Several people emailed me Kim Severson’s NYTimes story on recipes and the point at which we will close the book on them.  This story really riled my friend Mike Pardus, instructor of Asian cuisines at the Culinary Institute of America.

        "I understand that certain things are above and beyond most people’s skill levels, purchasing power, equipment investment threshold, etc.," he writes. "That’s why I hire carpenters. I suck at carpentry and I don’t have the proper tools. So – I don’t call myself a ‘carpenter’…

        "In each example of a ‘deal breaker’ Ms. Severson refers to a ‘good cook’ an ‘adventurous cook’ …sorry, if you won’t fry, or lard or truss, or can’t butterfly an anchovy you should not be calling yourself a ‘cook’ without some sort of qualifier – like ‘backyard mechanic’ or ‘weekend warrior’ of ‘armchair quarterback.’

        "What really sent me over the edge was her description of Keller as ‘the modern King of fussy recipes’…if you’re really a ‘cook,’ you get it … if you’re not – you don’t. To Cooks, Keller is the master technician we all want to learn from and emulate; Ms. Severson makes him sound like a anal retentive crackpot.

        "So, you wannabe a cook, or you ARE one? Guess it all depends on how well you can read – and interpret – the sheet music, and how often you’re willing to practice your scales."

Pardus’s job is to teach technique and he truly cares about the craft of cooking, so I understand his ire.  I thought Severson’s story interesting and humorous.  I share Pardus’s annoyance, though, with her characterization of Keller and know exactly why it sent this excellent instructor of cooks over the edge: the statement implies that she’d rather have it easy than know how to do it correctly.

And this is what annoys me most about chef cookbooks—or perhaps the publishers of chef cookbooks.  They all want to simplify great technique so that the chef’s work is accessible to the home cook, which hurts both the chef and the home cook.  One of the great values of the French Laundry Cookbook is that the recipes are pretty much exact documents of how those recipes are done at the restaurant.  I’ve never made the coronets because I don’t own cornet molds, but it’s a pretty cool tuile recipe—with a little imagination you could bend it to your own desires.  And if I want to know how that tuile is turned into a little cone, I can read about it exactly.

I’m midway through Julian Barnes’s Pedant in the Kitchen.  Barnes wrote one of my all time favorite novels and is one of Britain’s best writers period, but this collection of columns from, I believe, The Guradian is one long whine about how hard recipes are.  His problem, and it’s the same frame of mind Severson describes, is that he insists on following recipes before he understands anything about basic techniques.

Really good cooking is a craft, and those recipes that best describe that craft, whether simple or advanced, move all cooks forward. Those recipes that help you avoid craft, to get around it, set people who want to become better cooks, back.

Do you want fast and simple?  Grill a steak.  Want a great sauce that doesn’t involve making and reducing veal stock?  Mince a shallot and mix it with some soft butter and lemon juice. But don’t get mad at a recipe for a classical Bordelaise sauce.

I understand that some people, most people, want to eat good unprocessed food but don’t have the desire or time to learn to cook or prepare elaborate recipes from America’s most talented chefs.  Those are the people who most need to learn the few basic techniques upon which all cooking is based.  Those who cook for pleasure won’t progress as cooks until they do that as well.  It wouldn’t take long. There are just a handful of them.

As for recipes, Heidi wrote a nice post last fall on what I’ve written about recipes.  They’re important, but they vary in quality of composition, so ultimately you have to know how to use them.


UPDATE 6/6: Carole Blymire, author of the French Laundry at Home blog, commented on the word fussy and the recipes generally in The French Laundry Cookbook.  No one is more qualified to comment on this subject, and therefore on the subject of difficult recipes, so I’m reprinting them here.

I understand where Kim was going with the piece; that said, the use of the word "fussy" is something I do take issue with.

As someone who is cooking her way through The French Laundry Cookbook, I know I’m biased, but I don’t really find these recipes "fussy." Why? Fussy, to me, implies that there’s something unnecessarily over-the-top or demanding that is being requested by someone who lacks expertise. And, that’s not the case with TFLCookbook.

For me, it’s all about trust. If the chef/owner of 2 of the best restaurants in the land is recommending a certain way to do something to yield the best result, then damn skippy I’m gonna try it. I’m grateful for the book and its amazing sharing of technique and flavor combinations — I’ve gotten an incredible education from cooking my way through it. It’s cracked open so many "Oh, NOW I get it" moments that have changed the way I make a sandwich, pull together a last-minute salad dressing, or cook a steak. And, it’s actually made me smarter, faster, and more creative in the kitchen. Now, I can pull together a really great dinner for 6 in 20-30 minutes, and truly blow my friends away.

I can’t tell you the number of emails I get from my readers who say that they thought the dishes in TFLC were too hard until they actually sat down, focused, and made one. It’s almost like it’s the world’s best-kept secret: these dishes are totally doable; you just have to pay attention to what you’re doing.

I was actually more offended by many of the commenters on the article on the NYT site. Chopping parsley or whisking an egg are dealbreakers? What the fuck is wrong with people?  –Carol Blymire


143 Wonderful responses to “Recipe Dealbreakers”

  • Kay

    I’ve never butterflied an anchovy, but I’m fairly confidant that if one were to show me what the end product was meant to look like I would be able to emulate it in fewer than 3 attempts. I’ve never called myself a cook, but which is really the more valuable skill in the kitchen, butterflying or learning?

  • Charlotte

    I love this discussion. I love to cook, but what I want to cook at home is home food — my area of interest shall we say, is what people eat at home, not restaurant food. The Laurie Colwin school of food and cooking, if it needs a name. I love a great restaurant meal, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not what I want to serve to my friends and loved ones. I want to make them something simple and delicious that signifies family food. When I travel, I want to see what’s in the markets and what people eat at family dinner. My skills are okay, but I dated a couple of chefs when I was in my 20s and what they do is completely different than what I do — I don’t think the one cancels the other out, I just think they’re different in kind.

  • carri

    Carl Sagan once said “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” which proves the point you can look at it however you want, but there’s no way to reduce a dish to it’s most basic elements unless you truly start at the beginning…impossible at best! Chefs like Thomas Keller and writers like our Mr. Ruhlman do their best to take us as far they can down that road…we have to choose for ourselves where to stop along the path. The French Laundry Cookbook has, at times, both delighted (with it’s beauty and integrity) and infuriated me (with it’s highbrow nature) but it is an honest potrayal of one man’s culinary vision. I’ve only gotten as far as the garden of the restaurant, but having the cookbook is like having a part of Chef Keller himself!
    Also,it is important to remember that recipes are merely a combination of a formula and a method…once you have the method understood, the formula is often open to personal interpretation.

  • ruhlman

    i love the bouchon cookbook too, thanks for mentioning it–really solid delicious recipes, thanks to Susie Heller who wrote and tested them all, along with the chefs.

    Badger–make the gazpacho that’s in the french laundry cookbook.

    and chris, yes, pardus did make the remarks in the heat of the moment. in fact he was going to post them but then sent to me in an email. i posted them, with his permission. here is his follow up email:

    “I TOLD you it was gonna piss people off…, do I have to weigh in and tell everyone the “back-story” about how intentionally DID NOT post it, but sent it to you to decide, because I KNEW it was inflammatory? Are we elitist for having the discussion at all, or for having it in public?

    “But, I’m ok being an elitist….and yes, all I’m looking for is a qualifier – “I’m a good home cook” is fine, and very different from “I’m a cook”…and I should have said “refuses to butterfly an anchovy”….and yes, not knowing how to do something properly disqualifies you from assuming the title of someone who does….that’s why you will never hear me call myself a carpenter…and if I ever do,any competent carpenter is welcomed to call me on it.”

    Frankly, all these great comments are far more valuable than anything I or Pardus could say. thanks.

  • sheila

    I am a home cook, taught by old German and Italian ladies as a very young child, self-taught in my twenties with the help of Julia Child. While I was at home as a young mother I entertained a lot and mastered elaborate baking techniques – no boxed foods or bought bread ever darkened my door, and I made my own stocks and so on. But now I work long hours and while I would love to cook like Keller I know I don’t have time. I still put simple, healthy and well-made meals on the table each evening, using the techniques I have practiced for nearly 50 years. I have never butterflied an anchovy but I bet I could if I needed to.

    I read Keller like I read books on bonsai technique (another passion I don’t have time for) or lacemaking (ditto) – for information and inspiration, for the knowledge that others have taken techniques I know to a level I haven’t been to but might someday.

    I believe in craft and care in mastering it, and in respect for the materials and tools of that craft. Not all of us practice the craft of cooking at the same level, or can or ever will. But anyone who respects food, is thoughtful about choosing it and careful about preparing it, is a cook.

  • latenac

    I have always sort of preferred cook vs. chef. My husband who teaches choral music says he can teach anyone to sing. Anyone. But you need to be born with a certain something to be able to take it from merely learning to sing to the next level. In his teaching he doesn’t focus on trying to create geniuses he focuses on getting everyone to sing.

    You don’t buy a chef’s cookbook to learn how to cook you buy it to have insight into that genius. For some it will be merely food porn for others it will be a means of inspiring.

    If you need to learn to cook then you need to find the cookbooks that have the “everyone can cook” approach rather than the “insight into genius” approach. And hopefully you find the ones that teach technique, the basics and how actually to cook and read a recipe than a book that’s simply “500 meals in 30 minutes or less.” or other such “shortcut” approaches.

    Articles like Severson’s merely perpetuate the idea that cooking is hard and very time consuming and the average person can’t do it b/c cookbooks ask you to do things no home cook should ever have to do. I’d like to think chefs aren’t like the Japanese when it comes to learning their language – flattered that you would try but extremely satisfied when you fail.

  • Chris Walker

    See, I always thought it was okay to call yourself a cook, regardless of skill level, as long as you didn’t call yourself a chef. A chef being a professional, accredited (in some shape or form) craftsman, while a cook being anyone who, well, cooks with some kind of regularity.

    Pardus comes across rather vicious, but I’m sure his comments were made in the heat of the moment.

  • Chennette

    Half that article is about individual fears and phobias. Nothing really to do with the recipe generally. People shying away from a recipe because it involves exact timing? What kind of “good” cooks are they?
    I like where she mentions her friend and the wild boar and the recipes from Coyote Cafe: “They went unmade until her cooking skills improved and she had an epiphany: she could substitute.” Good thing her friend didn’t throw out the cookbook! There is still value in a “fussy” recipe if it can inspire, or educate, or help you improve your skills to the point where you can face the recipe head on and determine how obedient you want to be. Knowing, of course, that you won’t get the end result as depicted in the recipe.

    Are these the same people who complain when a chef’s recipe doesn’t yield the restaurant results? Once you decide you want that particular result, you can’t whine about the steps.

    I enjoy learning about the processes skilled and trained cooks use, whether or not I feel up to following it. And it’s not just professionals who have intricate recipes. There are some traditional recipes made by home cooks that have tonnes of steps, and individual cooking of components, made over several days. I can think of some Indian sweets like that. And still I’d dig in and make them with my mother, because there’s no way I’d accept a cardboard substitute.

  • sygyzy

    I could have sworn that I read that The French Laundry Cookbook’s recipes are “dumbed down” and adapted for the home cook. In fact, I am quite sure this is the case. I know for sure that (the upcoming) Alinea book is staying true to form.

  • Badger

    I’m always quick to identify myself as a HOME cook, because there is no way in the world I’m in the same league as the professionals (nor do I WANT to be, frankly — I’d last two SECONDS on the line, if that).

    The main reason I cook, beyond the no-brainer of having kids to feed, is because I love to eat. I am passionate about food, and I want what I cook to taste good above all else. I try to respect my ingredients by preparing whole, fresh, good-quality foods, but I don’t give a frack about technique except as a means to an end (the end being TASTE).

    Michael, you mentioned “cook smarter, not faster” and I agree, but I think you have to kind of ease the non-professionals into that a bit (speaking as an enthusiastic non-professional myself). Make it easy FIRST, then add in the smart bits. Food Network may pull people in, but eventually, one hopes, they’ll be ready to graduate from that and that’s where some of these cookbooks come in. I am never going to prepare anything from The French Laundry cookbook but I LOVE reading it. It inspires me, even if I’m not following the techniques and recipes exactly. (And I’m sure as hell not going to bitch that the recipes are too complicated for a home cook; I’ll just take what I want from them and quietly pass over the rest.)

  • milo

    Just to play devil’s advocate…

    If someone makes a meal without proper techniques and ingredients, and it ends up tasting just as good as the version made with proper techniques and ingredients, is the person any less of a good cook?

    To put it in even more crass terms, if person A makes brownies from scratch using the best ingredients, and person B opens a box of Duncan Hines, can you really fault person B?

    Michael, I’m curious, do you ever serve pasta with sauce from a jar to your family? I assume you must at least use dried pasta instead of making it fresh every time?

  • Maya

    Erika K brings up a good point, saying how she plays music in a community group. My Native American friends tell stories and sing songs passed down through the generations. They don’t obsess over who gets credit for writing the songs. Nobody should “own” a recipe. It’s like copyrighting food items.

    I was told that some native tribal folk play music and it is unbecoming to stand out as a “better” musician. All music players are supposed to compliment each other.

    I totally agree with Ruhlman about not “dumbing down” food. But again, what does that mean? To me it means mostly inauthenitc, canned ingredients. Pre-made.

    Either Tom Collichio or Anthony Bourdain said that (roughly translated) “Cooking is about pleasure and making people happy”. Well then, it should be a communal effort and great cooks should be willing to share.

    Local, fresh ingredients should be the basis for what we cook because they are healthy and delicious. The recipies will change over time depending on who’s cooking them, the home cook, restaurant cook, or whoever.

  • Ann

    everyone…i am online far too much today…first SE and the wine/server fussiness and now MR and this current debate…learning to cook correctly with proper techniques and ingredients definitely makes one a good cook…but society and especially Americans (i am one) are LAZY…not afraid to type it…(and older cooks in the south would call someone a lazy cook in a minute, because it’s so obvious) everyone wants easy and fast to look at a complex recipe and pooh, pooh it is just laziness to me…there are choices…to cook it or not…shortcuts are not for me and this is how i have taught my daughter to cook…i learned to cook from the old southern guard (mother, grandmother, great-grandmother) and there are no shortcuts, just great complex recipes…that only require a lot of love and attention to detail…

  • milo

    Dangit, the website ate my post. I guess I’ll do the short version.

    That article seems pretty valid to me, some recipes are fussier than people are willing to do, most people have a limit of what they’re willing to do, and I think Pardus is being a bit overly sensitive.

    Arguing about who gets to call themselves a cook is just semantics and comes off as snobby.

    There is validity in both the no compromise version of a recipe and the version that takes shortcuts but still turns out good. It’s great that chefs publish recipes just like the restaurant, but they shouldn’t be surprised when people reject them for simpler alternatives.

  • ErikaK

    Wow, some great comments.
    I thought the article was amusing as well. I like Maya’s comparison because I can relate to it. I love music, I have a MA in music, but chose not to pursue professionally. I play in community groups, so don’t get paid. I don’t practice as much as I should. But I’m still a musician.
    I love to cook and consider myself a cook. I cook for family and friends, so don’t get paid. I don’t practice as much as I should. But I am still a cook.
    Really the only deal breakers for me are things I don’t like that I have tried. Like tripe. Or the other deal breaker, the other people in my home that have to eat it. I would love to make cassoulet, but my husband is allergic to white beans. It’s not that I don’t want to spend 3 days making it, it’s that I don’t want to spend the next 3 weeks eating it by myself! The fact is, there is enough information out there (books, TV, websites) to be able to move from the “Betty Crocker home cook” to making artisanal bread and “restaurant cookbook” meals at home. It is all there for the cooks who want to practice.

  • Tim M

    This is an interesting debate. I don’t think “cooking” makes one a “cook”, nor does having a Viking range or all the latest kitchen gadgets. A cook–to me–is someone who enjoys the act of cooking, someone who has a passion for making great (or at least trying to make great) food. I use recipes as a learning tool, but they are never written in stone. They help me learn how to make a new dish or learn a new technique. However, when I make a dish from a recipe, I often have to make adjustments to ingredients. When I try something new, I take notes on what I did and how to improve it next time.

    Not everyone enjoys cooking. My wife’s idea of cooking is boiling water or heating a frozen dinner. She doesn’t understand why I enjoy anything more complicated than that. To her, chopping vegetables is a chore. To me it is relaxing and fun. When I decided to make gnocchi she couldn’t understand it. We had a bag of frozen gnocchi in the freezer! Why should I go through all that trouble? After she had it, she changed her mind.

    Cooking doesn’t have to be a chore, but it also doesn’t have to be complicated. There is a subtle difference between simple cooking and dumbed down cooking.

  • frenchtart

    this reminds me of something my neighbor told me the other day: “I don’t like Emeril’s recipes because he uses too many ingredients”. to which i replied, “Huh?”.

    she also adores Rachael Ray. which explains a lot.

  • Amy

    I have to agree w/ Savannah and Amber.

    However if one has a passion to cook…a passion to learn and practice new skills….How can that not make you (or anyone that matter) a cook?

    With those traits above…I would certainly hope that wouldn’t make the home cook “not” a cook much less a “shoemaker”.

  • radish

    I agree with Kim. I am a home cook. Most books are made for home cooks. We are the ones who buy the books. We put out a lot of meals a year and believe me, people are still eating at my house.I have tons of cookbooks. So a recipe turns me off? There are other recipes.

    We should not be too full of ourselves.

  • Dana McCauley

    I think Severson’s description is apt. There absolutely is a point where the benefit of the effort is not realized in the end result or where the effort diminishes your enjoyment in the final product.

    I’m a chef who is married to a very well regarded restaurateur/chef and we generally feel confident tackling any recipe. That said, I see chef preparations and efforts that I deem over wrought all the time.

    I can’t speak to Thomas Keller’s cooking but a good example that pops to mind is the episode of Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection TV show where he makes Peking Duck by removing skinning the bird, sewing it to a cooling rack and then ladling hot fat over the skin to make it crispy. I love crispy duck skin but life is just too freakin’ short for that nonsense.

  • Kate in the NW

    This is cool.
    I know you’re all dying to know what I think, so here it is… ;-)

    Was Picasso a shoemaker because he used different (inferior?) techniques from DaVinci? What about Pollack? Warhol? Are photographers inferior to painters or sculptors? Should we sneer in dirisive contempt at the struggles of a talented and inspired (but untrained) 10-year-old because their technique is not yet mature? I don’t know the answers to these questions.

    Look – I think cooking is an art. A lot of you guys here are f-ing BRILLIANT at what you do, which is why my budget gets blown every month by eating out.

    I’m also a pretty good “cook”. I feed my friends and family and lots of them enjoy meals at my house more that they do at your restaurants, no matter how talented you are. No offense. There’s a lot that goes into a good meal and the food is only part of it. Ask a bunch of chefs where they want to go for food on their night off, and it seems like a lot of them (including the above-and-often-cited-Mr.-Bourdain) will tell you “at my/somebody’s mom’s house.” Who probably doesn’t have setirling technique.

    Excruciatingly exquitie technique can be used in service to food, or it can be used to separate us from it. I’ve had gorgeous food that was…cold. Spiritually, not in temperature. I’ve had plates full of schlock that fed my very soul.

    If you like to paint-by-numbers, follow the recipe exactly, no questions asked. You might learn something – like fine technique, or maybe that food is a living, variable thing that requires special treatment – EVERY TIME. If the chef who wrote the recipe were next to you, $100 bucks says s/he would make variations depending on your specific ingredients, the humidity, your oven, etc. And yes, I know a lot of you will argue that great technique takes all that into account – I agree. But some people get all rigid about it, which (I think) misses the point.

    I’m one of those (horrible?) people who sees recipes as inspiration, as suggestion, but not as law. I want my food to be MY food – if I want YOUR food, I’ll go to your restaurant.

    That being said, I recently took a technique class because I recognized that my cooking was being limited by my lack of proper technique. Most of you would still have to get really drunk to endure watching me in the kitchen. But I’m getting better – and my food is still MY food, just better.

    I admire and envy those of you who have devoted your professional careers and/or spare time to mastering technique. I’m just not one of you – and I can’t help but look at my cooking and think that’s okay – there’s room for all of us to make good food and feed people. And there’s room for all of us to get better. Except maybe Keller. That guy is some sort of savant freak. In a very, very good way.

    Michael – have you ever considered making a series of VERY DETAILED “Technique for Idiots” DVD’s? Because some things even the best words and photos can’t convey – you have to see it happening. And not everyone lives somewhere they can attend a class.
    Just a thought. I’d buy them.

    Thanks again for fomenting discussiona and unrest. It’s enlightening and entertaining.

  • randal

    I dunno, Michael–while I can make mayonnaise from an egg, I generally don’t do it.

    We take the shortcuts that we must. If that means I make chicken noodle soup with canned chicken stock and chicken and fresh vegetables in half an hour instead of from scratch in two or three hours or from a can in two minutes, where does that fall on the continuum?

    I had a friend who was, among other things, a food writer, who had a dish he called “open three cans hurry to the ballet,” which was precisely what as described. It wasn’t fancy, but it took care of nutrition and taste. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have a great dislike of prepackaged foods, or refer to pre-ground pepper as “gunpowder.”

  • Kate F

    (For the record, I thought the article was amusing!)

    I just want to touch on what Michael said about the French Laundry cookbook being an accurate representation of the recipes used at the restaurant, rather than watered down versions designed not to scare the home cooks. I really appreciate the restaurant cookbooks that stay true to the originals. There are plenty of great cookbooks out there aimed at giving me quick or simple recipes. But if I eat at an amazing restaurant and then get a bee in my bonnet about wanting to emulate something I had there, I would be pretty bummed to end up with a simplistic imitation. No one forces you to buy the French Laundry cookbook and make Tuesday dinners out of it!

    As I have cooked my way through Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques cookbook I have learned so much about why the food in great restaurants tastes so amazing–three days of rubs or brines or whatever it is that leaves the meat so flavorful; tons of different spices and herbs, combined in ways I’d never think of… I save those recipes for dinner parties when I can devote plenty of time to preparation, but each time I pick up a new bit of culinary knowledge, and I don’t feel talked down to.

  • eriq

    I think Thomas Keller is getting a bad rap, here. I’m speaking more about the Bouchon cookbook than French Laundry, but the recipes I’ve done are not unreasonably difficult, and actually _work_.

    I’d done variations on “egg pies” before (which are great, mind you), and after reading Bouchon, I started making quiche. Quite a few. And they turned out perfectly. I had been given the impression that quiche (and custards generally) were very tricky. But these just worked.

    Same with pots de creme. Another custard, and the recipe just worked. My ice cream texture became better when I followed some of the techniques in his ice cream recipe (whisking egg yolks with sugar before tempering the eggs). (oh, look! another custard!)

    I know some of his recipes are beyond my skill and equipment level, but that doesn’t mean all of them are. And I know they’ll be there if those change.

    Thomas Keller has done good by me. I think this excerpt from The French Laundry intro does him justice:

    “But you won’t have a perfect [custard] if you merely follow my instructions. If you don’t feel it, it’s not a perfect custard, no matter how well you’ve executed the mechanics. On the other hand, if it’s not literally a perfect custard, but you have maintained a great feeling for it, then you have created a recipe perfectly because there was that passion behind what you did.”

  • amber

    i’d venture to guess that for most home cooks a recipe from keller or someone similar would stop them dead in their tracks. i know it would have done that to me just a year ago. hopefully, by continuing to expose people to upsides of using good foods and good technique, you’ll get some converts and more home cooks will be willing to try new things in the kitchen and not be so scared of possibly failing.

    personally, i like learning new things in the kitchen. i like learning new techniques — that “a-ha!” moment is priceless. but, i’m not cracking open TFL cookbook on a wednesday night when i’m home at 7 and need to have dinner on the table before 8. it’s just not happening. however, give me a free weekend and a chance to organize my grocery list in advance and i’m all over it!

    sure, there is a difference between home cooks and the professional cook, but to say that those of us making dinner every night for our families and friends (while balancing a host of other things) aren’t cooks, just seems a bit off.

  • amber

    i’d venture to guess that for most home cooks a recipe from keller or someone similar would stop them dead in their tracks. i know it would have done that to me just a year ago. hopefully, by continuing to expose people to upsides of using good foods and good technique, you’ll get some converts and more home cooks will be willing to try new things in the kitchen and not be so scared of possibly failing.

    personally, i like learning new things in the kitchen. i like learning new techniques — that “a-ha!” moment is priceless. but, i’m not cracking open TFL cookbook on a wednesday night when i’m home at 7 and need to have dinner on the table before 8. it’s just not happening. however, give me a free weekend and a chance to organize my grocery list in advance and i’m all over it!

    sure, there is a difference between home cooks and the professional cook, but to say that those of us making dinner every night for our families and friends (while balancing a host of other things) aren’t cooks, just seems a bit off.

  • Andy

    Interesting article. So what books would you recommended to learn the basic craft for the novice cook?

  • Claudia (the Original)

    Pardus is right to be irritated about the characterization of Keller as “fussy”, when, yes, he really is just the consummate craftsman that every professional chef seeks to emulate. But, yes, non-professionals who cook at home who might do so at a pretty high level (or certainly a lot higher than most people) are still cooks. HOME cooks. There’s the qualifier I think he was looking for (like “backyard gardener”).

    I think Severson exaggerated the point in her article (which was humorous, by the way) – SHE might not fry, truss or lard, but a lot of us do. And double-strain, even when we don’t have to, and chill our bowls first when making mousse (in a kitchen we’ve deliberately made sure is cold/cool, first), etc., etc. I think it gets down more to an issue of space and/or equipment than, say, an unwillingness to filet anchovies or truss a bird for most of us.

    PS: Ohhh . . . yeah . . . I DID haul most of a wild boar up five stories into a tiny studio apartment kitchen about 20 years ago. Let’s just say, between the schlepping across town (in a CAB – how many professionals have hauled whole carcasses back to the kitchen in a CAB?!!) and hauling upstairs and debristling some stray bristles . . . well, it’s just too painful to discuss any further . . . but maybe that’s why my lease wasn’t renewed . . . I wonder if Bill Buford got evicted for the same offense? (!!))

  • joelfinkle

    I consider myself a hacker cook — not a hack, but hacker as in the classical computer geek term. And not a cracker either — I’m not out to break security, I’m out to get to the hard of the problem and solve it.

    So I may take shortcuts — not strain a sauce, use commercial beef stock instead of homemade veal (at least I’ve upgraded from canned broth, and I just finally found enough veal bones to make stock — maybe this weekend if it’s not too hot). But I’m understanding what I’m cooking.

    What stops me from cooking a recipe? My fussy eaters. I’m the only one in the house that will touch fish, for one. I only get to cook it when there’s a dinner party with multiple main courses. Items such as aspics and offal I’m not fond of the flavors and textures, so I just bleep over them (like Linus reading Tolstoy).

    But I never shirk from trying a technique at least once. I’m getting pretty good at my knife skills, my grilling, pan roasting; I need some work at sauce reduction, but I’m learning and enjoying. Sometimes, I say, “that wasn’t worth it” and I don’t do it often again, maybe save it up for a holiday.

    Between reading “Elements” and my practice, I can follow and often predict what TV chefs will do next, which is kind of cool on Iron Chef (it was especially cool to know that Mario Batali was making a Dolsot Bibimbap even if he never called it that).

  • ruhlman

    i’m not going to get into the terminology dispute (and i like maya’s distinctions).

    but to randal and others who will surely weigh in, what i believe is this: America is too focused on making cooking easier. What it should focus on is making cooking smarter. we all should work on being smarter cooks. As the talented chef Eric Ziebold often said, “Don’t work faster, work smarter.” That’s where ease and quickness originate, not in dumbed down recipes.

    I cook almost every day for my family and shop at a family run grocery store in my neighborhood. The food is simple and fresh. I spend an hour preparing dinner when i have the time, and usually combine that hour with talking with my wife and watching the news. I use a couple pots and pans, a couple knives a couple spoons. The four of us eat together, even though the 13-yr-old thinks this is somehow onerous.

    pedro, not a blog post, but maybe a book!

  • evil chef mom

    I have to agree with Maya, everyone in some form or another cooks but there is a difference. I did notice though when I made gelato the other day, I strained the cherry puree I was using, the recipe didn’t call for me do it. Is it fussy, probably. Did it make a better product, yes. Does it make me a better home cook , yes. I’d rather do a recipe correctly than easily. I will never be a professionally trained chef but because I know how to do X, Y, and Z, I become better at my hobby and a lot more educated at the same time and better yet I now understand why some recipes have failed in the past.

  • randal

    Sorry, Michael–that’s a steaming load, akin to saying that someone can’t be a cook if he or she doesn’t wear the right hat. (But there’s a reason we wear those hats!)

    If you want to argue that someone is a good or bad cook based on technique, fine. Be my guest. But suggesting that I and hundreds of others aren’t cooks at all because we don’t properly violate our chicken before we cook it, or don’t have a taste for camel genitals, or haven’t personally slaughtered their own pig, or are vegans (by your definition vegans can NEVER be cooks, and while I’m not a vegan I’m not so mighty as to suggest that they’re somehow unworthy of the title), is the height of pretension.

    Come down from your ivory tower and hit the grocery store with the working class, where the issue of fois gras isn’t about its cruelty and sustainability vis-a-vis other foods, but that it’s an extravance for the wasteful Bourgeoisie. We eat, too, and the folks preparing our food are every bit as deserving of the title “cook” as Keller is, based on what we do every single day to feed ourselves.

  • Savannah

    It looks like American food culture is going through some growing pains.

    Chef Pardus has thrown down by saying that anyone who can’t butterfly an anchovy (they’re big enough to be butterflied!?) should use a qualifier before calling themselves a cook. And then giving insulting, obviously pejorative examples like “armchair quarterback.”

    To understand where he’s coming from, though, I suggest everyone read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” again. Read the part where he decides to go pro, to commit his life to this field. If I remember correctly, it involves a vow to “let bucket-headed French chefs abuse me.” Basically, he says there’s no limit to what he will go through. All so that he can become quite the opposite of a home cook; someone who can butterfly an anchovy.

    After the intense sacrifices people make to develop those skills, you bet they’re going to be proud and defensive, and get angry when outsiders make complaints that show ignorance of technique. John, I would argue that elitism has nothing to do with that kind of anger. Chefs work like dogs for years to acquire their skills. If you’ve mastered a body of knowledge by putting in 12-hour days on your feet in 130-degree kitchens for twenty years, I feel you have a right to be proud and even defensive of your skills.


    We also cook who only cook at home. And the professionals who suffered to gain their skills should be *more* understanding, not less, of the pressures home cooks are under. Yes, we do lack “basic skills.” As Ruhlman points out, we lack even the knowledge *that* we lack basic skills. We lack time, too, and resources. But we’re under the gun to compete with easily-available alternatives nonetheless.

    And some of us do, rather innocently, fall in love with food without *quite* understanding how big the gap really is between us and the people who not only make it look easy on TV, but very often *tell us* it is easy. When we crack a really serious cookbook and discover that, actually, it’s *not* easy, and we complain, and those same people (metaphorically) yell at us, it hurts.

    But I understand that it hurts the chefs too.

    One of the things AB says in “Kitchen Confidential” is that being a pro cook–in the early days of his career, at least–was a life entirely apart. Almost like being a monk. Outsiders didn’t understand–couldn’t understand–and the cooks liked it that way. The two worlds didn’t meet and weren’t supposed to. In fact, as AB tells it, most line cooks got into the business precisely in order to get away from the normal world and never encounter it again.

    Maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe the two sides aren’t meant to understand each other or try to cross over. Maybe these name cookbooks are making things worse. Maybe.

  • rockandroller

    I agree with points both John and Maya have made. I think it’s elitist to insist that unless you can do X, Y and Z you are not a cook – Maya’s musician example illustrates this well (garage band vs. classically trained). Is Pat Benetar (not a fan, just using her as an example) not a “real” singer because she sings rock and roll? What if you were to find out that she was trained as a classical opera singer (true). Is she a musician NOW?

    I think there is a line between professional cook and everyone else that cooks, but saying you’re not a cook if you can’t do X, Y and Z is annoying.

  • Tricia

    Hey! Calm down. Pardus makes it all sound so black and white: If you can’t/won’t/don’t butterfly an anchovy you’re not a good cook? Nah. Maybe you’re a good cook in a cuisine or a style that doesn’t use that technique or it doesn’t interest you. Maybe you’re a good home cook who doesn’t use anchovies. (There’s that qualifier he’s looking for. Though, instead of a qualifier, he seems to be looking for a “diminisher.”) I cook seven meals a week. There’s little chance I’m going to master every technique in my lifetime at that rate, so there are going to be some that aren’t worth my time. And that might include trussing, larding, and butterflying anchovies.

    There’s an awful lot of room between “makes own veak stock” and “not a cook.”

  • Pedro

    “Those are the people who most need to learn the few basic techniques upon which all cooking is based. Those who cook for pleasure won’t progress as cooks until they do that as well. It wouldn’t take long. There are just a handful of them.”

    Hmmm. Would you name them? Perhaps it’s a good subject for a full blown post, “Basic Techniques upon which All Cooking is based.”

  • the Gobbler

    What I dont get about people who complain about recipes being too hard or fussy is they ignore the fact that they are first & foremost someone else’s expression. They are the way they and simplifying them just because one might find them too laborious or technically challenging just dilutes their intent. Its also adding insult to injury to then complain that the recipe was too difficult to reproduce at home-my advice, dont try to!
    Just because a restaurant MUST cater to the needs of the customer & at times this might mean changing a dish etc it dosn’t mean that the chef has to do it in a recipe for their book. In this way, cook books are almost the purest form of the intent of the recipe, perhaps more so than actually eating it in the restaurant environment?

  • drago

    John – I think that the difference between you and the subject of ire is that you probably know HOW to do many of those things, you just usually choose not to. Choosing to buy stock most of the time is different than just completely refusing to learn how to properly make one.

    I’ve never spit-roasted a whole pig but give me a whole Saturday, a spit, and a pig (and maybe some beer) and I could probably wing it.

    Severson’s article has popped up all over the web in the past day and a lot of the responses seem to be people agreeing that there are certain tasks that they absolutely refuse to do. In my opinion there’s a difference between that and simply saying that certain cooking tasks are not well-suited for, say, a Tuesday evening.

  • John

    So, the consensus is that if you don’t want to plunge headlong into the most difficult and bizzare forms of food prep, you aren’t a cook? WTF? I’ll match chops with just about anyone who isn’t a full-time working PROFESSIONAL, but I won’t try to spit-roast a whole pig, or emulate Fernan Adria and convert my kitchen to a mol-gas lab, does that mean that when I provide a meal for 24 on 4 hours notice,I’m not to refer to myself as a cook? (Roast chicken with 4 sauces, steamed new potatoes, salad, and I bought a cake.)
    And many recipes aren’t useable as written. Period.
    If I have to rebuild the author’s food dream from scratch, then why use a recipe? While I will yearn for the day I get to eat at Per Se or French Laundry, the recipes are so, yes, “fussy” that I can’t see producing most of them them myself. Just like some restaurants are steakhouses, and others are French provincial, I’m not everything to everybody. It’s not always about “can I do it” it’s more like, “do I want to?” Do I want to make veal stock, or play with my kids? I’ll buy the veal stock, thanks. Does that make me not a cook? Or should I refer to myself as a “sort-of” cook?
    Sorry, elitism brings out the worst in me. You want to push people AWAY from making their food better? Keep it up, guys.

  • Maya

    My bachelor’s degree happens to be in classical music,and I play violin, so I have an opinion on the linguistics of the music analogy. Anyone can call themselves a musician. I won’t ever whine about who calls themselves a musician! That’s just childish.

    The way we define ourselves as musicians is what we do specifically. Just a theoretical example:

    “I’m a cello player, and I have spent 9 years years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra”. Versus “I started playing guitar 6 months ago and I play with my friend’s garage band from time to time”.

    Same with cooks. Anyone should be able to call themselves a cook because like music, it’s been done since the time of cavemen, most likely.

    “I’ve been a cook for Mesa Grill in New York City for 7 years” is a lot more specific thank “I’m a cook”. It allows people to make their own judgements based on facts.

  • Russ

    Chopsticks or Beethoven’s Ninth…. it still comes down to knowing what notes to play when and with what intensity. The nuance of sound or the subtlety of taste both come from understanding and not by accident.