It's a fallacy that chefs are culinary geniuses who are temperamental because they must concentrate on highly complicated techniques.
The fact is they deal with fundamentals, "the simple things that are anchored in our upbringing," said Fritz Sonnenschmidt, a master chef and dean of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA for short), the Harvard of cooking schools.
"If you know how to make one sauce you can make any sauce," he said. You can make good cooking simple and easy to understand if you first master the classic techniques of cooking, Mr. Sonnenschmidt said during an interview at Washington's Occidental Restaurant. He was on a national tour to promote the CIA's new cookbook, "The New Professional Chef" -- the fifth edition of a blockbuster volume published by Van Nostrand Reinhold of Manhattan.
Each basic cooking procedure has simple, natural measurements and rules that can become instinctive to a well-trained cook, he said. But, he added, some of today's chefs make what is really simple look hard.
"There's lots of cloak and dagger stuff and simply making a show going on in the gourmet business," according to Mr. Sonnenschmidt. And some of this hocus-pocus gives the
impression that only world-class chefs can achieve masterpieces.
Not since 1974, when the last edition was published, has the cooking professional had a uniform guide to American cuisine, he said. And this new edition stresses mastery of basic techniques rather than spectacular food gymnastics. Every recipe was tested before being incorporated into the cooking guide; monumental is the word for the results.
The newest version of this culinary bible is a 6-pound, 848-page book with nearly 1,150 photos and 900 recipes selling for $49.95. It is designed, Mr. Sonnenschmidt said, to catch up with the "revolution" in U.S. kitchens and in the restaurant trade that has been under way for almost 20 years.
The original printing of 40,000 volumes has been distributed and a second printing is planned. Included is a section (for the fat-free 1990s) intriguingly labeled "techniques using a small amount of oil."
The new cooking guide is classic in approach and "follows in the footsteps and the sure ways of Escoffier," the great 19th century master who simplified and classified major cuisines, he said. But that doesn't mean that the official culinary arts are immune to change, according to Mr. Sonnenschmidt.
"New concepts come into play all the time," he reported. "The fact is American cuisine is getting away from packaged food and going back to the organic. Things are getting simpler, too. Today it's more a question of how much you can take out of a recipe and still make it good."
In addition, people are asking for more recipes using fresh fruit and vegetables, he said, because fresh produce markets are proliferating.
At the same time, he said, there are little finesses professionals must master, such as "You can't use a European potato recipe exactly as written, for the European potato is firmer and starchier than the American."
Chefs are now experimenting with new vegetable and fruit menus and are de-emphasizing traditional heavy sauces and use of cream and butter in cooking. The book repeats this modern litany: "Fresh fish and shellfish have made inroads on the position held for so long by beef in the 'all American' menu of steak and potatoes."
What has happened is both a blending and an enlargement: American cuisine "has been elevated from an interesting potpourri into a world-class cuisine," said Jeany Wolf, a CIA spokesman.
Among novelties in the book is a new concept of food preparation that stresses planning for cooks. Called "mise en place" in the French culinary tradition, the fancy name involves programming knife skills, common seasonings and flavoring combinations as well as techniques of mixing and shaping. With proper mastery of mise en place "you can prepare fresh food in the same time it takes to reheat prepared food," Mr. Sonnenschmidt said.
The new book's range is encyclopedic. It tells you how to make a good cup of coffee and guides you into a tasty dish of smoked noisettes of salmon with horseradish beurre blanc. It includes step-by-step, color-illustrated lessons on grilling, sauteing, steaming and stewing, and extends to specific exotics like roasted potatoes with garlic and rosemary, sweet potatoes baked in cider and currants and cinnamon, and chicken saute Provencale. There's even a microwaved ratatouille.
About 100 chefs participated in preparing the book. The result is a uniform, simplified format requiring no expertise or unexplained foreign formulas. Even such basics as the structure and types of oranges and lemons are explained.
Mr. Sonnenschmidt is Bavarian-trained and, as a team member, captured two gold medals during the 1976 International Culinary competition in Frankfurt, West Germany. He is a co-author of "The Professional Chef's Art of Garde Manger" and "Dining with Sherlock Holmes."
Here are three recipes adapted from the new CIA volume.