So I've recently joined a Pathfinder campaign and I'm playing a half-orc cleric who's a baker. Her specialty is pie but she's been introduced as a personal chef (for the plot). Thing is, I don't really know enough about high-class food to pull off the roleplaying. I've looked up culinary dictionaries and they've helped a bit, but I still kinda feel like I'm just putting Food Network words in a blender and hoping it sounds appetizing. Any advice on how to sound like I know what I'm talking about?
Firstly, pie was never a “high class food”. It was a food of all social groups, of course the richer the person, the more specific was the pie, but to be honest, most early pies were fairly similar. They were “coffins” or boxes for baked foods. I discuss this at length in my second book, the recipes of which are all to do with breads, grains, or staple items. Old pies were often times tough and sturdy, and people were more interested in the fillings, which thickened nicely when baked in a bread shell. The crusts were usually eaten as an afterthought, or donated to the poor.
Secondly, you raise an interesting point. What should a person know about food to be a competent cook, or to build a foundation for a culinary knowledge set?
Allow me to make a list of the things I believe are a good foundation.
- Know the cuts of meat (get the Primal maps of all the typical food animals and learn them. This will lead to secondary knowledge of where each type of cut originates, and therefore its desirability or tenderness. This leading to tertiary discovery of preparation types)
- Know how to cook meat (I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched something prepared and thought, “That is overcooked! And you call yourself a chef?” Lobster? Almost always overcooked and rubbery. Steak? Seldom correct. Chicken? Don’t get me started. Pork? Might as well order a door stop. Fish? Just go to a sushi restaurant and avoid the hassle. Meat can be tested by feel and temperature alone. It isn’t that difficult, so do acquaint yourself with that.)
- Have a good grasp of spices. (Even if all you do is go to the dollar store and buy every spice so that you can know what they smell and taste like, I’ll be happy. Learn the smells. Smell two together and see if they clash. Attempt to cook with at least three spices on each protein, two spices on vegetables or carbohydrates. In my day we’d use half a dozen, and the food was always rich and incredible. Modern humans have no perspective on what spices can do.)
- Know your grains. (There are hundreds of species of grain, and yes, to most people they taste similar, but they aren’t. There are even ancient grains that no longer exist. Learn about the more common ones used in flour. Learn about flour in general. This will save you tremendous trouble, because each flour does something different and flours are one of the highest allergens for humans. Knowledge of types of flour and their consistency when turned to bread will lead to secondary knowledge of how breads are made, and tertiary knowledge of the science of all things pastry.)
- Learn a list of cooking techniques (Bake, broil, roast, sear, poach, fricassee, sous-vide, blanch, etcetera. They are all different, and a good grasp of them will lead to secondary knowledge about temperatures in cooking, and to tertiary knowledge of what each technique achieves in the food. For example, a broiled piece of meat is very different than a baked one. Poaching salmon is vastly different from baking it, and it’s all to do with how the heat penetrates the protein.)
- Learn a few key phrases. (French cooking dominates a bit, because it was the French who decided to formalize food preparation and turn it into a cultural artform recognized by any person off the street. So learn a few phrases, like the five mother sauces, bouquet garni, mirepoix, and so forth. Learn what an emulsion is. Learn what fermentation is. Pasteurization. Key terms like this will help you know that a cheese is a bacterial culture, while a beer is a fungal fermentation. It will help you know how to make a soup or a stock.)
- Get a grasp of pairings. (This is not to say wines paired with food, though you may learn this if you wish. What I mean to say is, know which things are commonly put together in a dish and why. Apples and pork, beets and goat’s cheese, citrus and fish, salt and sugar. chili and acid. Any time you see a dish that has two things that seem oddly juxtaposed, research it and see if you can determine why they’re together. Let’s take Beet and Goat’s Cheese, for example. Beets have sweetness and an earthy flavor. Goat’s cheese has a sharp, sour note, with a gamey aftertaste. The sharpness cuts the sweetness of the beet. The gamey flavor plays into the earthy notes and creates something far more palatable for most humans. Texturally, the beet has a mild crunch that gives way to softer meat, while a goat’s cheese has a similar feel, in that it can clump, but then become creamy as it is macerated. Therefore, the two can mash together and make a visually pleasing pink smear, while texturally, they mesh in the mouth. Do you see what I mean by this concept? Knowledge of this type will lead to the secondary knowledge of how to elevate food from a simple protein to a combination of flavors that marry into a harmonious dish. It will allow you to compose your own fugues and symphonies.)
- Learn some basic science. (What does yeast do in bread? How does acid feed into an emulsion? How does pickling happen? How to carbohydrates change as you work them into a dough? What does fat do in a dish? So forth. This will lead to the ability to truly make your own recipes from scratch, without looking at the work of others.)
- Try everything. (You must learn everything. You must be passionate about finding things you never thought you’d enjoy. You can always spit it out. Fear of eating something that looks odd is abhorrent to me. I absolutely cannot put up with it. It takes one moment. One. You put it in your face, and then you work at it, and then if you hate it, you spit it out. It’s that simple. And from that one instance, you may discover new cultures, new parts of the world, new peoples. You must do this if you mean to love food. And if you hate something? You must try it once more, perhaps with some time in between. Think about why you dislike it. Try it again. Consider it. Otherwise, get out of my kitchen and tuck your tail.)
- Knife skills. (Sharp knives only. Practice different cuts. Look on youtube for the many cuts taught to culinary students. Acquire the muscle memory from the repetitive practice. Until you can do it with your eyes closed.)
- Do a little general research into cultural cooking styles. (For example, know what spices are common to each region. Know a little bit about cooking methods. For example, cultures where the people are somewhat nomadic do not tend to have leavened bread. Now to know what the hell I’m talking about, you have to know what leavening is and how it works, which you should have learned, if you have been following along. Cultures who are nomadic don’t have the means or time to make leavened bread. Which means there are region-specific traditions of unleavened bread! All over Africa, where climate extremes force people to migrate, there are soft doughs eaten raw, flatbreads baked on rocks, breads baked in portable ovens. In India and all over the Middle East, there are traditions like Naan, which is a bread dough slapped on the inside of an oven. Native North and South Americans had the traditions that lead to tortillas. These things are critical! Especially if you wish to create fusion foods. For example, some of you know I am obsessed with Korean spices. Korean cooking has a long tradition of fermented foods, chilies, sweet and smoky flavors. I saw many similarities in this to Eastern European foods, particularly that of Romania, Turkey, Western Russia, and so forth. If you look at my website, there is a recipe for pork that I will argue is one of the finest things I’ve ever eaten. It was made for a barbecue, and was a collaboration between several chefs of different traditions, to overwhelming success, making used of Korean spices and cooking methods, Turkish spices, and some very interesting additions. You have to know the general methods employed in a style of cooking. You have to know what Schumann is, what Ethiopian is, what Jamaican food looks like. This will lead to many an unanticipated history lesson. For eample, why does Vietnamese food contain French cooking techniques, and French sauces, to such incredible effect? Because the French attempted to absorb and colonize them. Why is Tikka Marsala the national dish of England? Because it doesn’t actually hail from India. It was made specifically for Queen Victoria after she declared herself the Empress of India. Know these things. They are important)
- Measurements. (This is a fairly new one. Read any recipe written before 1800 and you’ll be confused. What’s a dram? How do I know when I’ve used a wine glass full? We standardized measurements for a reason. Please learn how many of each in both standard and metric equates. Please learn about liquid versus dry. These will only ever be beneficial to you.)
- Kitchen etiquette. (I need you to understand how you should be cleaning after yourself, how you should announce how items are being handled, when you’re moving, and most importantly…I need you to grasp why Bobby Flay committed a grievous sin when he stood on his cutting board in the first Iron Chef episode where Masaharu Morimoto came to New York to battle one of our chefs in the Iron Chef Japanese franchise. It’s critical. Learn how to behave, because food is culture and history and life, and should be respected.)
If you can obtain a good grasp of these things, you are essentially, a cook. And if you can learn them well enough to duplicate them or innovate on them with no preparation, then you are a chef. All the fancy names you hear on television, all the ridiculous euphemisms, all the foams and purees mean precisely diddly. Those are all variations on a theme. Learn the theme first, and never be too clever for your own good. Every time someone is eliminated from one of those shows, it’s because they left something basic by the wayside in favor of the fanciful, or they sacrificed technique for something else. Never do that. Learn the basics, and you can talk food with anyone. Even if you don’t know what ginger tastes like, if you know how your pork chop should be cooked, what other fruits are commonly paired with it, what spices have been employed, what the composition of the dish was likely meant to achieve, you could walk up to any culinary critic and say, “I really felt that the meat was overcooked, bordering on well-done when it could have benefited from a little more pink, the sweetness was off-balance, the acid in the marinade too high causing denaturing to the surface of the meat, and while I understand Rosemary with pork, i don’t see how it married with the ginger.” And the critic will say, “Yes, that is very fair.”
If you’ve been following along, then you’ll have gone to a farmer’s market at some point, bought a lobe of ginger, and learned what it tastes like. You’ll have thought about how to use it in cooking in Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and the traditions of other South East Asian countries. You’ll have recalled what other unrelated traditions you can leverage to work it into a dish. You’ll have thought about the science behind such a fibrous root. You’ll know about grains, and by the end of the day, you’ll have backward extrapolated ginger cookies faster than I can type the recipe.
So let us return to the question. You want to “speak food” for your game? Learn to speak food in real life, and watch everyone with a stomach bend their ear in your direction and say “My god, why haven’t I invited you to a party?” It’s fine to watch television, but if you hear a word you don’t know, do look it up. Don’t just sit idly by while your brain turns into a vegetable I will pair with a brown butter and garlic sauce, lightly poached.