Making good food is a lot like making good furniture – you need good raw materials, skill and a decent set of basic tools.
Last weekend I was talking to my brother-in-law about his job, which is supplying high-quality ingredients to restaurants. He’s been in the business long enough that he ends up mentoring young restaurateurs. When he works with them in developing menus, he gives them this advice:
“Look at the recipe once a day. Get your employees to look at the recipe once every day.”
It’s a bit of advice that has stuck in my head all week, both as an enthusiastic home cook and a woodworker who makes furniture to sell. As a cook and a builder, I am happy to improvise when I need to. If I can’t get my hands on something – black walnut or walnut oil – I don’t mind taking a detour with different raw materials.
I’ve also found there is a “danger zone” for me both with recipes and furniture plans.
After I’ve made a dish or a chair a few times I’ll begin to experiment with the ingredients, the proportions or the curves. If I’m being honest with myself, about half the time my experiments improve the result. The other half of the time they diminish my work or make no appreciable change.
A 50 percent success rate is not good.
So I think it’s important to return to the recipe – a lot – before making significant changes.
A good example in my personal work is my recipe for chicken pot pie and my designs for Roorkee chairs.
When I first started making these pies and chairs, I stuck to historical models – poaching the chicken and using ash and canvas. After the first six or seven pies and chairs, I began adding sweet peas to my pies and altering the ankles of the legs of my chairs.
Something snapped me back to the original recipe for both items. And I made another dozen chairs and at least 50 pies to the original recipe before I allowed myself to tinker with the processes. By that time, I could make these things in my sleep, and my results were always the same.
That’s when I allowed myself to alter the ratio of water and milk in my pot pie’s sauce, and to re-imagine the leg turnings of my chairs. I understood them – inside and out – and could see how changing one small thing would reliably change the result.
I still like to return to the recipe now and again. And when I look at the recipe in my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook I can see its flaws. Same with the Roorkee – beefing up the legs and stretchers added to the chair’s masculine stance and overall strength.
So experiment. But become the master of a design or a recipe before you even consider changes.
— Christopher Schwarz