LEARNING to cook, no matter what level you’re at, is all about a few essential things. Whether you enjoy trying new recipes or ingredients, just love cooking for your family and friends or you’re training to be a chef, there are a few key things you need.
For me, those things are passion, a will to really learn about the produce you work with and a mentor.
The chef world is a tough one, and I know I wouldn’t be where I am without my passion and genuine love of cooking. I live and breathe it and wake up every morning excited about what the day ahead holds. But I also would not be where I am today without the mentors who have helped me along the way, and to them I will be forever grateful.
Most people have a mentor when it comes to cooking. It may not be a Michelin-starred chef, but most of us have someone who has inspired us to cook better, eat better and understand where our food comes from. For everyone that person is different. It could be your mum, your dad, your granny, someone you admire on TV or even your own kids. I recently had a chance to celebrate one of my great mentors – the legendary Pierre Koffmann. When I walked into his kitchen as a young chef, I quickly realised I knew nothing. Boy, did he make me work hard, and yes, I felt like giving in sometimes, but he really showed me what good cooking is all about. It was with him that I really learned to cook from the heart, and it’s a skill that will never leave me.
I feel I’ve reached a stage in my career where I know I can pass on my knowledge to the next generation – like Koffmann did and continues to do for me – and I’m hugely excited about it. As part of a new BBC Two series, The Chef’s Protégé, which I filmed with Michel Roux Jr and Theo Randall, I got to go back to Perth College, where I studied, and work with students there. My aim was to find someone that I could mentor – someone to whom I can pass on and share the skills I learned from my mentors.
The first thing I wanted to find out from these youngsters was whether they embraced top-quality produce. Some of them had never even seen a scallop fresh from the sea, still in its shell. We all have to start somewhere and not everyone is lucky enough to handle the incredible produce we do at the restaurant, but what I wanted to see was how they reacted to these ingredients. I kept asking myself how I would have felt being asked to cook with fresh langoustines by a Michelin-starred chef at the age of 16. Pretty terrified, I think, but what I was looking for, beneath the nerves was a spark in their eye when they held the fresh shellfish or game complete with fur and feathers. I believe that’s what cooking is all about – you can learn the skills with a great mentor, but passion is something that comes from the heart – that’s the thing that can’t be taught.
I showed these young chefs how to make two of my favourite dishes – seafood with champagne and scallops with fennel. These dishes really do reflect my whole cooking ethos. For these young chefs, this produce was like nothing they had seen before and it was incredible to watch them really shine when working with it. The seafood dish uses seven types of seafood, including oysters, scallops, mussels, clams and winkles – a great collection of some of Scotland’s finest fare. This kind of dish is a food-lover’s dream. The beauty is you don’t need to be a chef to enjoy cooking this dish. It’s something that will push you, but to achieve that real flavour of the sea is worth all the effort.
The thing I was really trying to teach these young chefs was that each time, if they listen to feedback and take it on board, they can always do it better next time. The same applies to cooking at home. Cook a recipe and you will find that, with a little help, practice makes perfect.
There is so much young talent out there, I really relish the chance to celebrate it. I have been given a chance to find my protégé, to whom I can pass on my skills and watch them grow and flourish – someone who can thrive in the world of gastronomy. But that person has to be someone who really wants it. My aim is to really nurture some of the great young talent we have in this country, and help them be the best they can be.
The same can be said for home cooks. Find someone who inspires you, from whom you can soak up knowledge, and learn to use your passion to do great things. The idea of passing on cooking skills is not a new one, and most recipes have been handed down through generations. I always insist that the essence of good cooking really comes from the heart. The whole idea of cooking is about sharing – sharing passion, sharing ideas, and sharing the fruits of your labour.
Seafood and champagne
• Olive oil
• 8 surf clams
• 8 mussels
• 8 razor clams, in shell
• 1 tbsp shallots, finely chopped
• 100ml white wine
• 4 oysters, open (keep the jus)
• 250ml cream
• 2 scallops, cut in half
• 8 squat lobsters, prepared
• 100g winkles, cooked
• 50g samphire
• 50g courgette, diced
• 50g fennel, cooked
• 50g tomato concasse
• Wild herbs
• 100ml champagne
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the surf clams, mussels, razor clams, shallots and white wine and place a lid on top. As soon as the razor clams open, remove from the pan. Then remove the mussels and surf clams from the pan once they have opened.
Add the oyster stock to the clam stock and reduce by three quarters. Add the cream and bring to the boil. Poach the scallops in the sauce and then add the squat lobsters, razor clams, surf clams and mussels and cook for one minute. Then add the oysters, winkles, vegetables and herbs and finish by adding the champagne.
SCALLOP, FENNEL & ORANGE
For the fennel purée
• 2 fennel bulbs
• olive oil
• 1 litre chicken stock
For the orange confit
• 2 oranges
• 200ml stock syrup
For the scallops
• 4 extra-large hand-dived scallops
• Handful wild herbs, diced
• Pinch sea salt
To prepare the fennel purée
Thinly slice the fennel. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan and add some olive oil. Gently sweat the fennel in the pan for three to four minutes before covering with the chicken stock (hold some stock back for later).
As the fennel cooks, add the rest of the stock and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until soft. Whizz in a blender and set aside for later.
To prepare the oranges
Peel the oranges and remove the white parts from the skin. Take the remaining orange skin and cut into triangles before blanching in boiling water three times.
Cover the triangles of skin in sugar syrup with the juice of one orange and cook slowly.
To prepare the scallops
Pan-fry the scallops, then place some fennel purée at the bottom of each of the shells and place the scallops on top.
Add a slice of raw fennel, some orange, diced wild herbs and orange confit to each portion. Place some sea salt on each plate and sit the scallop shells on top.
Tom Kitchin is one of three chefs appearing on The Chef’s Protégé, a new culinary competition starting tomorrow on BBC2, 6:30pm