6 Principles That Will Make You A Better Cook
It was already 9:00 PM, and everybody was starving. The food was nowhere near ready. I was doomed. The kitchen was a nightmare, and 15 hungry people waited patiently, and I was still cutting vegetables. I’d bitten off more than I could chew again. Isn’t cooking meant to be fun? I didn’t even have a single plate ready to act as an appetizer and to make it worse, there were chefs among the crowd. I could tell they were roasting me internally. I was roasting myself. What the fuck happened?
It was nearly 10:00 PM before anybody got a decent bite of food — what a disaster. I swore I’d never cook for people again.
Okay, so that never happened; I made that up. But that’s not far off how it goes for most people that cook for a crowd. It’s easy to underestimate the work involved and the skill required to pull it off, and everybody eats a less-than-stellar meal far later than expected. Have you tried to sleep after a 10:00 PM lasagne? It’s not a fun time.
I did actually cook a Thai-style feast for 15 people by myself that day, and it was a hit. Everything was delicious, and we ate at a reasonable time. A hung lay curry; a smoked, grilled mushroom nam tok; grilled chicken; braised eggplant; salad; and rice. But it was only as good as it was because of a few principles I decided to apply a long time ago.
I’m not talking about “tips” or advice here like ‘salt your meat in advance.’ If you’re reading this, you probably already know that, and if not, I’ve written another article that covers that.
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I’m mean the fundamental techniques and habits you stick with after being in the industry for a while.
I was lucky enough to grow up with constant access to a commercial kitchen. My stepdad was a chef, and I’d often work alongside him, learning the tricks of the trade while I was at it. I spent most of my 20s in a very similar environment. I got to travel a lot and was in and out of just about every position in hospitality — cook, barista, bartender, waiter, pretty much all of them — and welcomed all the lessons along the way. And there were a lot of them.
But some of the most profound teachings didn’t come in the form of lessons or advice at all. They came as realizations after failures. Some so bad they still make me cringe. Like the time I thought I’d hand make noodles for the first time on Valentine’s day for my now-wife a few years ago and ending up serving the worst noodles of my life. Utterly inedible and profoundly embarrassing. In the end, we just laughed about it, but I still vividly remember that profound feeling of discouragement.
But if you’re somebody that cares even the slightest about cooking, and more importantly, being a better cook, these principles should guide you on the right path. You may have already heard them, but sometimes we all need a little reminder. After all, we’re often great at giving advice and never practicing it ourselves.
Define why you want to be a better cook
I know that sounds fluffy, but it has merit. Ask yourself why you even want to be a better cook in the first place because the reason matters. If your reason is to start a business doing pop-up dinners, your journey will be quite different to somebody who wants to be a recipe developer for a food publication. Depending on what your goal is, you may require specific skills or knowledge to pull it off.
Pick a cuisine that will be your consistent influence/inspiration
No cook is a true jack-of-all-trades that can cook whatever they want and have it turn out amazing. Everybody needs a baseline. Just as every talented musician draws inspiration from one music style more than others, cooks too draw from a particular cuisine for inspiration.
I, for example, undoubtedly use Thai cuisine as my influence. I pack my food with bright flavors and spice, and I go through absurd amounts of fish sauce. But that’s not to say that my food is “Thai.” It’s not, because I’m not Thai and I don’t even live there. I haven’t even been to Thailand since 2011. I just love the flavors, techniques, and culture (what I experienced of it). My food is just Thai-influenced, and you know what? That’s how I like it.
Try diving into one cuisine but don’t box yourself in with it. Play with techniques and flavors from all over the world, but remember your baseline. Think of that one cuisine that ignited your passion for cooking in the first place — because every aspiring cook has one.
Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance
I can’t stress the six P’s enough. By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail. Period. There’s a reason that mise en place is one of the first things drilled into every cook in the industry. Mise en place is French for everything in its place, and while a lot of people claim they already know that, very few remember it in the kitchen at home.
Not being prepared leads to rushing. Rushing leads to cutting corners, and cutting corners (typically) leads to a shittier meal.
If you’re winging it, play off of your strengths and stick to what you know
The point of this article is to teach you what you need to know to be able to rely less on cookbooks and go with the flow, but having said that, making shit up on the spot usually doesn’t lead to the best meal.
Take my noodle disaster as the perfect reminder of this. I tried something completely new and blew it when I wanted to look cool and capable. I should have just cooked a meal I knew well and had it come out as it always does — tasty.
Inventing meals on the spot is best kept for when you’re by yourself or if you and your group don’t care if the meal potentially flops.
Salt, fat, acid, heat
Something so small but so rewarding is cooking for people and not seeing anybody add salt to their meal. I love that shit. It means I seasoned everything correctly, as I should. It means the food is excellent the way it is.
If you haven’t watched the documentary salt, fat, acid, heat by Samin Nosrat, you should. It’s a great crash course on the four pillars of cooking. No matter the cuisine, these four pillars make or break a meal. Salt and acid enhance, fat satiates and adds richness and body, and heat (while obvious) gives us things like the Maillard reaction. But try to think about heat where you don’t typically use it. Grilled peaches in a salad are a good example of an uncommon application of heat.
You’re not tasting enough
As Mark Manson brilliantly put it once, “No matter where you go, there’s a five-hundred-pound load of shit waiting for you.” Spending 45+ minutes cooking something that ends up boring is that shit.
I used to be a major culprit of this. I wouldn’t taste a single bit of my food until I sat down at the table, only to realize that it was bland, or there wasn’t enough salt, or there was no umami.
So the key message is: if you think you are tasting enough, taste more. Get into the habit of tasting every single ingredient on its own. Did you buy your vegetables from a different market? They probably taste different from the last batch. Food is a living thing which means it’s not consistent.
After a while, these principles will become habits, and before you know it, your efforts will be rewarded with delicious food that people can’t get enough of. Delicious food that you probably didn’t even think you were capable of cooking.
The journey to being a kickass cook is a long one, but these principles will be your roadmap. They’ve been my constant reminder of what it takes to cook great food, and they’ll be yours too. I owe the cook I am today to these principles.
But most importantly, keep at it. You’re going fuck up. You’re going to cook countless lousy meals. But, with every lackluster meal comes a lesson, and with every recipe, a story.
Good luck and buen provecho!