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Kitchen Note: How to cook properly

By John ~ Tuesday, 10 February 2015

This note was triggered by the following question on Twitter from Shane Hudson

I don’t know how to answer that properly for an amateur cook because the simple answer for me is I put in the time, professionally. That’s extremely arrogant though and helps no-one so how would I, if I hadn’t been through an intense process of learning, go about doing so now?

I always credit Simon Hopkinson, (buy his books!) who I worked with at Bibendum (go and eat there!), as the person who took me from Marco Pierre-White drop-out, Michelin star wannabe, robot recipe follower to a more instinctive cook who actually enjoys eating. A lot of what I learnt came from how he structured his kitchen. It meant that if you were inexperienced you entered in as a veg chef learning the real basics (cooking veg well is a skill worth learning!) and worked your way up to the sauce section (main courses). The key though was you were stood next to people with more experience, who you could watch and ask questions and if you were keen enough would let you have a go at making a few things. I fucked up, lots.

Once, when presented with a box full of gorgeous, leafy tender stem purple sprouting broccoli, with tiny delicate florets I chopped of all the leaves and stalk, chucked them out then panicked about not having enough broccoli for the upcoming lunch service. The mistake I’d made was not understanding purple sprouting broccoli, at all.

This I think is the key to becoming a better cook. Recipes are generally unreliable or difficult to follow, they aren’t anything more than inspiration (with, perhaps, the exception of precise recipes for cakes etc). Repeating a bad recipe many many times won’t make you a better cook. Instead I would focus (and still do) on learning how to prepare one ingredient to the highest standard as a daily/weekly/monthly challenge.

This played out well for me recently when I was teaching my son to prepare a dish for a school competition. We did it 4 or 5 times, the first time I prepared it pretty much alone with him watching and asking questions, and each time we focused on the preparation of each ingredient. How to chop a chilli well, how to slice (not chop the crap out of) soft herbs. How to roll a lime before juicing to extract the maximum. Why we don’t put the soft herbs in the lime-based dressing until the very end. Only at the very end of that process did we really get to putting all those things together to make the whole.

So what is my answer exactly?

Find friends experienced or otherwise to cook with, in person, talk, bounce ideas, work out what went wrong by doing the research.

Pick an ingredient, a simple one to start with, and learn about it throughly. For example: How to boil fresh broccoli so it stays ultra green. Ask yourself. How much water in the pan, what role does salt play? How should I cool it down quickly if I need to? How long should it stay in the iced water before I drain it? How do I reheat it?

Learn the taste of individual things, then learn how to combine them by playing and making mistakes. Over time you’ll develop a weird kind of taste memory and given enough time you’ll start to be able to combine flavours in your head before you even start.

Mostly though, take your time and have fun with it. I spent a good ten years learning how to cook and I still haven’t quite worked it out.