On learning to cook

When I wrote about Lift I mentioned that one of my new habits I’m trying to establish is to cook dinner regularly. I’m never going to manage to do it every day, but it’s something I’m working at getting better at. It’s the type of skill the kind of guy I’d like to be is good at.

For a few months I’ve been slowly teaching myself to cook using Tim Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Chef“. Ferriss is a divisive guy. Some people think he and his series of “4-Hour”-brand books are essentially a scam. The titles certainly have the air of the worst of the self-help section1, and maybe some of the criticisms are valid.

On balance though I’d say that there’s a high enough density of useful advice and plain old inspiration to make his writing worthwhile. If nothing else, I’ve cooked a few of his recipes and got some good meals out of them. That’s more of a practical outcome than you’ll get from the bad self-help authors Ferriss is sometimes lumped in with. I also find him entertaining, which is important for any book that’s pushing up against 700 pages. Your tastes may vary.

The big advantage of “The 4-Hour Chef” for me is that it’s not just a recipe book. It’s a teaching book. Every recipe introduces the equipment and techniques that it requires, without assuming any prior knowledge. They start out simple and build up to more difficult dishes as you gain the skills you need to prepare each one. Every dish introduces one or two new techniques for you to add to your repertoire, with an explicit focus on making it as difficult as possible to mess up.

This progressive approach isn’t without its drawbacks. It makes it problematic to skip any recipes, which is an issue if a dish calls for ingredients you can’t get or equipment you don’t have. I’ve had a couple of long delays to my progress while I waited for kitchenware to arrive from Amazon, not wanting to move on until I’ve successfully prepared each dish. Still, you have to walk before you can run, and you have to scramble an egg before you can make a soufflé.

The most important lesson I’ve learned though is a meta-lesson: learning doesn’t come for free. It’s not a matter of making a series of successful meals until you get to the end and suddenly you’re a great cook. Sometimes you’ll mess up; sometimes your ingredients will differ from what’s called for in some small but important way; and sometimes the food gods are just in a bad mood.

In these cases you just fall back on a phone and a take-out menu, and try to figure out what you can do differently next time. New skills are acquired through experience, and experience, typically, is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

Yesterday I messed up almost every part of a sous-vide chicken with dinosaur kale. And I don’t care. Because a couple of weeks ago I was eating take-out while a botched rib-eye sat in the bin beside me, and a few days later I cooked the best damn steak I’ve ever eaten.

  1. “Teach yourself Japanese in 6 easy lessons”

Hola a todos

My first spoken words on December 31 last year were, “Quick! Does anyone speak French? I need to learn it by the end of today to succeed in my New Year’s resolution.” I made a valiant effort, even going so far as to ask for a croissant for breakfast, but ultimately failed. I ended 2007 just as sadly monolinguistic as I had started it.

This year, I’ve gone for something new. I set out to learn Spanish, and—in contrast to the rest of my life up to this point—I’ve actually made some progress. I can tell people I like the cinema, and have one brother, and would like to know how to find the pharmacy. I know the word for beer, and all the numbers up to 1000. Actually, those last two facts might be dangerous in combination.

Of course my real aim is to work into a conversation, “Sólo sé decir esa frase, y esta otra explicandolo” (“I only know that sentence and this other explaining it”).