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When Adam Roberts started his blog, The Amateur Gourmet, in 2004, he was a law student who didn't know how to cook. He decided to teach himself how, documenting his efforts — often hilariously — on the blog. From there, his career as a food writer took off. In his new book, Secrets of the Great Chefs: Recipes, Techniques and Tricks From America's Best Cooks, Roberts approaches learning how to cook like a chef in the same way — he plunges right in. The result is a user-friendly book full of tips, tricks and recipes to take your cooking to that next level of deliciousness.
R•Home: Describe the development of the experiential method of cooking you cover in "Ten Essential Rules for Cooking Like a Chef" at the beginning of your book.
Adam Roberts: It was really important for me to convey to the reader that making great food on the level of important chefs is not about a vial of some secret potion that only they have. What makes chef-food great is how engaged chefs are when they're making it — the way they're always tasting, always adjusting, always fixing. If you follow a recipe to the letter and then don't taste it as you do it, you're never going to be a great cook — at best, you can only be a great recipe follower. To be a great chef, you have to understand what's happening on the stove right in front of you and how to improve it in the moment. That's what my book attempts to capture.
R•Home: What was something that happened while working with a chef on a recipe for the book that crystallized a new concept for you?
Roberts: I would say watching the flames erupt in Susan Feniger's pan while she was making her black pepper clams. Watching how calm she was, how casual, while getting her pan explosively hot, and the way she seemed to relish that moment of implosion when the wet clams hit the smoking hot oil was incredibly instructive. Being fearless, harnessing heat — these are definitely concepts that most home cooks struggle with.
R•Home: What was something that happened that a chef had to adapt to or correct in the moment? And what did you learn from it?
Roberts: Chefs were constantly adjusting, constantly tasting, constantly fixing. The first example that comes to mind is Michel Richard and his potato risotto. When he finished cooking it, he decided he didn't like the color, so he added squid ink to turn it black. Then he decided it was too wet, so he strained it through a chinois. By the time he plated it, you would never have known how much spontaneity went into it … it looked like a carefully executed masterpiece, instead of something created by the seat of his pants. From that I learned that things can always be better: Don't settle for just OK. Keep adjusting until you can't imagine any way to improve it more.
R•Home: So many great chefs/cooks are represented in your book: Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianich, Sara Moulton, Hugh Acheson, to name just a few. How did you choose?
Roberts: Choosing chefs and scheduling chefs was the hardest part of writing this book. Usually it started with a city: I'd choose a city with a cluster of well-known chefs — like San Francisco, for Alice Waters, Daniel Patterson, Gary Danko, etc. — then I'd research who to cook with there. Part of the adventure of this book was never really knowing who I was going to cook with next.
To hear more secrets that Adam Roberts learned from the great chefs, come see him at R•Home for the Holidays on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. For more details, visit rhomemagazine.com/holidays .