Become An Ingredient Sleuth - Expand Your Offering
Food is a never ending curiosity for me. It's infused with rich culture and reason and always tends to have a method or approach attached to both its preparation and presentation. Some foods have been used by cultures for thousands of years and are known for certain health-giving qualities, while others are known for the more emotional aspects. It's all very intriguing and leaves me wanting to know and try more. Such is the reason for my quest to learn more and experience more with the global cuisine scene.
A chef is part chemist, part gastronomist, adventurous and a bit of a pioneer. When looking at new ideas and innovations you've gotta take calculated risks, at times, and constantly step outside of your comfort zone to get the feel of your ingredients. As you work with numerous ingredients you begin to figure out that fine balance between how one ingredient reacts or interacts with another. You organically grow to understand the nuances of food chemistry and the art of substitution. For this cause I spend a lot of time in the kitchen 'playing' with food.
When I go to an international market there are a few things that I go in prepared with:
- An objective
- Organic questions
- An open mind
- An open eye
- A huge imagination and [when I have my druthers]
- Lots of time
I want to be able to take in the experiences and don't want to miss a thing. Easier said than done, but I try.
For me it's always to expand my knowledge and it's a multi-layered approach. The more familiar I become with a store, the help staff, the ingredients and culture, the more refined my objectives get.
My first visit usually is a total 'throw-the-spaghetti-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks' expedition. I go in, look around, absorb as much of the market culture, check out the isles, the staffers, and shoppers. If I'm in a Moroccan market and I see Moroccans shopping, I know chances are that they'll have the ingredients true Moroccans use in their cuisine. That's a good sign! From that point on my objective continues to evolve.
It's a great ice breaker, to get the information flowing and to establish long-term relationships and resources. Usually the folks shopping are the ones who have the best insight on how items are used. Start your conversations with them.
If I see something interesting to me I'll start asking about it: What is it?; How is it prepared?, What's it taste like?, What is it eaten with?...
Folks love to share their food and culture, and when they find that you have a genuine interest, they open up.
An open mind
Always go in with a cleared slate, treating the ingredients as if you've never seen them, and open yourself up to learning something new and unique about them.
An open eye
I like to observe what folks have in their carts/baskets to get an idea of what things go with what and how they may be used.
A huge imagination
I take color, texture, flavor, chemical reactions, solubility, and the like into consideration and go from there when I start working with a new ingredient.
Lots of time
I like to give myself as much time as possible to get a good feel of what I'm working with. Try it out and see what you can come up with when you're exploring new ingredients.
The more you know about your ingredients, the better you are able to bring out their unique qualities and benefits for you and your clients.
Although working with new ingredients is a time consuming process, it grows you in many ways and can mean the difference between a well-equipped, culinary, experiential vocabulary, a broader client base, and opportunities and a mediocre business that's struggling to stay afloat. You owe it to yourself to learn as much as you can about your ingredients from the cultures that use them most.
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