For the longest time, I believed that the term "farm-to-table" was just a rebranding of how previous generations ate to survive. To be frank, I didn't really know what it took to live and eat that way until I had the opportunity to take an online Masterclass on farm-to-table cooking taught by the one and only Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. I learned that it's a lot easier than it seems at first. Here are 5 key insights I have learned so far, along with how I plan to apply them in my kitchen.

1. Appliances: "Invest in what you need and no more" -- Alice Waters

wine, ladle
Graham McIntosh

We are saturated with new, interesting kitchen tools and appliances on the market. I cannot count the number of "impulse purchases" my family and I have made upon seeing an appealing new tool in stores. However, I learned to keep it simple from Chef Waters, with the goal being to use the least number of utensils to derive the maximum pleasure and ease from the cooking process. For example, instead of splurging on a Vitamix to make pesto, why not a mortar and pestle? Hand-grinding pestos, chutneys, and sauces provides a smooth, luxurious emulsion that is as enjoyable to make as it is to eat.

2. Stock your spice cabinet effectively.

pepper, chili, condiment, cardamom, curry, cereal, spices
Srishti Jain

Having a well-stocked spice cabinet is essential. Chef Waters recommends purchasing spices whole and grinding or toasting them yourself for maximum flavor benefit as opposed to purchasing pre-ground spices. Particularly for spices like cumin, star anise, or peppercorns, it's best to grind or toast them yourself. When sorting spices, Chef Waters groups them by geographical origin so that each spice can be used in the most effective way to build flavor in a dish. For example, using spices common in Indian and Mexican cuisine, she grinds cumin to use in tandem with salt to add extra layers of flavor to dishes, and she uses chipotle or ancho chiles to add heat and depth to soups and sauces. There is no "one true list" of essential spices, but Chef Waters enjoys having spices including, but not limited to, cumin, various types of chili peppers, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and saffron, among many others, in her spice cabinet.

3. Have fresh herbs on hand.

Herbs, Green, natural, Fresh, farmer's market
Caroline Ingalls

Fresh herbs are an essential part of Chef Waters' cooking at home and at Chez Panisse. She maintains a small herb garden to ensure that she has the best possible access to herbs and aromatics throughout the season. That said, if you can't find fresh herbs, dried will work in a pinch; however, certain herbs like basil, rosemary, or oregano are incredibly low-maintenance to keep in confined spaces like a small apartment.

4. Don't make a meal plan and then purchase ingredients, purchase ingredients and then make a meal plan.

broccoli, carrot, vegetable, farmer's market, shop local, local farm, local vegetables, fresh vegetables, organic vegetables, swiss chard, kale
Sam Jesner

I make this mistake all the time - in my excitement to try out a new recipe or to buy produce that is marked down, I end up buying far more of an ingredient than I can eat. Luckily, Chef Waters has a trick for preventing this - buy ingredients that look fresh, lively, and in season, and plan your weekly menus from there. When at a farmer's market or a local grocery store, she recommends asking questions about where the food comes from and how it is prepared for purchase. She also recommends engaging with the produce using all your senses - this might mean testing for texture, aroma, or even taste if allowed.

5. Make good use of cooking techniques to coax maximum flavor out of your ingredients - and don't be afraid to season subtly.

Herbs, Olio, Roasted cauliflower, cauliflower
Matthew Wenger

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that food needs to be heavily seasoned to taste good - I have done this many times. But Chef Waters follows the philosophy that with good ingredients, you don't need to do much for them. Roasting, for example, only intensifies the flavors of a hearty vegetable like squash or pumpkins; with a little olive oil, salt, and maybe an herb or two, you have a satisfying dish in no time. Making use of salt, heat, fat, and acid effectively was also a recurring theme in the course. In a simple recipe for sautéed leafy vegetables, Chef Waters makes use of the richness of olive oil, the pungency of garlic and chili flakes, and the brightness of good balsamic vinegar to create a silky, flavorful, crave-worthy dish. 

So there you have it - 5 simple yet game-changing insights from the master of farm-to-table cooking herself. The next time I go to the grocery store, I will definitely be implementing these tips as I plan family meals for the week that are filled with flavor and color - and perhaps you might find these tips helpful too.

Here's to fresh, seasonal cooking and eating!

Disclaimer: This post was not sponsored by Masterclass - these are just insights and tips from the class that the author of this article liked. All opinions are the author's own.