Good cooking in 4, 3, 2, 1
Thoughts on getting something tasteful and approaching great out of the kitchen
The music industry is shrinking and the food business is expanding, so it’s now cliché to say that chefs are the new rock stars. This explains how a former New York chef and drug addict turned writer and TV personality gets to go on for more than 9,000 words about everything from hipsters to movies.
Even with the obsessive attention paid to food, people still are mystified how a good dinner comes together, and are more than happy to have someone else serve it to them. Americans now spend more on restaurant meals than on groceries. “Here’s what I don’t get,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine. “How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes … but so much less eager to brown them ourselves?”
I’ve witnessed otherwise reasonable people at my table — at the sight of well-roasted chicken browned with seasonings and generous pours of olive oil — transmogrify into motivational speakers who can’t stop spouting career advice: “You should open a restaurant!” “You missed your calling. Be a chef!” and so on. I appreciate the compliments, but I look at them like they’re nuts, which is what they are.
Everyone knows restaurants are a shit-ton on top of a shitload of work, and are why eateries and prepared foods are popular in the first place, right? Give some people an onion to chop or a wooden spoon to stir the pot, and right away they’re balking. “I don’t cook, I suck at this, this isn’t my thing” are common excuses. (My inner dialogue: “You think this is rocket science? Guess what, rocket science tastes terrible. We’re just going for soup here. Figure it out.”)
I want to push back on this laziness, because there is nothing special in roasting a chicken or doing pretty much anything in the kitchen at home. What does good cooking take, really? I have a four-part answer:
It’s 40% ingredients, 30% technique,
20% work & nerve and 10% ingenuity.
Here’s the breakdown:
Ingredients: Taking garbage in and getting wonderful out is not cuisine; it’s alchemy. If your goal is to make something simple and delicious, or kind of complicated and delicious, you have to start with the right ingredients. The most important part of cooking takes place not in the kitchen, but at the market.
You want to be selective but remain open to the unexpected. What’s in season? What looks bright and ripe and what is past its prime? Also, what is on sale? The best ingredients you may need aren’t necessarily the most sophisticated or expensive. (Consider butter. Any brand available is fine for greasing a pan.) This will take time out of your day, but look around any grocery store. If other people can navigate this, you can crush it.
The reason Staffan Terje of Perbacco is my favorite chef is that when he’s working on a dish and gets to three ingredients, he stops. Terje told me he asks himself, what I am going for here? Even the pros don’t throw panko, bacon and the kitchen sink into a dish just because they can. You may think you can’t think like a cook; that doesn’t mean you buy and eat crap. A store-cooked chicken, a bag of salad greens and bread are three ingredients, and make for at least two good meals. (Breast and thigh meat with salad the first night, and chicken-salad sandwiches the next. There is plenty of meat to pick off the bird, not just the main pieces.) Cheese, olives and a baguette are appetizing anytime. No sweating over a stove is required.
With bread and cheese, maybe you can go for fancy and slice a fresh tomato! Keep going: Chop up a couple of tomatoes the best you can, and put them in a bowl with a little cut garlic and salt. Drizzle in some olive oil. OK, so that’s more than three ingredients, but going beyond three is not a foray into the jungle. Simple additions can come naturally: Add a bit of basil, fresh or dry, and let all that sit on your counter for an hour. Then try this tomato with a piece of baguette. This is a kind of chess, where you combine pieces/ingredients and keep building on them. Perfect segue into the next section.
Technique: Anybody can buy top-quality ingredients and end up with not much to show for them. What is the point of that? Knowing something about what you’re doing with food is all the difference. Some items keep in the fridge but some don’t. Some need trimming or peeling; some don’t. Wait, how do you peel? Do you even have a peeler? Again, this is going to take some effort, about a third of what it takes to cook well.
You don’t need a mind-meld with Jacques Pepin, but you bone up and apply yourself. Get your board and your knife ready, because whether you’re an amateur or seasoned, this is where you have to commit to improvement. However: Whatever kitchen knowledge has been lost to the generations is now available, fast and free, on YouTube. What’s the best way to chop an onion, boil pasta and keep knives ship-shape? It’s in one video. Need more tips? There is such a fun playlist for that.
I still get irritated at myself when I crack an egg and break the yolk. Usually I can see right away what I did wrong. I curse and resolve to do it better.
Work & Nerve: Even with amazing ingredients (40%) and sushi-bar technique (30%), that’s still not enough to get you more than a C. Cooking for people is a gambit; you’re putting yourself out there, willing to risk losing face while making a big mess. No wonder so many people can’t stand the heat. It sure is easier to have high standards about a restaurant experience and someone else’s labor than to keep cracking eggs wrong.
Julia Child, ever the iconoclast, said “never apologize.” This day and age practically require apology for the slightest imperfections, especially to those taking time out of their busy schedules to sit at your table and eat your food. Put in the work to prepare appetizers and serve the beverages, while the main course finishes in the oven. Create an environment where people can relax and let you take care of them. Refuse the empty offers to help clean up after. When everyone’s gone, put on music as you scrub and rinse and sweep, and let your mind wander through ideas to try next time.
Work and nerve are underappreciated. They are what take you over the top. Let me finish by talking about what’s overrated.
Ingenuity: This is what people usually talk about when they talk about the mystery and wizardry of chefs: their refined palates, creative preparations, innovative pairings and magical, edible artistry. This tiny piece of the pie overshadows the unglamorous, camera-unfriendly 90% — the shopping, chopping, slogging through the prep, timing things, the trial and error and so on.
But ingenuity is also totally unnecessary to make a simple, elegant, dynamite meal. Think of it as the cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae. The majority of the effort, as you have read, goes into a lot of other stuff that people don’t get too excited about.
To be fair, we may not always be up to the task. After a tough day, you can forgive yourself for being haphazard in planning, cutting corners, getting temperatures or consistency wrong and ending up with something just passable on the plate.
At the same time, the payoff of good food, whether you’re eating out or at a friend’s or winging it on your own, is that there might be a discernible flash of ingenuity that you might remember for the rest of your life. Perhaps such a rewarding idea or sensation will fuel interest in rediscovering the joy of cooking again.
Follow Anthony Lazarus on Twitter: @Sr_Lazarus