Respect the hands. They are the most essential tool, the simplest yet the most complex in the entire kitchen. Through practice, they develop an intuition that is infallible. The hands know when the dough is too wet or on its way to too dry, when it is elastic enough to rest, when it has rested and risen long enough, and when the bread is done: rap the golden loaf with the knuckles to read the bread’s interior, the density balanced against the lightness of its crumb. It is only through use that the intelligence of hands matures to wisdom. So if something can be done by hand–butter cut into flour, egg whites whisked–do it by hand, and let the machines stand down.
Respect the pans. Do not scour them with abrasives or harsh chemicals. Let them, through good use over the course of their lives, become seasoned. Bright, shiny pans are all flash and no substance. That substance, or gravitas, is gained through repeated contact with food. And the memory of it, the memory of that arduous work, the long hot hours, in service to food. Brillo hath no home here.
Respect the wood. In cooking we are in the realm of elements, one of the reasons it is such a satisfying endeavor. Wood is elemental, and the tools made from it have not changed form for many generations. Consider the lowly, lovely spoon: I have one, its bowl the size of a fist and its handle the length of an arm, that has stirred sautées, soups, and batters for over thirty years. Its grain has darkened over time, and it connects me to a past of dishes lovingly made: my first pot of turkey noodle soup from Thanksgiving leftovers, the citrus Mother’s Day cake adorned with lemon curls and Johnny-jump-ups. A workhorse in the kitchen, wood appreciates a delicate touch. Do not soak it or scrub it. Rub it with oil every now and then. Treat it well and it will serve for a lifetime, developing a beautiful patina in the process.
Respect the fire. Dead giveaway someone has worked as a baker: their forearms are striped with scars from contact with hot oven racks, a kind of branding. But the flame burns both ways, for it is heat that makes the melding of flavors and the transformation of textures possible at all. To get the desired result, one must learn when to turn the flame down and when to turn it up–in short, how to control fire. It’s one of the few things that separates us from other creatures; cooking is intrinsic to what makes us human. As keepers of the flame, experienced cooks come to know the nature of fire intimately. I once worked in a kitchen where a pan of butter was browning on the stovetop, forgotten. Soon enough there were flames shooting up in the pan. The new girl quickly grabbed it and before anyone could shout a warning, shoved the pan under running water, causing what we talked about forever after as a “butter bomb” that flash-boomed, spewing black liquid everywhere. We were in shock and could just stand there a few seconds, watching grease run down the walls. The pan was warped, but thankfully no one was hurt.
Respect the knife. It’s big, and it’s sharp. Keep it sharp. And keep your fingers out from under it.
Respect time. Accept that you can’t control it. Food takes its own sweet time, and answers to no kitchen timer. That was the rule in one kitchen I apprenticed in: no timers. My boss was a stickler. No timers, no music, few words–just focus on the food. I took to writing little notes to myself about what time things went in the oven. In my nightmares, I burned batches and batches of pastry. After a while, however, I came to see the wisdom of her approach. An over-reliance on timers can discourage the sound practice of checking on food for doneness. Only observation tells us when food is ready. And learning how to keep multiple mental balls in the air is a valuable skill in a busy kitchen, where cooks are juggling, often literally, flaming pans, balls of dough, and cleavers.