James Cullum writes about his experience in a professional kitchen, explaining why cheese is so much more than an ingredient. Cheese, he argues, is politics.
I worked for several years as a chef in a restaurant in east London. It will come as no surprise to anybody that the food that I sent out varied in quality (a consistently good quality, I hasten to add, but a spectrum of ‘good’), and that that quality depended heavily on my general mood that day. What may be less intuitive to most people is that the ingredients that fluctuated the most were the cheeses. In the kitchen, cheese is politics.
Given that cheese is one of the more extravagant ingredients that I worked with, the guidelines were more stringent. We were to use at most two tiny green scoops of mozzarella per pizza. Now, my pizzas were a source of personal pride, so there was no way in hell that little green scoop was getting a look in. So the pizzas went out looking marvellous, with about 600% as much cheese as they technically should have had.
Shortly after the introduction of the little green scoop, the bosses reported a mozzarella deficit. According to their calculations (based on the scoop), they said, there was approximately six kilograms of cheese missing. That scoop represented all that was wrong with the restaurant business, and we put up such resistance to its presence in our kitchen that we used six kilograms more mozzarella than we technically should have done in a single week.
Regardless of our little revolution, cheese is something that simply must not be limited. Restricting the amount of cheese to be put in a meal, without thought for its effect on the dish, should be a crime. I tried the pizza that was produced during the scoop training (we had scoop training), with its financially optimal and hideously depressing quantity of cheese, and it was barely pizza. Very rarely do you come across a dish that contains ‘a hint of cheese’, or that has ‘vague cheese flavour’. Cheese is a crucial part of almost everything that contains it. It provides the taste, and it provides the texture, and these things must not be limited.
The cheeses that we used gave the dishes their magic. What would a balsamic roasted vegetable sandwich be without goat’s cheese? Or nachos without cheddar? A spinach, rocket, lemon and pine nut salad without halloumi? Pizza without mozzarella? The answer is that these dishes would be boring.
Maybe we were fighting for the customer’s right to a quality meal, or perhaps it was our artistic integrity. Maybe we just really hated that little green scoop, but whatever the reason, nothing and no one was going to prevent us putting the amount of cheese that we considered necessary in a dish. It is easy to underestimate the importance of cheese in a recipe, or to shrug it off as simply one of the suggested components. Maybe it is necessary to experience your favourite foods without cheese before you can fully appreciate its importance. Simply go ahead and make it as normal, but leave the cheese out. See what happens. A meal without cheese is a lifeless disappointment, and if I learned anything from my kitchen, it is that cheese is to be respected, and that suspicion is necessary in all scoop-related matters.