Did you watch Master Chef last night? I’ve written about it before. We got caught up in watching it last season, and since the last season has aired, I’ve had a few choice interactions with one of the contestants on the show, Ben Starr. If you watch, you remember him- he of multicolored baker’s toques and an increasingly positive attitude toward cooking and the ways that it affects how he wants to live his life. The show, in contrast to the other Gordon Ramsay vehicle, showcased the side of cooking that I love. It’s the experimentation, the combination of flavors, the trial and error, and the sense of accomplishment of a dish well done that makes both my personal experience and that of the contestants worthwhile.

If you watched it, among other things, you saw the final segment, and it was memorable. Christine Ha, a writer from Houston, presented a Vietnamese clay pot catfish on the bone to the panel. The segment was noticeably different from any other, in that all of her movements were deliberate. She washed her hands, which none of the other contestants were shown doing, pulled stock items from her impeccably prepared mise en place, and created a simple presentation of a steak in a fish caramel broth with pickled vegetables on the side. She tasted the components to make sure they were right, faced her dishes and plated with patience and care.

I don’t know if the fact that she was blind had that much to do with it.

To her credit, the dish, simply plated as it was, radiated through the television with exactly what she put out there. If you’ve ever had fish sauce, you know what it smells like. Likewise, if you heard the components of the pickles, you knew how they tasted. If you had ever slow simmered a piece of fish in a stock or broth, you know the texture. All the pieces were there, and there she stood. Waiting.

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I wrote earlier about cooking with the senses, and how we relate to our food through each of them. The more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the show’s ability to convey different avenues down which we travel to achieve our goal of a dish that will satisfy our palates.

For every one of our senses,  there is a path that we take. If we care, we look for color contrast. We pluck the vegetables that are just firm enough. We listen for the sizzle in the pan, and smell the aromas wafting off the range. If this is a hobby or a profession, these things become instinctual. There is a timer that goes off in my mind when I smell that a piece of meat is ready to be turned. If I’m focused on other things in the kitchen, I can hear when a pot of cream is going to boil over, and from the bubble of a pot of water, I can tell that it’s time to drop the pasta.

It’s not always about what you see in the kitchen, but sometimes what you don’t.

The great chefs I’ve worked with just know. They know when the flame is too high, or when the flavor is too complex, and using one or more of their senses, they adjust. They adapt. An often used motto in the kitchen is this: Taste, adjust. Taste, adjust. It’s all about balance. If you know your recipes, and you’re confident in your skills, you need a palate, you need patience, and you need a plate.

When I was in high school, working at a sloppy Italian joint in town, I worked two nights a week with Terry making pizzas. It was his only job. He stood at the end of the line, and every time he got an order, they’d tap him on the shoulder, show him the ticket, and he’d set about making it. After I rolled out his dough, I’d watch as he spread the sauce in concentric circles, distributed the toppings and cheese evenly over the crust, and set it on the pizza peel, ready for the oven. It wasn’t fancy. It was deliberate.  More than anyone in the kitchen, though, he was in the zone.

Remove one of your senses, and the others become heightened. That’s the simple explanation. Maybe it’s the only one needed.

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