With you every step of the way

Alex Mackay leaves nothing to chance. Having made a career out of teaching people to cook in Britain, from the Norwich City Football Club where he led Delia Smith's cooking classes for a decade to the two-Michelin-star Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, where he headed Raymond Blanc's cooking school for three years, the expat New Zealander has seen enough to conclude the cook must be prepared and the teacher must be precise.

Mackay starts his recipes with the likes of ''get a large roasting tray'' or ''get a bowl'', as if he's speaking to a reader who may forget the pot. His instructions are exhaustive in detail. He finishes with ''turn the oven off''.

After you cook the vegetables for his buttery duck, you are reminded to ''take the lid off'' the pan before you remove the garlic. And when you cut the bread for the garlic toast, he specifies it's the cut surfaces you should butter, lest you go wild and attempt to butter the outside.

Why this extreme exactitude? Surely some things can be taken as just plain obvious? Perhaps not.

Mackay says his time with Delia Smith taught him how to test and test again, and this explains her enduring popularity. The more you cook a recipe, the more you can tweak it and work out how things may differ in different kitchens or for different people. For someone cooking on an electric hotplate, for example, it isn't enough to say ''turn off the heat''; you need to say ''remove from the heat''.

''There are thousands of people who live by her recipes because they always work, because she tests them endlessly,'' he says.

Mackay advises the home cook to start with scrupulous preparation. Clear your workspace. Empty the dishwasher or have a washing up bowl full of hot water for rinsing, leaving your sink free. Put a wet cloth under your chopping board. Place a tray, about 40 centimetres by 30 centimetres, between your chopping board and the wall, and on it place all your ingredients. Call this your prep tray, he says, going so far as to suggest you also have two tall tubs, 16 centimetres to 18 centimetres in diameter, next to the prep tray, one half filled with water. This holds your utensils and after you've used a utensil, you rinse it and put it back there. The other tub holds rubbish and peelings.

It all seems rather excessively regimented. But, Mackay insists, he is ''the messiest, most chaotic, finger-licking, sauce-smearing … tornado of a cook''. What he's learnt is that getting things ready first makes the job straightforward. And it avoids that stressful moment when things begin to unravel - you can't find an ingredient, so you're ferreting in the fridge and while you're doing that something burns, and you know the story from there.

In Australia to promote his new book, Mackay says if preparation is the starting point, another golden rule is to taste and adjust. Season, not simply with salt or pepper, but also chilli (good for dishes with capsicum), sugar (good for tomatoes, which become more acidic as they cook down), curry powder, citrus, vinegars, bacon fat and more. If you're intrigued about why chefs salt with a flourish from high above the bench, Mackay provides the explanation - it's about even distribution and it's something you should do, holding your fingers 30 centimetres above the food.

''Seasoning is massively important and salt is important because what you're doing is making flavours grow,'' he says. ''It can be the difference between a recipe that is nice and one that is fantastic.''

If he learnt testing from Smith, he learnt tasting from Blanc and the other two-star restaurants where he worked in France after leaving New Zealand at age 19. He casts Blanc as a genius and says ''one of the things that makes him is his palate and the way he tastes and the way he searches for flavour in everything - it's astonishing''.

But I feel a disjunct between the strict organisation of the ingredient list and the need to measure and chop carefully and insistence that you must constantly taste, think and adjust. A conflicting message for the worried learner cook? Not at all, Mackay says. At the highest level of cooking it's not about ad-libbing; in a two-star restaurant, you need to be highly precise and highly consistent in your recipes, with no room for variation, but that's not to say you don't also have to season carefully and taste your food. When a sauce is made in a two-star restaurant, a senior chef signs the side of the sauce container to verify he or she has tasted it.

Mackay has had his share of Michelin cooking experience but is not an unwavering fan. He's had appalling two- and three-star meals, he says, pointing to a meal at Gordon Ramsay's when the ice-cream was slightly granular, ''which is crazy, you can make ice cream at home that's not granular'', and meals when he had to use the same knife to cut blue and goat's cheese or was fed lamb on the wrong side of rare.

Mackay leads food tours to Australia, Tokyo, San Sebastian, Paris and Lyon but says for all the Michelin meals he's eaten in these cities (including 27 over four days in Tokyo), the best food he ever had was at Justin North's, now closed, Becasse in Sydney - ''total brilliance''. At Quarter Twenty One, also in Sydney, he ate the best, and best value, bavette steak.

Mackay's book is unusual in its set-up. He focuses first on six ''heroic'' ingredients - chicken breast, salmon fillet, aubergine, pork chop, pasta and mince - and gives six recipes for each, essentially varying the sauces to create very different meals. Six burger meals include: patties glazed with red onion, barbecue sauce and orange juice; patties with a sauce of red onion, balsamic, soy and wine; patties with chorizo and paprika in the mix and served with onion, red peppers and fried egg; and patties with ginger in the mix and glazed with hoisin, honey and sesame.

Most people, he says, have seven basic meals - and many involve mince. Think spaghetti bolognese, lasagne, cottage pie.

He does something similar with sauces - offering six you can turn into easy meals: pesto, tapenade, sticky onions, tomato compote, garlic butter and green chicken curry. It's like cooking by numbers, only Mackay's meals are all homemade, simple and fresh.

Alex Mackay's Cookbook for Everybody Everyday, published by Bloomsbury, $39.99.

The story With you every step of the way first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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