A taste of success
In her quest to gain more experience (and, hopefully, paid work) in the food world, Elena Cho learned how to become a recipe tester, starting on Jason Atherton’s new book ‘Gourmet Food for a Fiver’.
Before I begin, a confession. Although a culinary professional, I suffer the shame of the occasional pre-dinner party debacle. Like many home cooks, I, perhaps naively, put my complete and utter faith in a recipe I have never made before, praying it will work. I follow the directions religiously, only to discover fifteen minutes before my guests are scheduled to arrive that my kitchen is nothing but a culinary graveyard of dirty dishes and cream puffs resembling deflated balloons.
The truth of the matter is that some cookbooks are printed without ever having been tested; others are printed having been tested only half-heartedly or even carelessly. To those unfamiliar with the cookbook world, recipe testers are a relatively unknown and often overlooked breed. Sure, we know about the chefs who dream up the dishes for the cookbook, as well as the photographers and editors who are responsible for putting the book together – all have roles that are easily identifiable and recognisable. But what exactly does a recipe tester do?
To help shed some light on this question, I signed on to assist in testing a few recipes for a new cookbook by celebrated chef Jason Atherton. The book, ‘Gourmet Food for a Fiver’, is the product of Atherton’s desire to show that cooking gourmet and stunning food doesn’t have to be expensive. I’m familiar with Atherton’s food and his trademark style – elaborate dishes full of intriguing flavour combinations that look as fantastically delicious as they taste. That they could actually be recreated at home, and at the price point promised (specifically, two courses for less than a fiver), seems like a tall order.
Walking into recipe tester and chef Judy Joo’s test kitchen for the first time, I felt as though I was about to take part in a science experiment. Scales, timers, thermometers, and calculators were laid next to an endless array of glass bowls of all sizes, each containing a precise measurement of one ingredient. A computer screen nearby showed a mammoth Excel spreadsheet detailing ingredients, quantities, and temperatures.
So why all the fuss? After all, the dishes for the book had already been created by Atherton and captured in a series of stunningly beautiful photographs. The answer lies in the fact that Atherton, like many chefs of his calibre, is more of a magician in the kitchen, who cooks with a creative and natural instinct and with seasoned experience. Most professional chefs do not concern themselves with timing minutes or seconds or measuring exact grams or millilitres. So it’s up to the recipe tester to translate such movements and input them into a formula to produce the perfect recipe for use in a domestic kitchen and for a specified number of servings.
Over the course of several days, I worked with Joo, tinkering with quantities of ingredients, oven temperatures, heat sources, cooking times, and kitchen tools with an almost masochistic fervour. Some recipes, such as the shortbread meant to be served with lemon posset and berries, we made again and again… and again. Nothing short of perfection in terms of taste, presentation, and flavour was tolerated. It’s easy to see why when even a fraction of a gram can make all the difference, that too little flour and the shortbread would lose its crispness, that too much ground star anise and the flavour of the shortbread would overpower the lemon posset.
I discovered that recipe testing, at least the way Joo does it, isn’t exactly straightforward cooking. It can be as much an academic exercise as a culinary one. For any given recipe, there are controls and variables. Measuring scales, cups, and spoons calculate how much of one ingredient is needed to achieve the right balance of flavours, textures, and consistency, while timers and oven thermometers ensure that cooking times and temperatures are measured accurately. Every step is executed with an almost surgical precision and every action documented – from the size of the flame under a frying pan to the time the food inside spends frying. And when there’s a strict cost ceiling imposed on each recipe as in the case here, there’s more work to be done. Extensive research into the prices of hundreds of ingredients, as well as cost analyses of complete recipes based on calculations of precise amounts of individual ingredients, must be undertaken. No strand of saffron can be missed, no radish forgotten.
And rightfully so. After all, to sacrifice even an ounce of quality when testing Atherton’s recipes would not do them justice. The recipes, which range from easy to more complicated, remind us time and time again of his creative talent and natural finesse for plating. Though not focused on any one cuisine, the recipes are often inspired from the cuisines of countries as varied as Thailand, Spain and Morocco. Dishes range from the sublime butternut squash soup embellished with crayfish and lime chantilly, to the exotic such as lamb steaks adorned with pomegranate, avocado and served with Arabic bread, to the creative: mackerel tartare topped with a smooth avocado purée and crunchy pickled mooli. Similarly, the desserts exhibit a harmony of interesting flavour combinations: fresh strawberry sorbet resting on a bed of thyme scented strawberries finished off with a cool melon soup, or vanilla panna cotta topped with decorative tomato skins and a drizzle of tomato and passion fruit syrup. Staying under the £5 limit may require using ingredients that are in season and therefore at their cheapest and best but that’s a small price to pay for food this good and this gorgeous.
In the end, after the ovens were shut off, the pots and pans cleaned, and the timers re-set to zero, what was left was recipes that not only impress for less, but really do work.