For years, he worked as a kitchen hand in a dozen different restaurants. He’s had a strong food culture growing up and has honed his skill while share housing with a trained chef back in his 20 somethings. He’s a great cook and has a spontaneous cooking style that I admire.
A surprise chef shares his secrets for cooking from random ingredients.
Hey There, I wanted to share an interview with a special person that I nickname a surprise chef!
The clincher is I didn’t have to travel far for this interview — he’s actually my hubby. His cooking reminds me of that television show “Surprise Chef” that aired back in 2001.
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Cook something when there is pretty much nothing but a random bunch of ingredients in the pantry.
Something I find unique about Ben’s cooking is that even though he’s time poor he comes up with great meals regardless. Times, when there’s not much food in the pantry and life, is crazy busy.
I’ll be honest,…..his cooking skills are annoying at times. He shows me up at dinner parties!
Everyone sits around in awe of him whipping around the kitchen cooking up a storm. I sneak around behind him trying to clean up from the path of destruction he leaves behind.
I decided to interview him when he cooked an Asian inspired breakfast one morning. It was a dish as a dietitian I would have never thought to make. So I wanted to explore his thinking and inspiration behind this meal.
In our discussion, Ben talks about how he finds his cooking inspiration and how his family culture growing up around food has inspired his cooking…… it’s all pretty interesting and emphasises the importance of cooking at home as you’ll see –>
Me: “So Ben, how are you able to come up with such great meals like that show Surprise Chef?”
Ben: “You start with what you’ve got in the fridge, and then go…. well okay what goes with what?
If you’ve got Asian sauce in there and got some noodles you might make an Asian inspired dish.
It’s just deduction….. but you need to play with food enough to understand what works well with what.
Every now and then you have a few fails but…..over time you just get a feel for what goes together.”
Above: Start by pulling out simple ingredients from the fridge then see how the ideas flow from there.
“It’s always helpful if you’ve got a few base ingredients like pasta or rice. Like pasta doesn’t always need to be a bolognese sauce or tomato sauce. It’s nice to have a pasta with just oil and say chicken and spinach for example.
It depends on what you’re working with. You can substitute meat with vegetables or tofu but you’ve just got to be flexible and not be too uptight about what the recipe is.”
Me. “So do you have a base cuisine in mind before you start?”
Ben. “Yes but not always, sometimes you don’t know what’s there so you have to look.”
Me. “So with the Asian inspired breakfast, you cooked, why did you decide to make a dinner style meal for breakfast?”
Ben: “Well, it was a colder morning and it’s nice to have a hot breakfast like poached eggs but there wasn’t any standard breakfast food available. I saw a Facebook post of friends eating an Asian Style breakfast when you have noodles in the morning. So you just go…. oh well, we can make noodles.
I travel to Japan quite a bit and sometimes at the hotel there are broccoli and mushrooms and different things for breakfast. Usually, I just go for the eggs but occasionally you say oh I might try that today and it’s nice! Other people have breakfast that we would normally have for dinner and it’s good.
You’ve got to be conscious of the different foods that can be eaten and just have a couple of inspirations…. I mean we’re unlikely to have steak, eggs and roast chicken dinner for breakfast but some of those other things like the noodle dish was really yummy. It depends on what you want.
It’s not uncommon to have different foods for breakfast but it’s just having that mentality to not be so strict on yourself you can have a salad for breakfast.”
Me: “And do you like cooking?”
Ben “Yeah usually, sometimes I don’t want to but that’s okay.”
Kim “When your wife makes you?” Haha
Ben “Often it’s nicer than take away food anyway so fresh often beats take away so even though take away can be good if you can’t be bothered cooking often it’s actually quicker and more satisfying to cook it yourself. When you cook something yummy and everyone likes it, it’s satisfying.
Just don’t always have the time…”
Above: Keep building on this, a couple more ingredients including a protein-based food (eggs) and a grain-based food (rice noodles).
Me: “What else has contributed to you being a versatile cook?”
Ben “When I grew up, my mum always used to cook fresh food, I didn’t always like all of it, she used to overload everything with broccoli and cabbage and make a big soggy vegetable stir-fry and I remember not really liking that. So she used to sabotage recipes by adding too many veggies, (chuckles) and that’s probably influenced how I cook.”
Me: “In a positive or negative way?”
Ben: “I don’t know I just remember it….she used to buy in bulk like have a big freezer and buy 30 free-range chickens at a time and had a good supply of healthy nutritious foods in the house all the time. So we would often eat good quality food and I can’t remember having takeaway food at home ever…until I was probably 15 years old. We used to go to restaurants once in a while but there’d be no takeaway at home. I can’t remember having pizza we didn’t have a takeaway food culture at all.
I remember when I was ….11 or 12 we all had to cook one night a week each. So if you’re thinking of getting young people eating healthy food, think about the age when they are developing those opinions.
So I think it’s really important to introduce cooking to kids. We do get our kids cooking and making pasta and scrambled eggs. These activities helped me growing up and my own motivation to cook something.”
Me “mmmm very interesting….thanks, honey”
There were a couple of things that resonated with me from Bens interview.
Experimenting with food is an important part of the cooking process. By experimenting with different flavours, ingredients, cooking styles and textures we’re able to build our food repertoire, spontaneity and speed in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s where true genius meals come together.
Professional chefs also give similar recommendations about using ingredients in different ways to create something special.
There’ll be food fails, oh that’s for sure — utter disasters! I’ve had real doozies. But food fails are a good thing and part of the cooking process, enjoy them and laugh them off.
Getting the kids involved in cooking early was another point that really stood out as it helps to build a culture around family, food and home cooking. As Ben shows, this can have a profound influence later in life.
It might also just give us exhausted parents a night off too.
The evidence supports this approach with studies showing that kids cooking at home help to develop their independence around food in preparation for young adulthood. It is also shown to improve healthy food preferences which are soo important when with us now living in environments where fast food availability is everywhere.
So if there’s something I’d take from all this, it’s roll up the sleeves pull out some random ingredients from the pantry like a sauce/s, a couple of spices, a protein-based food like meat, fish, eggs or legumes and whatever veggies or grains that you have on hand and go to town! Even better, get the kids involved as well.
Simmons. D, Chapman. G (2012) “The significance of home cooking within families”, British Food Journal, Vol. 114 Iss: 8, pp.1184 – 1195