I will summarise my own experiences, and offer tips from the insights I have gained in my 16 years as a cook and chef.
Through my own learning path as a chef, I have always thought that the art of cooking is more about knowing ingredients, combinations, techniques and cultural flavours, than knowing a library of recipes.
Once you know the basics, and start to learn to ‘sense’ when ratios are right, and how ingredients respond to different cooking techniques and combinations, you can start to play, and create in a ready steady cook fashion from any store cupboard.
Like with most arts, the only way of attaining this is practice, practice, practice, and cultivating awareness with all of your senses. Smell can come to the rescue when a cake is about to burn, sight can tell you if a bread dough is wrong, touch can reveal ingredients quality and dish consistency, and of course smell and taste are used all the time. Useful also is a sense of temperature, and listening, again capable of frequently rescuing many an impending disaster.
So my challenge is, how to condense this into a learning process that is accessible and deliverable in a short period of time. This is now one of my many missions…
I think the obvious starting place is enthusiasm for good food. This can be enticed, but not forced. My approach with troubled youth with poor food cultures was to start with what they were familiar with, make it from scratch, and bring them in slowly. Very soon I had Batemoor lads eating dahl (lentils!) rice chutney and… salad.
Combining food with enterprise is another good way of bringing in those who would otherwise stand no chance of gaining access to knowledge of good food.
Educating about world food culture is paramount for me – in such a multicultural society, food is the one sure thing that can bring people together.
In my career as a manager, the biggest lesson I have learnt, is that attitude is very nearly everything in developing competence as a cook.
Then there’s the ingredients. Getting good ingredients helps you to quickly love good food, and there’s no going back! You simply feel better, more alive, and realise how rubbish so much of today’s so called food actually is.
This leads nicely on to another perspective: Ethics and sustainability: By supporting sustainable food producers, we not only eater better for less*, we support the sustainability and regeneration of our planet. Which also interconnects with the first perspective – educating people on the effects of their eating habits.
Then of course there’s the actual skill of cooking. In a work context it’s about creating a highly organised space where people are given the right tasks, in an environment which allows them to learn their own culinary insights at their own pace, with as much supporting knowledge and guidance as is necessary.
In a self learning context, my first tip is to, from the outset, be consciously as tidy and organised as you can be. By forcing this on yourself, you will free up your creativity – trust me, it took me a fair while to learn that one, and it’s been a powerful tool in my overall development. It’s not simply about good hygiene, which is essential, it’s about ‘tidy space tidy mind’, and allowing yourself more room to maneuver in the moment when it all (hopefully!) comes together. Being tidy ultimately enables you to enjoy cooking.
Then I would say, yes get a load of recipe books and ingredients, but don’t worry about following the recipes to the letter, or substituting ingredients with what you have available.
And play. Experiment. Observe.
At first I used to put everything, or a lot, in one dish. Over time I learnt that simplicity of the right combinations, cooked a certain way, created some damn tasty food!
Don’t feel you always need to cook a gourmet meal – cooking simple dishes well (like when you’re hungry and tired at home) can teach you loads about the effects of different cooking techniques without having to undertake a tactical operation.
Another tip I wish I’d done myself earlier, is to document or journal your cooking , as you will undoubtedly stumble upon some fantastic accidents that taste amazing, and you will most likely not remember everything.
Cooking has a sneaky way of pushing self development as a side effect of the learning. You need to cultivate mindfulness, memory, concentration, multi-tasking, timing, dexterity, tidyness, awareness, observation, tactics, game plan etc
Also, as I said food has a very strong social element, and this is another obvious tip – involve others, whether as guests, or sources of ideas and inspiration. Gaining feedback is the surest way to grow in any skill.
Finally for now, cultural festivals are a great way to learn a range of dishes, whether it’s tasting them or cooking them!
I came across a concept that I love called Framework Cooking, which fits neatly next to my own philosophy towards cooking, recipes and teaching/learning. I will briefly summarise Framework cooking, developed by Kum Ng, a Chinese chef based in the USA.
His observation in his learning path were that Chinese chefs were capable of producing menus with hundreds of dishes, with no recipe book in sight.
He condensed their learning and his insights into a book titled Framework Cooking, where he lays out a multi-perspective model bringing together: Chinese culinary knowledge, ingredient & recipe properties, cooking techniques and their effects on the food, ethical sourcing, food hygiene & safety, and the cultural context of the ingredients and recipes.
I will soon post a detailed review of the book, which is highly interesting.
* Although organic food can be expensive in supermarkets and some health food stores, if more direct links are made with local producers, such as CSA’s like Hazlehurst CSA in Sheffield, then you will find your food costs decrease.