Buy a good knife and never say sorry: top chefs share the best cooking advice they ever had | Food

Buy a good knife and never say sorry: top chefs share the best cooking advice they ever had | Food

Exercise restraint

Jamie Oliver, cook, author and broadcaster

I’ll never forget when the great Gennaro Contaldo taught me that “restraint is the most important ingredient”. To be fair, he’s taught me quite a bit, but it’s this one piece of advice I come back to time and again. It was some years ago and we were on an Italian island, making crudo. Fresh fish, salt, lemon and olive oil, that’s it, but it tastes out of this world. I probably wanted to add something else – a little bit of chilli, garlic, how about some herbs, Gennaro? – but he wasn’t having any of it. “Restraint is the most important ingredient, Jamie!”

In that moment, I learned how important it is to celebrate simplicity, to concentrate on the quality of ingredients and diligence of cooking. It’s so easy to add just another ingredient – it’s a sign of skill to leave your ingredients to sing.

Cook with wine you want to drink

José Pizarro, chef-owner, Pizarro, London

Cook with wine or sherry that you want to drink. Don’t be tempted to buy a much cheaper bottle just for cooking, as the flavour will affect the finished dish. If in doubt, use a splash (or more) of the wine or sherry you might drink with the finished meal. And definitely don’t use a wine that’s corked – the bad taste will come through in your food.

Whisk your mince

Selin Kiazim, chef, London

Use a whisk when cooking with mince to break it up really easily, and stop clumps of meat forming, rather than hacking away at it with a spoon. I learned this when I was working at Peter Gordon’s restaurant, the Providores, from a chef called Moondog, and it’s really useful, especially if you’re making a big batch of something. Use the whisk for four or five minutes while the mince breaks up and starts to colour, and then you can go back to using a spoon.

Prepping vegetables? Use a tomato knife. Cooking them? Use a sandwich toaster

Jane Baxter, co-founder of Wild Artichokes food events company

For prepping vegetables, I swear by a tomato knife. We use them a lot at work: small, serrated Victorinox knives with red handles. If you’re struggling with a peeler for celeriac or butternut squash, a tomato knife with its sawing action can get right through it. I wouldn’t use it to bone a leg of lamb, but for all kinds of vegetable cookery, they’re really good. And they stay sharper for longer as well.

Sandwich toasters are a really quick and easy way of cooking vegetables. Most people seem to have been given one at some time in their life, and it’s stuck at the back of the cupboard. I like to use it for purple sprouting broccoli, because you’re slightly charring and steaming them at the same time. (You can oil them a little beforehand but I don’t think it’s necessary.) I’ll cut a leek lengthways and grill that and chop it up. You could do French beans or slices of cabbage … I’ve even put in whole chunks of cavolo nero, squashing it down with the lid – it retains the flavour more than boiling. My son does it now as well. It’s how we cook vegetables in our house because it’s easy and tasty.

Patience is a virtue; weigh everything

Nathan Outlaw, chef-patron, Outlaw’s Restaurants, Cornwall

Cooking needs patience. In 30 years as a chef, I’ve found that whenever I rush something, or think I can cut a corner, it never works out. This is particularly the case with the pastry side of the kitchen. The recipe says to rest the pastry for half an hour, but you think, ah, it’ll be fine, I won’t bother, and then it comes out of the oven all wonky. If you’re impatient with a stock or a sauce, you’ll end up with a bit of a mess, whereas if you take your time and skim the impurities off the top, you’ll get something far superior.

Always measure ingredients. Recipes always say a pinch of this or a handful of that, but I’ve got hands like a bear, so my pinch is completely different to another person’s pinch. I’ve got to a point now where I weigh everything in grams. Digital scales are great for measuring things properly. They’re not actually that expensive any more – I bought one in Tesco the other day for less than £15.

Buy a good quality knife, keep it sharp

Angela Hartnett, chef-owner, Murano, London, and co-host of Dish podcast

I don’t think you need to have the most expensive knives in your kitchen, but you do have to have a decent knife, and if the knife isn’t sharp, you might as well forget it. You’re never going to be able to cook with blunt knives, that’s why people cut themselves. To me, your best bit of equipment is a good knife you feel comfortable with, that you handle well, and is sharp. To sharpen it, I’d use a whetstone, with a steel to keep it honed. Get someone to teach you how to use one, or I’m sure there are 15 different YouTube videos about how to sharpen a knife.

Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Observer

Wash up as you go

Jeremy Lee, chef-patron, Quo Vadis, London, and the author of Cooking (4th Estate)

The best cooking advice I ever got was: clear the decks and keep them clear, washing as you go. It’s so easy to descend into chaos in the kitchen and then it all becomes a bit overwhelming. You’re confronted with devastation afterwards, wondering why on earth you put yourself through it. It took me a while to learn this. When you turn the corner, you’re like, oh God, why didn’t I do this all along?

A great pile of bowls is a boon to the cook. The best proof of this is artichokes. Whittling away at bunches of artichokes over a bowl for the leaves and a bowl of cold water with a few slices of lemon in readiness for those prepared, you get pretty nifty at these wee darlings. (Do lots, they keep remarkably well covered in olive oil in the fridge.) And you can whittle away without having this awful mess on the table and everything going on the floor. I’m constantly putting bowls in front of cooks. It helps enormously.

For a quick fresh chicken stock, add a cube of chicken bouillon

Adejoké Bakare, chef-owner, Chishuru, London

If you need to make a chicken stock in a hurry, prepare one as normal but add a cube of chicken bouillon and you’ve got a workable stock in 20 minutes. This gives you the depth of flavour your dish needs but without the intense energy usage that comes from boiling stock for hours. I sometimes grill the vegetables and the bones off in the oven, then add them to the heated bouillon water and let it simmer for a few minutes longer before draining. It’s a cheap and quick way to make a stock: not too much energy, not too much time.

Take care with temperature

Jacob Kenedy, chef-patron, Bocca di Lupo, London

Understand the appropriate heat for what you’re cooking, which quite often means turning it down. I learned this when I was first training as a chef with Sam and Sam Clark at Moro. As a young chef, you think that the more you turn the heat up, the better browning you’ll get, but almost the inverse is true. As long as whatever it is you’re cooking isn’t sweating in the pan, if you cook it over a medium heat, let’s say, it will have longer to brown and it will get crisper deeper into the middle. If you put it on a very high heat, there’s only time for the heat to penetrate the outside. Sometimes, for quick-cooking things such as squid or thin pieces of fish, you do need fierce heat. But if you want a piece of skin to get properly crisp or a thick steak to get properly browned, turn it down a bit. Generally, the larger the object or the longer it needs cooking, the lower the heat that’s needed to get the best result.

Crushing garlic? Add salt. Sautéeing veg? Keep them shallow. Need a belt? Use some clingfilm

Sam and Sam Clark, chef-owners, Moro and Morito, London

Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Observer

When crushing garlic in a pestle and mortar or with a knife, to make a dressing or an alioli, a hummus or babaganoush, make sure you add plenty of salt so the garlic breaks down completely into a smooth, creamy paste, avoiding lumpy bits of raw garlic that can be unpleasant.

When slow-cooking, braising or sautéeing vegetables, choose a pan where the vegetables sit no more than 3cm deep. In this way the water can evaporate successfully and you concentrate the delicious flavour and encourage caramelisation. Otherwise they boil and sweat in their own juices. I often say to chefs that, when cooking vegetables, our job is to get rid of the water in them, so we’re left with the essence of the vegetable.

Clingfilm makes a great emergency belt for your too-loose chef trousers or apron with missing string.

Taste, taste and taste some more; adapt your ingredients

Shuko Oda, chef and co-owner, Koya restaurants, London

Taste, taste, taste! It’s a pretty basic idea, but easy to forget, and it’s the most important thing you can do to evolve as a cook. If it’s something you’ve prepared from scratch, like a fresh batch of dashi, you have to taste it, otherwise it wouldn’t be right to serve it to people. If you’re finishing off a dish someone else has started, you need to taste it. Tasting is part of the communication between chefs (we keep a little plate nearby and taste from that, so we’re not double-dipping our spoons), and it allows you to modify a dish if it isn’t quite right. At home, I think it’s nice to let my kids taste things before they’re cooked, to see, for example, how the texture and flavour of a piece of vegetable can change if you’re simmering it for a long time.

Remember to adapt each ingredient to the dish. A good example of this is a carrot – the way you slice your carrot could change a dish, and even ruin it if it’s cut the wrong way. Think about how you want this carrot to stand out or not, and how it should feel in your mouth. For example, if I wanted to make a minestrone with lots of carrots, I need to make sure the carrots are cooked through and have a cosy, homey feel.

The way that people cut their vegetables differently always interests me. Different households have different ways. There’s no clear rule, but you can definitely get it wrong, like if you end up with huge chunks of onion in your risotto.

Add cold syrup to hot cake, hot syrup to cold cake

Georgina Hayden, food writer and author of Nistisima (Bloomsbury)

In Greece and the Middle East we have a lot of syrupy cakes: it’s a way of keeping things moist and fresh in hot climates. My gran always taught me to add cold syrup to hot cakes, and vice versa, so that it absorbs properly. If both were hot, the syrup would sink to the bottom, and if both were cold, the syrup would just sit on top. I always make my sugar syrup in advance and let it cool so that it’s ready to pour over the hot cake or bake, straight out of the oven. The best way to keep a cake moist is by putting a syrup on it, so regardless of where you’re from or what kind of baking you’re doing, I think it’s good advice.

How to fix a creme anglaise that has split

Ravneet Gill, author of The Pastry Chef’s Guide and founder of Countertalk

If you’re making a creme anglaise and it splits – which it often does, especially in big batches – don’t freak out and throw it away. Put it in a bowl on top of an ice bath [a container of ice cubes and cold water]; then take a stick blender and blend it for about 20 seconds. It comes back together like magic. So if you’re getting to the point where you see the creme anglaise catching at the bottom of the pot and curdling a bit, that trick will save you. (The same goes with buttercream.) A chef called Marianne who worked with me briefly at St John taught me that. I was making litres of creme anglaise and it was splitting and she said, “Don’t worry, let’s just fix it.” It’s never failed me yet.

For Chinese cooking, make your sauces well in advance

Andrew Wong, chef-owner, A Wong, London

A good tip for Chinese cooking is to make all the sauces beforehand and leave them in the fridge – they can sit there for a week no problem. Then, when you’re having a dinner party or whatever, just stir fry the ingredients, add the sauces, and you’re done, it’s perfect. With Chinese food, the sauces are probably the most important part.

Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Observer

Lay the table first; season as you go; add fresh lemon; never apologise

Rukmini Iyer, food writer and author of India Express (Square Peg)

Season a dish lightly as you go. If you’re making a curry, for example, add a pinch of salt along with the spices once the onions have browned, then again when the dish is close to being finished. What you’re doing is building up layers of seasoning and flavour. If you season right at the end of the dish, you’re more likely to over-season it (which I’m sadly finding to be true, cooking saltless meals for two adults and a nine-month-old baby).

If you think a dish has enough salt but still doesn’t taste right, add fresh lemon or lime juice. It enhances the flavour immensely and will round off the flavours. It’s usually a good idea to add lemon right at the end, especially if cooking on the stovetop on a high heat.

Never apologise for your food. Your friends and family ought to be delighted that you’ve cooked for them, and if you forgot to add olives or parsley or grapefruit to a dish, they’re none the wiser as long as you don’t apologise profusely for forgetting them. Ditto if you’re running late with dinner: have extra posh crisps and plenty of wine on hand and everyone will be both mildly tipsy and oblivious.

My mum’s amusing if retrograde tip, which she read in an American magazine in the 1970s, is: lay the table first, so your returning husband, or arriving guests, will think you’re further on with dinner than you really are. I ignore this (as does she: Dad lays the table at theirs), but I enjoy the general message that the illusion of having everything under control can help make it so.

Horseradish sauce needs sugar; keep your utensils close

Simon Hopkinson, chef, food writer and author of Roast Chicken and Other Stories (Ebury)

It was the wine merchant Bill Baker who first alerted me to the essential addition of sugar when making a proper creamed horseradish sauce. It would have been about 30 years ago and Bill had driven me out into the countryside to dig up wild – often roadside – horseradish roots to make into sauce for roast beef for Sunday lunch. He had learned the addition of sugar from his mother, an excellent cook. Today, I continue to find it extraordinary that most good chefs I know (bar Jeremy Lee, who once worked with me at Bibendum) have not a clue about this trick. The sugar emphasises the heat; encourages it. One only has to take a spoonful of the Jewish condiment chrain (the coarse puree of cooked beetroot and horseradish most often served at Passover) to know that the natural sweetness of the beetroot kicks the horseradish into that marvellous nose tingle. I use a ratio of about 1 part freshly grated horseradish to 4 parts double cream, stirred together with salt, lemon juice and caster sugar to taste – more than you think. Without the sugar, the sauce is nothing.

Never lend another cook in the kitchen your potato peeler.

Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Observer

Recipes are a guide – not gospel

Imad Alarnab, chef-owner, Imad’s Syrian Kitchen, London

Don’t follow the recipe to the last detail. Obviously, follow the instructions and techniques, but in terms of portions and ingredients I think it’s all about experiencing and trying. If you don’t like cumin seeds, just leave them out. If the dish turns out a bit bland, add more salt. I’m not saying you don’t need recipes, they’re really useful for home cooking, especially pastry, but don’t be scared to add things according to your taste. Cooking should be intuitive and fun.

Forgive yourself

J Kenji López-Alt, author of The Wok and The Food Lab (both WW Norton)

For me, the most important thing in home cooking is to learn to be forgiving of yourself and understand mistakes happen. Once you’re past the subsistence level, the basic goal of food is to get people around the table to enjoy each other’s company or to take a little pause in your day to sit down and collect your thoughts and enjoy yourself. Once you’re sitting at the table, whether it’s by yourself or with other people, the food has already done its job, so even if it doesn’t come out exactly the way you saw some chef make it, or the way the recipe photo looks, it doesn’t really matter. Luckily, we all eat multiple times a day, so if something doesn’t come out right once, you’re going to have another opportunity to practise and get better at it.