Ant Ellis shares the simple things he learnt at culinary school – and how they can change the way you cook.
If you’re listening, you’ll hear even the greatest chefs say unashamedly that their mothers or grandmothers are their greatest source of food inspiration, often citing a single dish or family kitchen memory that kick–started their culinary journeys. Layer on top of that some serious theory that ranges from science to history to agriculture; plus insane hours in a hot kitchen with a perpetually furious boss, and eventually they get to call the shots on who eats what, when and for how much.
For us everyday home cooks, there’s a food memory or family-favourite recipe that’s become a go-to by default – and there’s a good chance it has become a springboard for some delicious signature cooking on our own turf. But there are some very simple rules I’ve picked up on at culinary school that genuinely mean the difference between good and GREAT cooking – and you can use them too. Here are my top five.
- Mise en place is everything: French for “putting in place” – making a habit of your recipe prep before you start cooking will make your time in the kitchen a joy. It’s a professional kitchen non-negotiable, and for good reason(s). A clean, organised path from your recipe to the table means an uninterrupted, efficient cook, so plan accordingly. Defrost, chop and measure your ingredients in advance, get all your utensils ready, then grab a glass of wine and enjoy the process.
- We underuse herbs and spices: A pinch of this or that won’t result in bold and robust flavor, so next time give it some attitude! Try adding more than you usually would, and you won’t believe the difference. This includes basic seasoning with salt and pepper. It’s about trial and error and developing your ideal taste profile, but chefs can literally take years to perfect a dish in search of that utopian balance. Taste as you go and remember, you can keep adding – but you can’t take away.
- Stock is liquid gold: This nutrient-rich and delicious-on-its-own bone (or vegetable) broth is the flavour base for the world’s greatest sauces, gravies, soups and more. Rocking if you can make your own from a roast chicken carcass and/or veggie offcuts, or buy good-quality reductions (not the blocks or granules). Plain rice boiled in stock instead of water is a delicious surprise – so imagine what it can do for your bolognese, chilli con carne or tray bakes.
- Live the dream with butter and cream: Use good–quality farm butter and full cream for huge flavour boosts and luxurious textures. These are saturated fats, so it’s not wise to make these ingredients everyday purchases – but to really elevate the occasional family favourite and make a big difference to your overall foodie journey, there really are no substitutes.
- ever cook grumpy: Another thing we hear from highly-awarded chefs is that food tastes better when it’s cooked with passion and love. While that’s as cheesy as a quattro formaggi pizza, it’s dead true – long days and bad moods can mean rushed cooking, distractions and ultimately poorly cooked, burnt or just misjudged flavours. If you aren’t in the mood, do everyone a favour and laugh it off with a comforting takeaway, or a cup of tea and a sack of biscuits.
There are endless lessons to be learnt from culinary school – but there’s never a point when the learning is over. Here’s a basic I’ve been working on since I was seven.
My Kinda Bolognese Sauce
- A healthy glug of olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced ● 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 large carrots, grated
- 500g lean beef mince
- 1 glass red wine
- 1 heaped teaspoon each of dried oregano, dried marjoram, dried parsley, dried basil, paprika, dried chilli flakes
- 1 tin Italian diced tomatoes
- 6 large, fresh plum or Roma tomatoes, finely chopped or pureed
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 500ml chicken, veg or beef stock, hot
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- ½ cup cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Parmesan cheese, fresh basil and sliced red chilli to serve
On medium heat, add onion, carrot and garlic to a large flat-bottomed pot with olive oil. Sweat, don’t fry. Add the minced beef, using a whisk to break it up evenly and brown. Add red wine, cook until the boozy smell is gone, then add herbs and spices and mix. Add all tomatoes, stock and Worcestershire sauce, mix and simmer on medium-low heat for 90 minutes. Crank up the heat to reduce to desired consistency for the last 15 minutes and stir cream through. Season to taste. Toss with al dente penne and serve with lashings of good Parmesan cheese, fresh basil leaves and red chilli.
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