The Art in Repetition


the act of repeating; repeated action, performance,production, or presentation.
repeated utterance; reiteration.
something made by or resulting from repeating.
a reproduction, copy, or replica.

What separates a home cook from a restaurant cook?


In a restaurant, they make dishes over and over again. Repeating the same dish 14 times a day, you begin to notice subtle things that impact the final outcome. "Hey, where did this beef come from?" The supplier fell through. We subbed meat from another ranch. Chef could tell by the way it performed in the pan.

Repetition makes you aware of nuances. A subtle change here and there, and it becomes evident. Temperature, consistency, new products. Each change is reflected in the final dish.

Unlike a restaurant cook, there are few recipes I've made 14 times. Cherry-picking recipes from cookbooks, it took me years to understand the patterns.

Eventually I learned the basis for soup involves:

- some sort of aromatic (onions, shallot, garlic, carrots, celery)
- a liquid (water, stock, dairy, or coconut milk)
- the main attraction (meat, vegetables, or legumes)
- seasonings (herbs and spices--fresh or dried)
- a garnish (herbs, green onions, sour cream, etc.)

Sure there are variables, but understanding the fundamental pattern was a huge leap forward.

Pam Anderson is a cookbook author and recipe developer whose name I seldom hear, and that's a shame. Her recipes are rooted by the main attraction, followed by a myriad of deviations. A typical recipe includes directions for, say, a basic pork braise. She includes variations for turning that pork into: Mexican, Italian, or French. The seasonings and liquids change, but the basic recipe is rooted in method. Brilliant.

How does a home cook incorporate repetition?

For years, a group of friends cooked together once a month. One day, Tamara said, "I'm in my shrimp phase." I asked her about that. For a month, she cooked nothing but shrimp dishes. She learned everything she could about cooking shrimp. The repetition of cooking it every day--sauteed, sauced, breaded, and baked, eventually, she developed a level of mastery. And there lies the eureka moment.

Last summer, I was hired to cook for a family. One day a week, I'd cook 7-10 dishes, mostly entrees. The family loved braises and I ended up cooking two, sometimes three braised dishes every week. I began to notice patterns. Instead of following recipes by rote, I paid attention to nuances. How does the final outcome change when I use stock vs. beer or wine? What's the difference between braising on top of the stove, vs. braising in the oven? This recipe calls for a 2 1/2 hour cooking time, this recipe calls for 4 hours. Why? Week after week, I honed my skills.

While I'm no longer cooking for the family, it had a major impact on the way I cook. Like then, I now cook the majority of my meals in one day. I'm still in a braising phase, and have expanded incorporate Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American influences. I'm intrigued by a touch of cinnamon or star anise with beef. Mint provides an unexpected, yet refreshing element to savory dishes. And I'm learning to distinguish flavor profiles and heat variables in chilies.

It's amazing how limitations--studying one method, or one cuisine, proved to be a turning point. Initially, I resisted the limitations, but now I realize, it was a tremendous gift. Repetition made me a better cook.