Principles and Prescriptions
Five Rules for Good Cooking
I’m terrible at beginnings. I think it comes from my impulse to jump into things, break them and try to put them together half way through. Such is the story of my cooking career, and the approach I’ve taken to countless recipes, methods of preparation, and in may ways life in general.
Through thousands of covers, over what feels like a lifetime of dinner, lunch and brunch services, I’ve compiled my principles, for better or worse, that as a professional cook, and now a home cook, I’ve let guide my kitchen career. Call it my working manifesto. It’s been tailored to a home kitchen setting, and applies to all skill sets.
Good cooking impacts the two most valuable resources we possess. Time, and our physical self. The care with which I cook goes hand and hand with the care, and respect I hold not only for my body, and soul, but for that of the people I cook for, namely my wife. Good cooking can be as simple as preparing a meal for your children and your spouse, however, to me, it’s an expression of everything that makes us human. It sustains us, it conveys our deepest and most intimate feelings.
Still not a believer? Try cooking dinner for a loved one after an argument.
So here we go, our principles for learning how to be better cooks, and ultimately better people.
1.) Thou shalt not be afraid to fuck up.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way now. You’re going to screw up, probably more than twice. Guess what, that’s okay. Take a moment as you’re reading this and close your eyes. We’re gonna catch a vibe together and meditate for a moment.
Take three deep breaths.
In through your nose out through your mouth.
Think about the first time you got on a bike without training wheels. What happened? Maybe your mom or dad was there pushing you along. Maybe you feet slipped from the pedals, and you caught yourself before eating it in the driveway. Maybe your feet didn’t catch you and you skinned your knee. MAYBE, your rolled out into the street and were hit by an on coming car, and by some miracle of quantum mechanics, are now reading this from a parallel universe. Or what’s most likely, after a few turns of the pedals, the world didn’t end and you were riding your bike, trying to remember to steer away from the bushes at the end of your driveway. The good thing about cooking is regardless of how you start, the fact THAT YOU START, is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if your first four meals suck, eventually, if you keep cooking, the next four won’t. My friend, and fellow chef, Alex Patout likes to say “the first thousand don’t count.” Don’t make excuses, don’t be too “busy.” Busy is a choice made by lazy people. (Yeah I said it.) This will be scary, with a chaser of adrenaline, especially when you don’t have a recipe to hide behind, BUT, when people are grateful and enjoy the meal you prepared, YOU WON’T HAVE A RECIPE TO HIDE BEHIND.
2.) “Mise en place is its own reward.”
In his book, “The Practice” Seth Godin says, “Seeing the tools and ingredients, ready to go, prepared with care, opens the door for intentional action.” Intentional action is the lynchpin (that’s a Seth Godin joke), that will cure you of the fear you’re conquering ala numero uno. I can’t say this enough, so I won’t stop; we cook for many reasons. Sustaining our bodies, minds and souls as well as the minds, bodies, and souls of those around us. Bearing that in mind, you should be prepared to act intentionally. Shop with intention, buy quality ingredients, as Simon Sinek would say, know your why.
I’m tempted to ask you to meditate again.
Mise en place, translated from the Gospel of Anthony Bourdain, means simply to put things in their place. Organize your workspace, enjoy your workspace. If you’re creative or you know HUMAN, you should know exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t be afraid to put on some music, open a bottle of wine, or if you’re sober like me, feel free to indulge in a virgin White Claw with some fresh fruit juice. Mise en place, also applies to the non-physical elements of cooking. Organize your thoughts, clear the junk out of your head that applies to anything other than what you’re doing. It’s been scientifically proven that we can’t multi-task effectively, and trust me, cooking this way will go a long way towards ensuring that you don’t burn your house down, smoke out your apartment or try to blame me for those circumstances in any way.
3.) Have fun, make good art
My favorite definition of art reads, “a diverse range of human activities, involving the conscious use of creative imagination to express technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptual ideas.”
I have a friend who refers to my cooking as art. He’s not talking about the composed plate. He’s referring to the way with which I go about the process. You see to me, going all the way back to the beginning of my career, cooking was always fun. Even on the worst days, fighting a savage hangover on my umpteenth double shift in a row, the act of cooking was always fun. When it stopped being fun I untied my apron strings and walked away. Truth be told I didn’t cook anything of value or worth consuming, for a long time after that day. Ask my wife, she suffered through that psychological drought nearly as much as I did. There may or may not have been fish sticks in our freezer. I don’t really want to talk about it.
I didn’t start cooking in earnest, with any kind of regularity, again until a global pandemic brought me to the unemployment line and I found myself with a glut of time and nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no more excuses. Through time spent reconnecting with my love of the act of cooking, I was able to transcend the scutwork, and break through the mental glass ceiling I had constructed. Instead of the perceived burden required to sustain my family and myself, the love and intention with which I was preparing our meals, with the outside world on fire, was a refuge from unrelenting news cycle and perpetual fear of an invisible force. Slowly, like light creeping over the horizon, familiarity replaced fear. Cooking was fun again.
4.) It’s important to have rules so we can break them.
We’re going to throw an wrench into the works. You can follow what I do to the letter, and for the most part you will enjoy palatable, fulfilling meals. That being said, my way isn’t the only way. Not by a long shot. You do however, need rules, and guidelines, so you can break them.
I have a tattoo on my left hand that read’s “Rauxa.” The Catalan value for reckless. On my right forearm, I have the counterpart “Seny,” the Catalan value for grounded. Michelin three star rated chef Farran Adria, born in Catalonia, Spain, displayed the these values at what was at one time considered the best restaurant in the world, El Bulli. In the celebrated history of their restaurant they redefined what cooking means, never repeating a single dish in the entirety of their history. The work at El Bulli registered a max reading on the richter scale of the culinary arena, the aftershocks of which can still be felt today. The techniques they developed, or the rules they broke would not have been possible without a solid foundation to lean upon. Their world was about balance, and so to can yours be. It may sound like a broken record but this speaks to #1, don’t be scared.
(Side note: You want to be cool at your next appropriately distanced social event? Refer to your cooking as three star, your friends may think you’re being humble but your fellow culinary cohort will know you’re referring to the highest honor the culinary world can bestow upon a chef, THREE Michelin stars. If you’re afraid of sounding arrogant referring to your buffalo chicken dip or whatever you happen to make, in this manner, good, you’re embracing the mindset. Just don’t over do it.)
(You thought it was going to be “4” didn’t you? Remember, we have rules so we can break them. Fear not I’ll be here to constantly remind you, and prod you along the way.)
Keep cooking. Even if you burn your house down, which will not be my fault. Grab a few steaks and cook them caveman style on the embers. Don’t give in to the temptations of fast food, or worse commercial grade pre-made meals. One of my favorite sounds in the world is the tone of Mike Ness, of Social Distortion’s guitar. He has a vaguely country, punk snarl that when it hits the right knows, socks me in the feels and brings a tear to my eye. There is no difference between that guitar note, and the food you’re capable of producing, with PRACTICE. Had Mike Ness given up at the first missed note all those years ago when he was learning to play the guitar, it would have robbed future me of one of the most intimate and joy inducing feelings I know. Don’t give up, keep cooking.