By: Ryan Hodros, Culinary Arts Student
The vanquished foes of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are officially behind us, with Valentine’s Day and the Fourth of July still quite a ways off, so it is time to regroup and prepare for the next onslaught of culinary challenges. If you’re like my wife and I, the biggest challenge of the holidays is cooking in someone else’s house. We usually use this as one of our gifts (who doesn’t like not having to cook while hosting a get-together?) but it’s tricky because the kitchens we’re working in are totally unfamiliar. How do you overcome all the little hurdles of a foreign space, all while enjoying your holiday get-together?
To help cope with this inconvenience, I’ve put together five hacks to make cooking in someone else’s kitchen easier and safer.
5. Bring a pen and post-it notes
If you’re cooking at someone else’s house, the biggest obstacle will be not knowing where anything is. Your host won’t want to babysit you the entire time (you’re the chef after all), so you’ll probably be on your own. Bumbling around looking for a spatula or a sauté pan every two minutes wastes an inordinate amount of time, but unless you’re Rain Man, how can you hope to quickly remember where everything is?
I overcome this problem by labeling all the drawers and cupboards in the kitchen with post-it notes before getting started. “Pots/pans,” “utensils,” “hand towels” etc. will give you a quick and easy reference that you can search for at a glance, instead of opening everything everywhere. Sure it takes a few minutes at the start, but it will be totally worth it. Don’t bother labeling the knives though, because you’re going to…
4. Bring your own chef’s knife
Non-professional or untrained cooks out there, let me be frank: most of you are garbage at keeping your knives in good working order. You use them on hard surfaces like plates and metal, run them through the dishwasher, leave them in soapy water for too long, and never hone or sharpen them. As a result, they become dull and dangerous.
If you’re a chef, you’re used to using sharpened and honed knives that require little strength, so there’s a good chance you’re going to cut yourself with someone else’s knife. You’ll put too much muscle into that piece of beef or chicken you’re breaking down, and the resulting force will cause your hand to slip and suddenly you’re seasoning your stroganoff with hemoglobin.
Stay safe by bringing your chef’s knife. Of course that’s the only knife you’ll need, so transportation will be easy. Just wrap it in a heavy towel and put it in the trunk (so it doesn’t become a sharpened missile during a car crash) while you’re driving over.
3. Make snacks
As kids during the holidays, our family used to put off eating anything significant until the big meal. Sure, there was toast for breakfast, and maybe a stealth cookie here and there, but we’d put off any real eating until everyone sat down around the table to dig in. As a result, there was a lot of grumbling bellies throughout most of the holiday.
Rookie mistake. Do yourself a favor and set out a plate of snacks so people don’t start getting crabby and/or drunk because of their empty stomachs. Pick up a few dollars worth of fresh veg (carrots, celery, broccoli, etc) and cut them into manageable chunks. With your knife skills, it will take no time at all, and with a little dip (I recommend honey mustard with a little oil and vinegar, but you can always just cheat and bring a jar of ranch), everyone will be in a better mood throughout the day.
2. Internet Access/Notes Notes Notes!
If you’re like me, rote memorization of recipes is an issue. Maybe it’s all that football I played as a younger man, but I always forget that one ingredient that really ties the meal together, or what temperature that custard has to reach, or I just space what I put on the menu and have to pause and actively remember.
Save yourself some mental anguish and bring a laptop/smart phone/tablet/recipe book, plus a notepad to make notes. Bookmark your recipes (electronically or physically) and jot down whatever alterations you have planned. If you’re a culinary professionally, chances are you eat stress for breakfast with a side of adrenaline, but at a house party, you’re supposed to be having fun. Don’t give yourself the unnecessary anxiety of not remembering what goes into coq au vin—write that stuff down!
1. Kitchen party!
Speaking of having fun, doesn’t it kind of suck when everyone’s in the living room watching the ball game and sharing some laughs while you’re in the kitchen doing the work all by your lonesome? Sure, you’re probably used to it, but if it’s Christmas, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July, you’re probably visiting family or friends and you’d like to, you know, actually visit with them. But at the same time, sitting there watching you work isn’t exactly their idea of a good time.
To lure party-goers to your station, mix up a batch of sangria (my favorite is 2 parts riesling to 1 part sprite, plus chunks of whatever fruit is in season at the time) and leave it on the counter (next to the plate of snacks from #3) where you’re working. At the same time, turn on some tunes and chat it up with whoever comes by to pour a drink. DO NOT pull the classic chef move of being snippy when people try to gab with you while you work! Explain what you’re doing, give tips and tricks for the kitchen, and put out little samplers of what you’re making, and you’ll have a crowd around you in no time.