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Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Master Chef?

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

An exploration of Master Chef and some cooking techniques

An exploration of Master Chef and some cooking techniques

Wherever You Live, There is Probably a "Master Chef"

In 1990, Franc Roddam had the brilliant idea of broadcasting a competitive cooking show—and thence, MasterChef was created for viewers in the United Kingdom. That series ran from 1990 to 2001. The original concept was updated and revived for broadcast on the BBC in 2005. In 2009, it was again re-developed for an Australian audience. Since then, the “MasterChef” theme has gone wild, being re-formatted and produced in over 40 countries.

The USA version premiered in 2010.

So, What Exactly Is a Master Chef?

Well, in the United States, the certifying body is the American Culinary Federation (ACF). Their requirements are:

  • Graduation from an accredited culinary institute
  • The ability to pass a rigorous ACF exam
  • 5 years experience as a Certified Culinarian (CC)
  • Passing the test for Certified Sous Chef
  • Three years of experience as a sous chef
  • Passing the test for Chef de Cuisine
  • Three more years of experience as a chef de cuisine
  • Testing for Certified Executive Chef (CEC)
  • Several more years of experience plus ongoing education and testing (written and practical)
  • Two recommendations from Certified Master Chefs
  • Application for and passing of the Certified Master Chef test (there is a $3,000 fee for the examination!)

I’m pretty certain that qualification for the television broadcast is not quite as rigorous.

Cleaning fish

Cleaning fish

However, if you have watched the show, I am sure that, like me, you have been amazed at the demonstrations of professional knife skills, the lightning-quick fish filleting, and the artistic plating of food—by everyday people.

And so I ask you—do you have a better-than-average understanding of cooking methods? Do you have a grasp of culinary terminology? And the bottom line—do you have what it takes to be a Master Chef?

Could You Be a Master Chef?

Just for fun, I'm going to quiz you on a few cooking terms and methods. Each question is multiple choice, and the correct answer is provided after each question. Let's get started.

Flaky Pastry

Question 1 - The most common reason for tough instead of flaky pastry is:

  1. The dough was overworked
  2. The dough was not kneaded enough
  3. The dough contains too much salt.

The answer is "the dough was overworked."

Pie dough/crust/pastry is the combination of three simple ingredients--flour, water, and fat. The fat can be shortening, lard, butter, or even olive oil. Although each type of fat renders slightly different results, my experience is that how the ingredients are handled is the key to whether or not pie crust is flaky or tough.

The culprit in the grand scheme of things is the gluten in the flour.

What is gluten? Simply put, it is a protein that binds together the molecules in the flour. Kneading dough gets those proteins working, joining hands and getting sticky--which is exactly what you want when preparing bread dough or a pizza crust. Your perfect bread should have structure, height, a few air holes, and certainly, chew. But pie crust? No, you want delicate, buttery (or butter-like) tender flakes. So when making pie dough, a delicate touch is required so that the gluten remains lazy.

This video from will show you how to achieve a perfectly flaky pie crust.

Fluffy mashed potatoes

Fluffy mashed potatoes

Your Best Choice for Fluffy Mashed Potatoes

Question 2 - The best potatoes for fluffy mashed potatoes are:

  1. Fingerling potatoes
  2. Red Bliss potatoes
  3. Russet potatoes

The answer is #3, Russet potatoes, and here's why.

Gertrude Stein told us that "a rose is a rose is a rose", but a potato is not always a potato. Basically, there are three cousins, but each is different from the other.

Waxy potatoes are perfect for potato salad. They cook up soft yet hold their shape. In-betweens are your go-to potato for boiling or making hash browns--your Yukon Golds. (By the way, I love their buttery taste and appearance.) And then there are the starchy potatoes--big, bold Russet potatoes. Russets appear in the steak house as a huge baked potato topped with sour cream and chives. They have a loose/fluffy texture; not only do they make perfect baked potatoes, but they also create the most creamy, ethereal mashed potatoes you will ever taste.

When cooked, starchy Russet potatoes fall apart and absorb butter and cream in a Heavenly way. Any other type of potato will give you a gummy, gluey, sad mash. So when you want to create homemade mashed potatoes, always reach for the Russets.


Question 3 - What is the technique for using the brown bits on the bottom of the pan to add flavor to a sauce?

  1. Making a roux
  2. Deglazing
  3. Braising

The 2nd choice, deglazing, is the correct answer.

"Using the brown bits on the bottom of the pan to add flavor to a sauce." Sounds scary, doesn't it? But I'm sure you've done it before; you probably just didn't know it had such an impressive name. If you have ever made gravy (not from a packet), you have deglazed it. If you have sauteed some onions or other vegetables and then added a splash of broth, you have deglazed.

Just a few things to keep in mind:

  • Brown bits are yummy. Black (burnt) bits are and will always be bitter and nasty. Just like over-ripe bananas, there is no reverse aging process when the char has gone too far.
  • Pour off most of the fat before adding the liquid.
  • Turn the heat up and add in cold liquid.
  • Use a sturdy spoon or spatula to scrape up those yummy bits from the bottom of the pan. As soon as they have melted into the liquid. turn the heat back down to a simmer.
Baking vs. roasting

Baking vs. roasting

Baking vs. Roasting

Question 4 - What is the difference between baking and roasting?

  1. There is no difference, although most think of roasting when cooking meat or vegetables.
  2. Roasting uses higher heat.
  3. Roasting is when you cook a pot roast in the oven.

Is there a difference between baking and roasting? Not really. We tend to think of "baking" in terms of preparing flour-based foods--bread, cakes, pies, and cookies. And roasting refers to the cooking of meats and/or vegetables by exposing them to radiant heat. That works for me, so #1 is the correct answer.

However, came up with an interesting definition that I also agree with and will pass on to you here:

If you're cooking food that doesn't already have a solid structure, but will after it's cooked—like muffins, cake, bread, and casseroles—the proper method is baking. If you're cooking food that has a solid structure—like any type of meat or vegetables—no matter the temperature of the oven, you'll roast it.

The 4 stages of roux (white thru dark brown)

The 4 stages of roux (white thru dark brown)

What Is a Roux?

Question 5 - Please describe what a roux is

  1. Minced onions and garlic used to flavor a soup or stew.
  2. Thickener made of fat and flour.
  3. Barbeque sauce made from roasted red bell peppers.

I hope you answered #2. Roux (pronounced “roo”) is a thickener for soups, sauces, and (be still my beating heart) Shrimp Étouffée. It's not a complicated process--just combine equal amounts of flour and fat. When you cook them together, you create a stable blend that will provide a lump-free body and substance to your food.

There are basically four types of roux--white, blond, brown, and dark brown. The difference is the amount of time the flour and fat are heated together; white is cooked for the shortest time, and dark brown cooks the longest.

White roux is the base for your homemade macaroni and cheese; a blond roux is commonly used to thick cooking juices and create gravy, and brown or dark brown roux provides a deep, nutty flavor to the aforementioned étouffée and file gumbo.

Chicken barded with bacon

Chicken barded with bacon

What Is Barding?

Question 6 - To bard a roast means to

  1. Wrap it in fat (bacon, for example)
  2. Stuffit with bacon
  3. Cook it over an open fire as was done in Shakespearean time

#1, "wrap it in fat" is correct. For years, cooks have known that wrapping some meats with a blanket of fat will keep them moist and flavorful through the roasting process. This practice has been revitalized with the current bacon fad.

Poultry is the food most commonly barded because it tends to dry out during the cooking process—think of barding as an automatic basting system.

© 2016 Linda Lum