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How to think like a chef

Most of us can follow a recipe. But how do professionals know instinctively to put certain ingredients together? Maria Elia takes Samuel Muston on a creative journey

It's mid-morning in west London and the wind outside is stinging. Inside, in the basement kitchen of Joe's in Kensington, however, it's positively tropical. Maria Elia, executive chef at the much-praised restaurant attached to the women's clothing emporium Joseph, is pulling a tray of cinnamon meringues from the oven and the rush of hot air feels like its about to carry off both my eyebrows. The partially air-conditioned kitchen feels impartially hot. Unfortunate, as I'm already feeling a little hot under the collar. Because today I am attempting to learn in a morning what it took Maria the best part of a quarter of a century to pick up: how to think like a chef.

Now, I'm not completely green in this department. I think of myself as a bit of a foodie. I eat out more often than my bank balance would like. I buy fruit and veg from those farmers' markets where the name of the produce is often preceded, in extra-big letters, with words like "organic", "biodynamic" and, most worrying for the wallet, "fresh from our [insert name of well-heeled home county here] communal farm". And, with the help of Delia or Jamie, a grocer and a butcher, I can knock up a couple of courses for my housemates without breaking too much of a sweat. But I have never, and for that matter would never, claim for myself the title "chef". Cook, just about; chef, definitely not.

Chefs have a certain aura about them, like medieval priests or consultant doctors. They are different animals; or maybe the same animal more evolved. But what is it exactly that sets us apart? Knowledge of different cooking techniques surely comes into it. Heston spent most nights for 10 years working his way through the classical repertoire of French cooking while working days as a photocopier salesman. Gordon Ramsay successfully sweated it out under Albert Roux in the kitchens of Le Gavroche and with pyrotechnic results in Marco Pierre White's Harveys. And the right equipment opens up whole new vistas, too. But as Maria writes in her book Full of Flavour: Create ... How to Think Like a Chef, and as she's underlining to me now, the vital thing is mindset.

Chefs are creative thinkers, Maria points out. "Our medium is food. And we cook in our heads as much as we cook in the kitchen," she says, skipping around the spotless stainless-steel one she shares with two under-chefs and a kitchen hand. "Most people will pick up a recipe book, stop at a nice-looking picture of a bit of marinated squid or something and think: 'I'll go to the shops, get the ingredients, follow the recipe and impress the Joneses with it when they come to dinner.'"

But for her and other chefs the process is reversed, the starting point quite different. "I begin by thinking what's in season or I might see something on TV which inspires me. Then I'll sit down with a blank sheet of A3 paper and draw a mind map and decide where I'm going to go with it: what flavour journey I'm going to take that ingredient on when I construct the recipe," she says.

Chefs, Maria reckons, are best thought of as composers writing music. Today, red lentils will be the core instrument, the piano, say, at the centre of things. On top of which we'll overlay other notes; in this case, we want to give the pulses a north African slant. "A successful dish ticks several boxes. Firstly, it needs an attractive look and aroma, as they draw you to taste what's on the plate – you have to keep that firmly in mind. On the palate there must be a difference of texture and, most importantly, a pleasing and interesting taste," she explains.

Standing on tiptoes to reach the herbs and spices on the top shelf of the store cupboard, she explains that we have flavour receptors on our tongues for bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami (the "Japanese taste" found in fermented foods such as anchovies and parmesan). A good dish must include all five. "We want them to complement each other," she says, "follow the same rhythm."

Cumin, paprika, cinnamon and cardamom come down from the shelves first, chosen for their earthy Moroccan flavour. Dried chilli to provide a low-key heat. Ginger and coriander come next for their light airy profile.

We lightly fry the finely chopped herbs and spices in a pan. Adding the pre-cooked lentils a little later, along with some chicken stock. "Taste it," Maria says after a few minutes, "tell me what's missing?" The heat is there. As is the earthy edge, the salt we added has piqued the flavours. But what about sweetness? A little Demerara sugar, maybe? "We could do, but put your chef's hat on and think of another ingredient that will impart the sweetness without us having to go for the refined stuff," she says. "Likewise if we are cooking a Thai dish – it's better to use fish sauce rather than throw on lots of salt." Ok, so dates then? I get plaudits for that.

We taste it again. I'm conscious of certain flavours rising and falling as it spreads across the tongue – this may be a result of being conscious of the profile we're trying to create, but nonetheless, I notice. "Parsley and a little mint, I think," Maria says, "to lighten things."

The aroma is there now, too; following in the wake of the earthy herbs. The final flourish comes with some chopped skin-on almonds, which break up the monotone texture; orange peel adds colour. A dollop of Greek yoghurt provides a temperature contrast.

And so here we have it. Moroccan lentils with chopped almonds and yoghurt. With some – read, quite a lot – of help, the lentils and I have travelled to the end of Maria's flavour journey. And it's all there. Attractive look and aroma on the plate? Check. Difference in texture? Check. Sweet, sour, bitter and salty taste all harmoniously nestling together? Check.

As we tuck in, I can't help thinking that the more appropriate metaphor for a chef is not a composer but a builder (an artisan builder, admittedly). Conscious that for a dish to succeed it needs to be a meeting of engineering and artistry. The central joists of flavour and look have to be there first. With aroma and texture grafted on, like gold leaf. Without the latter, the food is naked. Without the former it simply falls flat.

A week later, ill on the sofa and with that thought still in my head, and very little else in the kitchen, I heat some baked beans. Against the injunctions of a sceptical friend come to look after me, I decide to do a bit of artisan building myself. Dried chilli, a touch of honey and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce go into the pan with the beans. The verdict from my friend: "Perhaps you should open a posh greasy spoon?" Not quite chef-standard then, but certainly a step in the right direction.

Maria Elia, 'Full of Flavour: Create ... How to Think Like a Chef',£19.99, Kyle Books