Never Too Young or Too Old to Learn New Tricks


This guest post was written by type 2 diabetic and chef Ward Alper. It originally appeared on his website, The Decadent Diabetic, and was republished on Information About Diabetes with permission.

My biggest challenge six years ago was to learn a “new” way to cook for myself now that I had diabetes.

I started working in a restaurant kitchen when I was 8 years old and I have NEVER stopped learning from other chefs. My first two teachers were my father and his chef, Maurice. From my father, I learned how to make it look pretty. I can not even begin to count the number of oranges, lemons, cucumbers and peppers I have sliced in my youth.

From Maurice, I learned his way of cooking. He had flavors and foods that he just liked to prepare. They were French, German, and Russian in origin. What I learned from him were basic seasonings – salt, pepper and a little more. It was good stick-to-the-ribs cooking, but with a touch of European flair. He was happy to teach, and I was happy to sop it all up.

But I never forgot what my dad taught me: Make it look pretty. Combing Maurice’s method for lamb chops and my father’s desire to make it look good turned into chops with paper “panties.” Both had the right idea, and together it was a best-selling dish.

Take the Best Ideas

Months ago I shared my recipe for Company-Is-Coming Chicken. I don’t know if you noticed that I also called it 3 Great Ladies Chicken; the recipe comes from three very different ladies with diverse backgrounds. The stuffing for the chicken is (in part) from my Jewish grandmother. She actually used the livers from the chicken rather than sausage. Years later, I discovered another grandmother (Italian this time) doing a very similar stuffing but with pork sausage. And finally, Julia Child. She did a turkey breast that she double-stuffed to keep it moist during the long cooking process. As they sing in Cinderella, “put it together and what have you got? Bippity boppity boo.”

Keep an Open Mind

If you are open to it, you can learn from anyone. I worked with a great Brazilian chef in a restaurant in Boston. He did a creamed black eyed pea soup. My first reaction as a “northern” person was: yuck!!! Boy did I get over that fast. One little sip, and I was sold.

Another cook I worked with would cut an onion in half, and rather than peeling off the skin, he removed the entire outer ring of the onion. I kept thinking, What a waste of money. Why would he toss so much of the onion? I thought that he would keep the outer ring for stock. To my shock, it went into the trash. I asked him about it and the “waste” of money. He replied: “My time is worth more than the onion leftovers. In the time I would take to carefully peel off the skin, I could have the onion sliced and chopped.” Your time is valuable as well.

One more thing about the onion: In the “old” days, after I peeled it, I would then start chopping it. Bits of onion flew everywhere. I bought a chopper gizmo, and it worked but chopped too small an amount of onion, and I had little control of the size of the chop. Then I learned to slice the onion toward the stem end and then to cut it across the rings, and I wound up with evenly chopped onions in no time at all.

Mis en Place

Very fancy French for having all the things you need for a recipe at your fingertips. It is one of the first things they teach you in the cooking schools. I cannot begin to tell you how much time this saves, not to mention stress. You will never be ready to prepare a recipe and then discover you don’t have a key ingredient.

Do You Ever Wonder?

How do steak houses get their steaks out to you so perfectly done? The trick I learned was to cook the steaks at high heat on top of the stove to form a “crust” and then finish them off in a hot 400-450 degree oven. It is fail-proof as long as you pay attention to the timing. It also frees up the top of the stove for you to finish off your side dishes, say spinach that you just wilt in a hot pan with a touch of olive oil, garlic and that onion you so carefully chopped.

Two Little Tips from Me

  1. I use a lot of garlic in my cooking. I have watched chefs for years do the crushing with the knife and then chopping the crushed garlic trick. That's NOT for me. I just peel the garlic and run it over a cheese grater. Perfectly done garlic in the blink of an eye. If I need a lot of garlic, say for a pesto sauce, I use a mini food processor. Work better, not harder!
  2. So many recipes call for just a few spoons of chicken or beef stock (or broth). Unless you are cooking for the multitudes, you have to open a can and then find a container for the unused portion. I always have stock cubes in the freezer. All you need to do is buy the best quality chicken or beef stock or broth you can afford, add 6-8 whole pepper corns and then a few of those itty bitty pieces from the center the garlic. Let that simmer down until it is about half of what you started with. Allow it to cool and then strain and pour into an ice cube tray. When frozen, just put the cubes into a tight container, and you have them ready to use.

Keep an open mind in the kitchen. You may learn a thing or two, even from me.

Enjoy, be happy, be healthy, be creative, and BE DECADENT!

Click here for Ward's Chocolate Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting recipe!

Get more nutrition tips and recipe ideas from Ward Alper, the Decadent Diabetic, on his website.