When I first started working at the American Embassy in Uganda, I had just come off of eight years of owning and cooking in two popular restaurants. I’m a bit challenged when it comes to change and working within structured environments, so I was nervous about not being able to cook what I wanted in the embassy kitchen. Of course, when you fear something, that’s when it’s sure that a form of your fear will make its way toward you.
Sure enough, within the first weeks of working in my new digs, I got a disconcerting email from someone in management who wanted me to print out an advance list of our daily specials. Suddenly, my trepidation about the difference I would have to endure between having my own restaurants and the institutional cooking I felt was being required of me in the embassy seemed justified.
After thinking about it, I realized that it wasn’t abnormal for me to feel boxed into a corner by being told to write out specials in advance; rather, it was a completely normal reaction of a cook. Aside from the fact that chefs don’t like to be told what to do in the kitchen, unless it’s by a much more experienced chef, the very cornerstone of any creative endeavor is spontaneity and playfulness. The artist Marc Chagall said, “If I create from the heart, nearly everything works, if from the head, almost nothing.” But there is a heavy practical element to cooking, both at home and in a professional kitchen. While creative expression can benefit from dreaming and playing, cooks need to balance out the “heart” and “head” elements of their day. If all I ever did at work was my own cooking experiments, I think I would have been thrown out of the embassy kitchen long ago.
Like any other task, kitchen work is a juggling act made up of creativity but also of practicality. To make something happen in a kitchen, you must select and refine your ideas in order to make them real. This is where farmers markets come into play as a tool that any cook can employ to become better. When you walk around a market and allow yourself to take in the beauty of the myriad produce on display, you can’t help but gain passion and appreciation for what it takes for a meal to get onto your plate.
Few places will tell you more about a culture than a market. The driving force in a market is, after all, its patrons’ buying habits, so if you are in a major metropolitan area, you will find that the farmers grow and sell for a combination of home cooks and professionals. Chefs develop relationships with farmers and vendors, and this is the key to getting the best produce as well as great deals on slightly bruised (not pretty to the eye) overstock. In the summer, when you can get a bargain on tomatoes, you could, for example, become inspired to make gazpacho or sauce for pasta that you can preserve and keep for the winter months.
Also, it’s quite rewarding talking to farmers and vendors, and even asking them for recipes. People who grow food for a living often have great tips and tricks up their sleeves. My favorite salad recipe was given to me by a farmer, and I’ve learned a lot about pickling and spices from others. Farmers are quite literally “experts in their fields” who are usually more than happy to share their favorite preparation methods with you. I often ask sellers in markets to pick the best produce for me and because they are motivated to make you a return customer, you will often get the best quality goods this way.
Learning about what’s in season and trying to stick to locally grown produce makes a difference. It’s no coincidence that food eaten in its growing season is tastier and better for you. Of course, you will find some vendors in farmers markets who are resellers of merchandise that comes from warehouses, but this is generally the exception and it’s easy to spot. You simply can’t get the same flavor and texture out of produce when it’s been grown on the other side of the country and then shipped or frozen. I find it best to buy produce from sellers who have only one or two of the same type of items for sale — tomatoes and peppers for example, or apples and pears.
Although it’s more convenient to do a big shop, your cooking will improve if you try to buy less but more often. If you make yourself a regular at a farmers market and buy only what you need for one or two days, you will notice that you are avoiding waste. Sometimes, if I see good-looking peppers at the market, I’ll think about roasting or stuffing them, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy 10 pounds when I know I have a busy week ahead of me. Be realistic about your time constraints when shopping and be more conscious in your approach to shopping or you may end up with a whole counter full of rotting produce and a Big Mac in your hand. Great produce that’s in season is usually perfect when you prepare it simply and you have the ability to mix and match flavors with herbs and seasonings. If you buy too much and end up throwing away a good portion of it, you are less likely to go back to the market for more. Having less to work with also forces you to be more mindful in your approach to cooking. It’s one thing to experiment with one meal’s worth of produce and quite another to potentially ruin a huge batch of something. While you always have to take risks to experiment with a new dish, psychologically you are more likely to continue to take chances if your last disaster didn’t involve a huge loss.
Going to the market without a list is like a mini vacation. I know this sounds crazy and you may think it’s an invitation to overspend and get overwhelmed, but with some practice you may find this will unleash your creative cooking side. Allow yourself the luxury of looking to see what appeals to your eye when you go to a market. Often, it will remind you of something you ate on a trip or at a restaurant. This is how I come up with my specials most of the time. Looking at a pile of papaya can make me remember the markets in Thailand and remind me that I have a hankering for a Thai green papaya salad. It’s hard to get that kind of motivation from a grocery store, no matter how beautifully presented the fruit and vegetable section is.
While I’m not suggesting that you add to your already busy lives by centering your whole routine around shopping for produce, if you are a cook who needs regular doses of inspiration, there is no place better to find it than in the colorful, dizzying bounty of your local farmers market.
This is what I told the woman who emailed me at the embassy, when I was new and fearful and feeling worried that I’d just made a huge mistake by accepting the job there. After explaining that I would prefer to offer the freshest possible food that would revolve around what’s in season with my local farmers, rather than a set menu that I’d have to write in advance, I received a reply by email in under a minute. It just said, “Of course! That’s why we picked you for the job!”
As it turns out — she was a cook.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.