Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Monday, November 16, 2009

What Makes a Good Cook?

At the Brooklyn Chocolate Experiment, where we sampled three types of chocolate-spiked chipotle chilis, chicken mole, beer marinated pork with chocolate barbecue sauce, and a dozen different types of chocolate desserts from flourless chocolate cake to salt and pepper truffles with peanut butter, R turned to me, uneasily balancing a plate ladden with chocolate inventions and said, "You're totally of this caliber." He was referring to my cooking and I, of course, quickly corrected him by vigorously shaking my head, mouth full of chocolate sticky-rice lollipop. I clarified what caliber I actually was, "I can follow a recipe and make it well." But when it comes to invention, my creations are messy, muddled, unbalanced, chaotic, tasty, and poorly plated. The people at the BCE, even if most were amateurs, knew what they were doing and they were good at it. So while R as my kitchen guinea pig did well in saying I was as good a cook as they were, I don't think he's necessarily right. Which, by the way, is not to say I'm a bad cook. What's a good cook, anyway?

I've been asking myself that since I read a review of Michael Symon's new cookbook, Live to Cook. The reviewer gave it a glowing recommendation, saying it was mostly for beginners, teaching such basics as the difference between sweating and caramelizing, and how to confit pig ears. At this point I realized to what extent I'm still in diapers when it comes to the wider food world. I've only started to understand what confit means and I was surprised to discover a difference between two things that essentially employ the same technique. Apparently I didn't read my Julia's Kitchen Tips closely enough. But what rubbed me, I won't say the wrong way but in a way I'm not sure I like, was how the reviewer described Symon as a very very good cook. A Food Network personality, a restauranteur, a cookbook author, many people are all these things and I don't know that I've heard them specifically singled out as very very good cooks (aside from the implication inherent to their success). Had Symon personally cooked for her that she could make such a claim? Or is a cook as good as his recipes are effective? In that case I'm definitely not a good cook. But while it is widely understood that being a recipe follower does not make one a good cook, does being a recipe writer or creator grant you that gilded title? Is your Mom's chicken pot pie recipe as good as a sous-vide steak studded with black truffles recipe? Some people may argue yes.

Consider two popular Food Network personalities. Michael Symon and Rachel Ray share a national stage but one is
regarded as a good cook (owns restaurants, understands cooking techniques, is a CIA graduate, the culinary school, not the government agency) and the other is more of a domestic role model (she learned to cook following her mother around, does not have good knifing technique, her recipes are soccer-mom-ish) than a cook. But Rachel Ray's cooking and her recipes are for the most part more popular than Michael Symons. Does it mean hers are better even though they're easier and more familiar and are created by someone with no formal training? It becomes a question of elitism in a way. Is Rachel Ray, whose cooking is more popular among the common-folk, less of a "good cook" than Michael Symon whose credentials are industry solid?

And how compare either of them to the brash, young, talented home cook with a well-seasoned skillet? When R and I lived with Joni, a severely precocious 20 something year old Israeli with a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, a shelf full of cookbooks, and a kitchen amply supplied with cooking equipment, spices, sauces, and seasoning from rice vinegar to cumin, he would make these two day opuses of meat that melted away on your tongue in a broth that was thick and flavorful studded with vegetables that never went to waste because their presence in the overall dish was always essential. Nothing wasted, the whole thing better than restaurant quality. He was a good cook because of his audacity and his patience. Like David Chang, what Joni did was care just that much more than the other guy about what he was making and he took the time to do it right, even if it meant he did wrong sometimes. He wasn't magical, he was probably talented, but beyond that he was meticulous and daring.

I think Mark Bittman defines it best, or rather he embodies what for me is the essence of a good cook. A former cab driver with no formal culinary education whose New York Times column The Minimalist is a wonderfully comforting guide on how to make complex food with ease. In a Time Out New York interview Bittman offers this piece of encouragement:

"I am the least impressive cook you will ever see. I am completely without knife skills, I screw things up all the time. When I’m in the kitchen I’m not obsessively trying to create the perfect dish; I’m trying to put dinner on the table. Comparing yourself to the people who cook on television is like comparing yourself to Andre Agassi. If you can drive you can cook."

Most of what keeps the rest of us from being very good cooks is our impatience and the feeling of inferiority borne of being intimidated by a long, delicate process and unfamiliar ingredients. Rachel Ray is anything but intimidating because she cooks things that are familiar, easy, and cheap, she's not a bad cook but she's not a great cook. Mark Bittman elevates the standard by taking the intimidation out of complex flavors, preparations, and dishes through his own simplified techniques and his laid-back, just-toss-this-all-together-it'll-be-awesome writing voice. Michael Symon, like Julia Child before him, teaches the techniques that make the bigger tasks, the dutch oven stews, the three day cassoulets, the obscure alien-looking vegetables as well as the run-of-the-mill ones, and makes them more manageable and more impressive. In a way being a good cook has more to do with how far you're willing to go to challenge yourself and how much you care about getting it right.

I still don't think I'm at the caliber of the BCE cooks but only because I'm still intimidated by words like chipotle and the idea of making my own barbecue sauce. But having started to make my own bread, by following slightly more complex recipes each time and learning from them, by taking time to learn techniques, practice them, even burning a few dishes along the way, I will eventually become their caliber mostly because I want to be. So yes, I'm a good cook in that I'm good at bullshitting my way around a kitchen and as a former roommate once said to me, "Some people's bullshit tastes better than others." But I'm still not as good a cook as Joni (advanced kitchen bullshitter), Bittman (recipe writer), Ray (TV personality), or Symon (chef). For that, you just need to clock in experience in the kitchen. And get an agent. An agent helps.

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