When I was attending culinary school full-time, I also worked full-time in a restaurant kitchen. Although it was stressful, it also was a great experience because I learned a thousand times more on the job than I did in the classroom or the school’s kitchen.
One of the most important lessons I learned was how to deal with different kinds of people. For example, the first chef I worked for was a guy named Chef Mark. To say he had a temper is like saying Donald Trump is a little immodest sometimes. Working for Chef Mark was like going to work inside an active volcano each day: You never knew when it was going to blow up. (He eventually got fired for throwing a back waiter into the salad station during a particularly hectic dinner service.)
Still, I learned a lot from Chef Mark, not just how to deal with somebody who could occasionally switch into Mr. Hyde, but also about cooking. Despite his flaws, Chef Mark knew a lot about food and how to transform it into something extraordinary.
“I’m not going to teach you how to cook according to a recipe,” he told me one day. “I’m going to teach you how to cook, period. You can throw away your recipe book.”
From Chef Mark, I learned how to balance and counteract flavors against each other for heightened effect: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, unami, etc. Textures, colors and plating also could be assembled in different combinations to create something unique.
Most importantly, I learned how to take any ingredient and build a dish around it, complementing it with both the expected and unexpected in order to surprise and delight the diner.
Take compound salads, for example. A compound salad is any type of salad that is based on some sort of central ingredient, such as a particular vegetable (such as green beans, grilled vegetables, asparagus), a grain or legume (rice, lentils or any kind of beans), fruit or even a protein (tuna, chicken, eggs).
Broccoli salad, for instance, is centered on the crisp, crunchy and relatively neutral flavor of fresh broccoli. You can complement it with a dressing that has a tangy flavor and creamy texture, as well as garnish that builds on or contrasts its primary flavor, such as the smoky flavor of bacon, the sweetness of raisins, the sting of onions.
Or consider tuna salad. The dry, slightly fishy flavor of the tuna is given a bit of crunch with celery, sweetness and a little bite with onion, and it’s all balanced with the lemony, tart flavor of mayonnaise, then underscored with just the right amount of salt.
Once you start thinking about flavor profiles, you can create a compound salad out of practically anything. Just apply the four elements of any compound salad:
1. The main ingredient
2. The dressing
3. The garnish (whatever you add to the salad to complement the primary flavor)
4. The seasoning (salt, pepper, cayenne, Adobo, Tony Chachere’s, etc.)
When the weather gets warm, I often build cool, refreshing compound salads out of anything I find lying around. Compound salads are handy to have in your refrigerator because they make a great snack, are perfect for a quick lunch, and can even round out a dinner as an appetizer or side dish.
In this instance, I just happened to have some quinoa left over from something else, so I combined it with some black beans, added a garnish of red onions, carrot, celery, red bell pepper and scallion, dressed it with an nice little Greek Oregano Vinaigrette, add a touch of sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, and I had wonderful compound salad that we enjoyed for a several days.
I’m not going to post a recipe because, really, there is no recipe. Plus, I want you to try it yourself. Find some ingredient you already have lying around, think about its flavor profile, then just build something new around it. You may surprise yourself with what you come up with.
While my time with Chef Mark may have been stormy, I came away from it a much better cook and a more versatile person.