I get most of my best ideas from restaurants. The Penne with Chicken and Sundried tomatoes recipe that is way down in this blog somewhere was inspired by a dish we used to have at a restaurant. When the restaurant went out of business we were bummed. I thought – hey, I can make that at home. Turns out I could. These days my measure of a great restaurant is whether or not I think I can make the dish at home. When we recently visited the Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club and ate at the amazing, Maravilla, we had what we thought would be simple salads, a Caprese, and a Beet Salad. Both were inspired.
The beet salad was basically just great local ingredients. The Caprese was creative. California is an avocado state and so the caprese was served on a smear of pureed avocado and basil. Yum. I made it at home the other night and it could be a frosting.
What I’ve found over the years is that the difference between my skills and those of a great chef is like the difference between my wonderful wife’s golf game and those of a PGA pro. If you know my wife at all then you know that she is no slouch. She is a scratch golfer and a club champion. She competes in regional and national USGA tournaments. (and she COMPETES)… All of the time people say, “you should go on the tour.” She always laughs. Those players are another step up. She knows. She’s played with some of them.
Real chefs have real training. The understand the chemical nature of cooking. They understand salinity and acidity. They understand the balance of a great dish. Sweet, salty, crunch, velvety gooey, are all a part of the palette. What separates a good chef from a great one is their command of these things coupled with their understanding of and access to great ingredients.
The main dish I had that night sounded pretty straight forward. Short ribs over braised red cabbage and a potato puree. On top were sea beans. What’s a sea bean? That’s my point. Salicornia, an herby succulent that grows in salt water marshes. Rather than dust the top of the dish with a pinch of sea salt, the chef spread of few of these over the top. Amazing.
Most of my friends will tell you I’m a pretty good cook. People who come to parties say, “you should open a restaurant.” I just smile. I know the difference between me and the real thing. Like my wife, I’m a happy amateur.