JenPlans Pro Interview Series: Professional Chef

I am so excited to kick off my Pro Interview Series! I have always been curious about what other people’s lives are like and what they’ve learned from their career path that can help others, whether it’s the culinary world, personal finance, health and fitness, mental health, business, crafting, music, home design, or anything else.

A while back, I asked my Instagram followers what they’d ask a professional chef if they had the chance, and I brought all of those questions (and more!) to the wonderful woman behind the blog, Cooking In Pearls, Lindsay Callaway.
Cooking In Pearls

Lindsay is a classically trained chef working for a corporate catering company by day and blogging by night. Between working, decorating a new house, enjoying newlywed life, Lindsay keeps busy creating new recipes and mastering old ones! Her favorite food is pizza and she considers candy a food group. Lindsay loves spending time with her family and her perfect night is spent at home with her husband and a glass of wine.

Get comfortable, grab a cup of coffee (or glass of wine!) and join us for her interview below!

What equipment/cooking tools do you think everyone should have in their kitchen and why?
Tongs, spoonula, cast iron/dutch oven, foil. Random tools but I couldn’t cook without them! Tongs are so versatile and I use them almost every time I cook. A silicone spoonula is my version of a wooden spoon. I rarely use wooden spoons because I feel like so many aromas get absorbed by the wood and I never feel like they get “clean” enough. Spoonulas are great on non-stick surfaces because they don’t scratch but they also don’t melt so you can use them for anything like stirring hot sauces and soups. I love a pan or pot that can go from stovetop to oven. Searing on the stovetop and finishing in the oven is what pro’s do, and you can do it too! Foil is amazing when it comes to clean up-anything that sticks to it just gets thrown away. I use it every chance I can!

What are your favorite kitchen gadgets and what kind of cooking pan is your go-to?
A wine opener. I couldn’t live without one! Also, a regular nonstick sauté pan is my favorite for everyday cooking. Cleanup is a breeze and cooking over-easy eggs couldn’t be easier. In addition to that, there’s nothing quite like the crust of a steak seared in a cast iron skillet. I split my time evenly between the two pans.

What foods should be in everyones fridge and pantry?
There are several things I always have on hand and those are: chicken broth, garlic, onions, pasta/rice, fresh herbs. These ingredients always come in handy for those last minute meals. The thing I love most is not knowing where I’m going to take any dish…these ingredients can be used in any cuisine type and for any day part. Of course I also always have cheese, eggs, greens, and meat…my husband wouldn’t think it’s a meal without some meat.

What skills should every home chef have?
Basic knife skills! The first thing I learned in culinary school was how to hold a knife and the proper way to use one. This simple skill will give home cooks more confidence and lower the chances of an injury!

How would you suggest improving knife skills?
At most culinary stores like a Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table there’s a knife specialist you can ask! There are also some great demos on YouTube…but I’ll post one on my blog in the near future. It’s not hard but once you can hold a knife, the rest is easy peasy!

How do you meal plan?
I find it very difficult to meal plan because I get a craving for something and have to satisfy it then and there…it’s hard to plan for cravings! I like to grocery shop on Sunday and prep anything I can so that the week starts off on an organized note. I often freeze my meat for the week and pull it the night before to thaw, that way it won’t go bad if I don’t use it within the first couple days of the week. I’d love to shop every day if I could but busy weeks don’t always allot time for that. Also, writing my weekly menu out on a chalkboard or piece of paper somehow feels more official for me which helps me stick to my planned meals but of course the last minute frozen pizza or take-out happens.

Do you ever get in a same-dinner rut? What do you do to break out?
Absolutely, it’s so easy to fall in a rut! I look through food magazines or peruse Pinterest for what looks good and I’ll put a spin on it. I also keep a running note on my phone for what sounds good so when I’m in a serious rut I look through that growing list for inspiration!

What advice would you give someone who wants to learn to cook but doesnt have any experience?
You don’t need any experience! So many great cooks don’t have any formal training but learned by observing family members cook. Grab a fun food magazine or start reading blogs. There’s great stuff out there! One thing to note is what kind of cook you are. There’s the “baker type” that want exact measurements and weights, and likes to follow a recipe to a T. I consider that group the “methodical” cook. The other side (my side) is a bit more relaxed going by a pinch here, an eyeball of a “cup” there. If you don’t have an ingredient don’t panic, just sub it out. There’s no right or wrong way but knowing what you prefer can help by finding like-minded cooks to learn from.

What would you make for a small dinner party with a few friends?
Something super easy! There’s nothing worse than slaving away in the kitchen while your guests are in another room catching up. I like to have a few snacks around, like a cheese platter, a bowl of nuts, and maybe a dip or an easy room-temperature appetizer that you can make ahead of time. The entree would depend on the season but for summer, I would say veggie and meat kabobs with some rice pilaf, and a salad. You can cook the pilaf before your guests come and hold it warm, skewer the kebobs in advance and cook them off after your guests arrive, and a salad because you can layer it in the morning and store it in the fridge until you’re ready to serve. I would also have it outside, in a cozy setting near the grill so you don’t have to miss a thing!

Whats your favorite restaurant and menu item?
There’s a ramen spot in San Diego just down the street from the airport called Underbelly that I absolutely can’t stop thinking about. I discovered it while traveling for work several years ago and every time I travel to San Diego I have to stop there immediately after landing and go once again on my way to the airport. It’s just so good and the atmosphere is cool but I think it’s nostalgic eating out of a huge bowl with chopsticks and drinking the broth from the side of the bowl, especially since I don’t make ramen like that at home!

Whats your favorite thing to cook?
I honestly cook pretty healthy for the most part and to me, I cook quick boring stuff throughout the week! I love to cook with bright colors and vary the textures, like turkey lettuce wraps with toasted sesame seeds and thinly sliced bell peppers. There’s nothing better than having a quiet weekend spent at home cooking up something delicious like hearty slow braised short ribs with risotto. Clearly, I don’t have a favorite but love any time spent in the kitchen!

What is your go-to quick and easy meal?
I think I make Mexican food at least once a week. I love tacos and fajitas and for a quick weeknight meals, these are certainly my go-to. I love roasting a whole chicken on a Sunday and shredding the meat for a quick versatile protein throughout the week. Taking the chicken and adding taco seasoning, a little chicken broth (or beer) and warming it through makes delicious tacos! I also love grilling throughout the week because it takes less than 15 minutes with almost no cleanup. BBQ chicken, burgers, flank steak, port tenderloin, the possibilities are endless!

Do you ever eat any instant food or frozen pre-cooked meals?
Of course! Frozen pizza is plentiful in my home and there’s nothing wrong with a frozen dinner. I used to look forward to nights my parents left us with a babysitter because we always got to have a TV dinner (if you don’t know what those are, shame on you!). I’ve got a sweet spot for hot pockets, toaster strudels, and bagel bites. I have no shame.

Whats your best tip for knowing when meat is done?
Thermometers aren’t always accurate depending on whether it’s calibrated or not. (What does calibrated mean? Check out my blog post on calibration to learn more!)  I like the palm method. A quick press is a good indicator. If you lightly make your hand into a fist and touch your thumb to the tip of your pinky and feel your palm near the thumb…that’s what a fully cooked piece of meat should feel like. It’s firm and bounces back when you press it. Now take your thumb to your ring finger and press your palm again, a little softer, not as tight. That’s about what medium-well feels like. Thumb to the tip of your middle finger would be about medium, and finally, your pointer finger and thumb would be about medium rare. Leave your hand limp and feel that same area, that’s what rare feels like.

Can you share any tips for grilling vegetables?
I like to get a nice char on the outside and cook it quickly so the inside is still tender with a bit of a bite. I always drizzle my veggies with a little bit of oil whether that be olive oil or coconut oil. Toss to combine and season simply with salt and pepper. This helps keep the veggies from drying out and also prevents sticking. I always cook my veggies separately than meat because they cook at different times. This is true for kebobs too, skewer meat separately from the veggies!

What kind of cooking would you recommend for someone who lives in a college dorm room with limited access to equipment?
A slow cooker. These things are amazing in so many ways! Truly a game changer. You can literally put anything in it and walk away…for hours! All you need is a cutting board, a knife, and an outlet. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and appetizers can all be made in this amazing appliance.

What knife would you recommend for a child who wants to learn to cut (supervised, of course)?
A butter spreader with a flat edge, it can cut soft items without any sharp edges. Always be around to watch little ones but it’s a great way to start them early! Have them tear lettuce, wash produce, or help stir batters. Any time they are helping you cook will get them to at least try it, since they helped make it!

If you could only keep one spice on hand (besides salt and pepper), what would it be?
Besides salt and pepper, I’d say red pepper flakes. They add just a touch of heat that I love, and adds a depth of flavor without adding sodium or fat.

What is your favorite seasoning?
Hmm…salt is a no brainer but I’m also torn between herbs de Provence and Montreal steak seasoning. I use each on just about everything. I also love cumin…a spice that seems to be very hit or miss with people’s palates.

Can you recommend an affordable knife set?
It honestly doesn’t matter what brand the knives are, it’s all about how it feels in your hand. Hold it and feel the weight, is it a comfortable grip? Is the weight manageable without feeling like it’s weighing your arm down? As long as the knives are sharp, any will do. I suggest taking them to get sharpened at least twice a year and regularly correct the blade with a honing/sharpening steel.

Big thanks to Lindsay for allowing us to peek into her life as a chef! To follow Lindsay’s cooking adventures, be sure to visit her blog, Cooking In Pearls, and follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter!