So You Want To Be A Waiter

The best book on waiting tables that you have never read – yet

Culinary term of the day – various cooking methods pt. 1

I see some waiters’ eyes glaze over when they are given daily specials in pre-shift. Sometimes they simply parrot the words that have been told to them – “We have roasted ossobucco with chanterelle mashed potatoes with a balsamic/basil/cherry reduction”. Or “Tonight we have sous vide salmon with braised leeks and stir-fried root vegetables topped with candied walnuts” – you know, the Chef always wants to throw in some sort of word or phrase which describes the cooking process. More perceptive waiters use their knowledge of these various cooking techniques to help them either describe the dishes or actually sell them.  In the event of a food contest, this can mean the difference between first and second place.

Have you ever thought about what these words mean, or are they just words to memorize?

I thought I’d go through some of the words and give a thumbnail sketch of each cooking type.

Grilled – this one most people know because of their family “barbeques”. Grilling is cooking over hot direct heat.  It’s usually done on some sort of wire rack (grill) which adds “grill marks”. Grilling can be done while covered, but usually the heat comes from beneath and from the rack that the food sits on. Grilling is a relatively fast cooking process. It tends to sear the outside of whatever is on the rack and, if there’s a high sugar content in the food such as is the case with carrots, you’ll get some caramelization. It goes past searing though because the food continues to cook on the grill. Grilling is usually done only with firm items due to the tendency of delicate items to fall apart on the grill. Grilled items usually have to be turned and can stick to the grill surface, so the food needs to be able to hang together when turned or flipped.

Sautéing is the cooking of food over a stovetop element in a skillet-like pan using a small amount of oil or other liquid. What Americans call a “sauté pan” is not what the French call a sauté pan, and heck, they invented the word, which literally means “to jump”. An apt description of the process if you’ve ever sautéed over high heat. 

A traditional French sauté pan looks nothing like we are used to here in the States. It is a large pan with straight sides instead of a smaller pan with sloping sides. Here is the French version:

I have one that looks just like this in my own kitchen, although I don’t have the matching lid.

Here is what many Americans call a sauté pan:

In fact, this is what your friendly neighborhood sauté line cook will use to cook a lot of what comes off the sauté line. Any waiter is familiar with stacks of these pans sitting above the stove. They are useful because they have sloping sides and are light which allows for easy tossing of ingredients. It is more properly called a “fry pan” or a skillet, but pans of this shape have been called “sauté pans” by home cooks for years.

Sautéing is a quick cooking process as well. It’s done over medium high to high heat. You can sauté in a small amount of oil as you do when you use a wok, or you can actually “deep fry” in an inch of oil, although technically this would be “frying”. If you are cooking something like a breaded veal scalloppini, it’s considered “pan sautéed”, not fried because the cooking time is short. If you are frying chicken, well, I guess the term “fried chicken” gives it away.

Sautéing is often a prelude for other cooking techniques. For instance, if you are using a traditional French sauté pan to cook a whole chicken, you might sauté aromatic veggies in oil first, then brown the skin of the chicken over high heat, then add some stock, cover and finish cooking in the oven by pot roasting.

As I’ve already implied, we can lump stir-frying into the sauté category. It’s just a specialized version of sautéing.

Speaking of roasting, this is a word that we use all of the time. but what is it really? When you try to define it, one fumbles for words because it’s one of those concepts that “just is”.

Roasting implies oven cooking at high direct and indirect heat. Most roasting is done at 400° – 500°. Any lower and you usually think of it as “baking” (and we’ll discuss this as well). But the key to roasting is the presence of fat, whether integral to the item being roasted such as the fat under the skin of a chicken or the marbled fat in a veal chop or whether you have to add fat in the form of oil as you do when you roast vegetables. Roasting caramelizes and keeps food savory while building flavor. While you can certainly roast fish, especially firmer fish like monkfish and swordfish, it’s not a common way to cook fish. Sometimes you might technically roast fish after pan searing it, especially if it’s a thick filet, but you usually don’t hear the term “roasted fish”.

Speaking of pan searing, searing is simply the application of high heat with minimum or no oil. It’s very quick and doesn’t actually “cook” the item that is being seared. All it does is sear the outside, leaving the inside basically raw. for items like tuna or filet mignon, this is a way to cook ultra rare. sometimes, as in the previously mentioned case of roasted chicken, it’s a prelude to other, slower cooking methods. It’s done to provide color and to seal in juices, although Harold McGee and other “food scientists” question how much this really happens. You can sear on a grill or you can sear in a pan or a flattop.

In the next installment, we’ll cover terms like “baking”, broiling”, “basting” and “steaming”.

Why are we doing this?

As someone who serves food, you should be aware of the different cooking techniques and how and why they differ. This will give you additional insight into helping someone decide between different dishes and, who knows, some people might actually need an explanation of what “braised leeks” means. the more that you know off of the top of your head, the more confident you’ll be tableside. And just because you might work at Red Robin doesn’t mean that knowing this stuff is superfluous. Perhaps you might be ready to move to an “American bistro” type restaurant.  sometimes, managers like to ask questions to determine how much a prospective waiter knows about food in general. I actually had one ask me if I knew the “mother sauces” once. As you move up the food chain, the more you will need to know about food and beverage.

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