Lost in translation

Jul 22, 2016

Bonnie Benwick translates chef recipes for the home cook in the Washington Post's Plate Lab column. She tells Melissa Clark about some of the challenges you'll face when attempting a restaurant meal in your own kitchen.

Melissa Clark: Bonnie, I've been thinking a lot about this. “Chef speak” and “home cook speak” are just two different languages, and it can be really hard for chefs to write recipes that home cooks can actually cook from. I've been wondering, as chefs have started to publish a lot of recipes directly on their restaurant websites: Do you think they're getting to be better recipe writers for the home cook?

Bonnie Benwick (Photo: Dori Phaff)

Bonnie Benwick: I would like to say that's true, but evidence points to the contrary. More and more people want to go to the restaurants where the celebrity chefs are. Even if the chefs aren't present, they have something great, and they ask for the recipe. The restaurants love that.

Chefs are nice to share the recipes, but those recipes that you're going to get straight from the chef really might not look anything like what you've seen in a cookbook. It is this different kind of speak. They don't learn how to write recipes in chef school, or they have different reasons for writing recipes like they do for restaurant cooking, or for scaling purposes. They're making mass quantities of any kind of sauce or anything you might get.

More importantly, I think it's just a matter of when people get these recipes, they should know that they're not going to be like an Ina Garten recipe. There aren’t going to be a set number of ingredients, the order of ingredients isn't going to match. What you're doing in the directions might call for completely different equipment than you have in your kitchen. 

MC: So I know you actually go into restaurants and watch the chefs cook when you're doing your column. Have you noticed that their process might be different?

BB: I do. It's a really fun part of my job. Editor Joe Yonan and I switch off on a Washington Post Sunday magazine column called Plate Lab. We are re-creating recipes that are in restaurants. They're very popular dishes. People write in and ask us, "Oh, can you get the recipe for this?”

I found very quickly that the recipe I would get might not have the number of servings. It certainly doesn't say where to get special ingredients or substitutions, as chefs can get their hands on ingredients from all kinds of distributors.

The main thing is really just quantities. They can scale a soup recipe back, because it's all liquid and you're going to puree it in a blender of cook it in a pot for 12 hours or whatever. Mostly it's in terms of, if there's a really great sort of main dish, there's a sauce to go with it. The main dish has the expected amount of ingredients for four servings or eight servings of pork chops, or chicken-fried steak. But then the sauce that goes with it makes, like, two quarts. Then I'm the one who's scaling it back, not even the chef, and I'm thinking, "You know, if you get down to an eighth of and an eighth of and an eighth of whatever, are you going to taste that?" So, that makes it a little tricky.

I talked to Judith Jones a long time ago about writing recipes, and she said there's no reason not to write them in English. Don't leave out your articles and participles.  Chefs have deadlines and timeframes, and I understand that, so it's the briefest language possible. But they're not telling you how often to stir, like Dorie Greenspan sort of holds your hand through a recipe. In recipes that we get, for example, and this is one of the things that people can look out for: They're not going to tell you the size of the eggs they're using. They're not going to tell you what kind of salt it is, and you and I know it's almost always kosher salt.

MC: Right. Someone like Dorie Greenspan, who you just mentioned, who's a fantastic cookbook writer that does a lot of baking, she would always tell you to use large or extra-large eggs.

BB: Yes. The butter. They're always using unsalted butter, but they're not going to write “unsalted butter.” I think more people have unsalted butter in their homes for cooking, but it might not be the first thing that people reach for.

MC: What about the salt? Do you ever think that chefs maybe tend to under report their salt usage? 

BB: I would say so. It kind of reminds me a little of throwing dice. There's that kind of sideways handful that just goes into the pot right at the end.

MC: Has there been one recipe that you've translated that's made it into your own cooking?


Shrimp Creole

BB: I would have to say from David Guas, who is a pastry chef that also really knows how to write a recipe. There was a cajun shrimp recipe that he did - it's easy to make, it's online at Washingtonpost.com/recipes. So many people wrote in to say they made it and they loved it. I'd have to say that's been one of my favorites.