the stovetop grilling pan (probably doesn't count). My husband is the backyard griller. I expect you can teach me things I can share with him, and we can enjoy grilling together.

  • Chef Todd Mohr
    Chef Todd Mohr
    12:42 PM - 20 April, 2014

    Hey Keisha!
    "Ignorance", as you say, is easily cured by education and practice. In my experience teaching cooking, most people have trouble with correctly poaching something. They usually boil or simmer the item in WATER and are then surprised that it's rubbery and flavorless. The flavor is left in the poaching liquid. When you have VISUAL cues to the difference between boil, simmer and poach, then you can control heat like a pro!

    The same can be said for roasting. Most people over-cook things in the oven, when heat needs to be controlled in a dry environment just as well.

    As for your thermometer-phobia, I'd say a small hole in the SIDE of your steak (not where it's visible) is better than a badly cooked one. Know your personal "steak number" and you'll only have to poke it once to quantify your cooking. Thanks for the comment.

  • Keisha Leonard
    Keisha Leonard
    12:03 AM - 19 April, 2014

    Chef,

    I would pass all of the above except the poaching and the roasting a delicate piece of fish. Also, I use the technique of touching the steak to determine doneness because I always thought using a thermometer (puncturing it) would cause it to lose its juices.

    Excuse my ignorance,

    Keisha

    (working at Emory University Hospital straight from culinary school - wanted to work under a Chef Chef, but this is more like corporate)

  • Chef Todd Mohr
    Chef Todd Mohr
    1:53 PM - 2 April, 2014

    Hi Hillary.
    I'm glad I helped you recognize places where you can improve your overall cooking skills. I'd be glad to help you with your knife skills, that will help you cut things consistently so they cook and look consistent. Then, thickening sauces is actually easy when you know the secrets to making roux. And, I can definitely help you discover the differences between TYPES of heat in cooking and solve your challenges with roasting delicate items.

    Practice METHODS and you'll never run out of ideas for cooking.

  • Chef Todd Mohr
    Chef Todd Mohr
    1:50 PM - 2 April, 2014

    Hey Ronald!
    These tests highlight the METHODS behind cooking, enabling you to make any recipe better or invent your own. My mission is to empower people to cook without written instructions, using the ingredients they desire.

    If you'd like to examine these things in a bit more detail, you should attend a session of my FREE webinar, "Discover The 3 Secrets To Making Your Cooking A Winner Every Single Time.

  • Chef Todd Mohr
    Chef Todd Mohr
    1:42 PM - 2 April, 2014

    Hey Jackie!
    You're about to discover easier, healthier and stress-free cooking. I'm always here to answer your questions, along with other members in the forum. I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing about your cooking successes.

  • Jackie
    Jackie
    1:30 PM - 2 April, 2014

    Thanks, Chef! I watched the webinar last week and it was great. Very excited to get going on these cooking classes and will have lots of questions for you along the way.

  • Ronald
    Ronald
    1:28 PM - 2 April, 2014

    This is a great overview but where can I find out more? Thanks.

  • Hillary
    Hillary
    1:27 PM - 2 April, 2014

    This is a great checklist to go through because I am trying to teach myself to cook with your videos. I think I need some work on #1, #4 and #6 the most. So now I know where to focus. Thanks!

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