What makes a great chef and restaurant? Easy answer, but hard to achieve, great food, service and ambiance a great restaurant makes. As a chef, my first thought is always to the food. I'll take great product cooked correctly any day over a deconstructed taco with pickled corn smut and smoke vapors under an osmium dome and a custom dodecahedron shaped plate served by a nubile server on stilts any day. My friend chef James Sly put the subject of cooking and particularly seasoning in clear perspective in an email to an associate. I think of him as "Mr. Salt and Pepper."
"You've touched upon another favorite topic of mine with your request for comments on food seasoning.
An excellent chef I had the pleasure to work with many years ago, Mark Chayette, said it best and most succinctly. 'You can't intellectualize about salt and pepper'.
The topic came up when we were discussing people who arranged food and made it pretty, selected rare and exotic even strange ingredients, arguing over the esoteric, but ignoring the most basic tenets of cooking. Mark was no stranger to high end food; he is also someone who understands importance of the basics.
We see it every time we hire a new cook, even one with a great deal of experience. We have to tell them that it's important to taste and make sure every step of the way that things are seasoned properly.
Reward comes when we speak to our customers at the table. Perhaps not used to food that is properly seasoned, we often hear guest comments about how great the food tastes. More often than not there is an element of surprise in their voices.
Our restaurant isn't inexpensive; people should expect great food. They just don't seem to get it very often when dining out and their reaction when they do get well seasoned food is telling.
We see it in interviews with directors of cooking schools who like to point out that they are teaching modern techniques, exotic presentations and so on. What the students need to learn, of course, are the basics which include seasoning and elemental cooking craft. Of course that's not what the students are interested in learning -they want the fun stuff. In my 50 years of cooking I find that the basics are the part that's most important.
Locally sourced free range eggs, butter from a local farm, and specialty cheeses can make a great omelette. I'm willing to bet that rather ordinary eggs and butter, plain old cheese, seasoned with just salt and pepper, may make just as striking an impression.
P.s. Sly's has salt and pepper on the table; they don't need to be used all that often."