If you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself dreaming about food. Was it that perfectly cooked steak you ate last week accompanied by a gorgeous Cabernet? Maybe it was farther back in time—the way that Grandma made a grilled cheese sandwich on a rainy day. Even though it was just cheese and bread, there was something special about the way she made it.
When we taste familiar flavors, we are instantly taken back to a time, place or emotion. But it’s not all about nostalgia. Cooking is also an art form that relies on the individuality of the chef to make the dish come to life. And what better way to express yourself in the kitchen—while paying homage to the past—than taking that old-timey classic and making it your own?
Comfort food has stepped out of the shadows and now stands on its own because of its versatility. New and creative twists on classic dishes make them feel fresh. While almost everyone knows and enjoys the feeling of diving into mac n’cheese with sharp cheddar, why not add melted tomatoes cooked in dark beer and throw a little crispy bacon and fresh thyme in there for good measure? Just a few unexpected additions can transform a dish completely. With its delectable, flaky crust, tender meat and warm savory filling, chicken pot pie is a family favorite. But by infusing the crust with some fresh marjoram and duck fat, adding a dash of saffron to the filling and replacing the chicken with lobster, you’ve gone from a traditional comfort treat to a culinary dream!
I am a huge proponent of experimentation in the kitchen. Not only does it allow for the individual creativity of the chef but it’s fun! And because the only limitations are your imagination, you’ll never run out of new ways to make a dish exciting and unique. That’s not to say that some things sound better in your head than they turn out on the plate. I’ve had ideas for dishes that I was confident would work only to find out quickly after the first taste that it missed the mark. On the other hand, I’ve put ingredients together that I thought might be in opposition to each other only to find out they melded perfectly. Cooking is as much about the process as it is about the result and what better way to make something your own than to take a chance?
Sometimes my staff and I like to play food games. We have one called “Add Three,” where we’ll take a dish and add three new ingredients to it. Take chicken soup for example. A classic recipe, right? But what if you add some Sambal Olek (ground chile paste), maybe some Thai basil and top it with some crispy fried wontons. Bingo! A new dish! Of course, after a long shift sometimes the additions can get a little crazy, but we’re not creating a formula for curing a disease. We’re making food! And food should be fun!
When I teach my beginning cooking classes, I use a very easy technique to encourage people to become more independent food thinkers. I ask them to take a recipe and prepare it once as written. But the next time, change out one or two ingredients that you think will act in concert with the dish. It’s just that easy. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but was a series of additions and improvements. And by infusing your food with your own personal touch you’ll have your own food kingdom before you know it.
So the next time you pull out your faithful red and white checkered “Betty Crocker Cookbook,” browse through the pages with a sense of adventure. You can bet that Betty Crocker did.