Convenience foods (heat and serve) are typically made with inferior ingredients; contain way too much salt and empty calories. I do not purchase convenience products-ever! I do not use pre-made sauces, stocks or pre-made products at work and I would never feed that stuff to my family and friends. I cook with the Cucina Povera (“poor kitchen”) mindset.
In the kosher kitchen we only have so many ingredients to work with, both at home and professionally. Many ingredients that most chefs take for granted are not part of my daily repertoire due to kosher restrictions. I have a meat and pareve kitchen and cannot just add cream to a soup or sauce to thicken it. I have to work a bit harder and find other ways that fit into the kosher laws. I do not believe in using faux foods for substitutions and look to natural ingredients that are already kosher and in season. In the spirit of Cucina Povera, I embrace my constraints, accept the materials I have to work with and move on. I always say that if a recipe cannot be made without completely mutilating it, then do not make it. I have never put soy crème brulees on my menu and never will. I also do not sell faux crab or mock sour cream. Real sour cream is amazing and who doesn’t love crème brulee? The artificial stuff doesn’t come close and I have too much respect for my ingredients, clients and family to ever serve ersatz food.
Kashrut is all about making choices—not getting around them with cheap imitations.
Another tip I’ve learned over the years, learn to make one great recipe and then riff on it. Everyone should have their own signature dish. This is the dish that you know inside and out and can do in your sleep. It can be as simple as meatballs or as complex as homemade sausage. Once you have that recipe under your belt, you can shake it up. Add new flavors and ingredients and play with it. Now you have new versions and more options.
Most of all, have fun in the kitchen and take some chances. Everyone is so afraid to make a mistake in the kitchen. As long as the food is safe to eat, go ahead and play with it! No one knows what the dish was supposed to be, except you, so whatever you say it is, it is.
Don't miss my other Secrets of a Restaurant Chef: