THE BLOG

How (Not) to Learn to Cook

07/29/2013 11:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2013
  • Victor Udoewa Science and technology policy adviser; Education specialist

Three years ago I conducted a cooking experiment for a year and a half. Each week I invited a bunch of people from various circles to a community dinner. I strategically chose people from different backgrounds and experiences with different ideologies, and I took a half-day off, to prepare. I cooked meals for groups as small as four and as large as 22 people, depending on people's availability. And every week, all previous dinner guests were implicitly invited for ever, while I sent explicit invitations to new guests who had never attended.

Needless to say, cooking a bunch of dishes each week for a big group teaches you a few things about cooking. I'd like to say that my skills improved over the year. But I'll let you take a look at the lessons I learned. Then you can decide.

1. Put pressure on yourself by cooking for large dinner parties with food critics - If you want to learn how to cook, practice by cooking for yourself. No pressure and no problem if there's no taste. But if you have more guts like me, invite 20 friends and include some food critics so that when people get sick, you're sure to see a write-up in the newspaper.

2. Come home from the store just before your guests arrive - If you want to learn how to cook, give yourself time to experiment and explore the food. But if you love pressure like I do, wait until the last minute so that people arrive while you're still cooking. Some of you laugh, but the nice side effect is that you can assign cooking tasks to your guests. The great thing about this is when the food turns out great, you take the credit. If it turns out badly, blame the person you assigned for that dish. That's what I did.

3. Never cook the same thing twice - The quickest way to improve your ability to cook a dish is to cook it again. But who wants the quick route to success? Instead I sent an email to all guests who sent an RSVP for the week. I asked them to vote on which cuisine or theme they prefered. Each week was different: Persian, Peruvian, Ethiopian, Greek, Jamaican, Vegan Mexican (yeah, it's true), fruit-used-in-every-dish, etc. Every week, I served dishes I cooked for the first time! You should try it.

4. Cook several dishes from scratch - After the guests chose the cuisine, like Indonesian, for example, I cooked at least one bread, at least one soup, at least one salad, several main dishes, and at least one dessert in that cuisine style or from that culture. So I often mixed baking (slow baking) with cooking, and since I came home late from the store, I usually had three hours to cook from scratch several foreign dishes that required five hours to two days of preparation. What a rush! There's no excitement when you cook one dish and use pre-mixed or pre-packaged ingredients for other dishes.

5. Always say a prayer before eating - For some reason mentioning the fact that other people don't have food and that we should just be thankful for sustenance, makes the food taste better. Praying that you're "so thankful because most people who come for dinner never come back," really lowers expectations. You can either focus on improving your cooking or your prayer. I worked on the prayer.

6. If an accident happens while cooking, ignore it - Once, I used the blender on some vegetables to create a tomatillo sauce for vegan burritos. For some reason the plastic or glass top of the blender broke. I cleaned it up and continued blending by using a plate to close the top of the blender. I thought the glass top only broke in even pieces which I threw away. I didn't discover that small pieces of glass fell into the sauce mixture which I poured on the vegan burritos until people started pulling out pieces of glass from their teeth. One guest was appalled. Another laughed. My roommate just said "You know, if you ignore the glass, it actually tastes good."

All in all it was a good experiment. I learned how to cook a variety of breads, soups of varying bases, salads, main dishes, and different desserts. But because I didn't repeat a dish I don't remember any of it. Sure, the best way to learn to cook is to focus on one dish cooked for yourself with no pressure. It's true you get to experiment and explore varying spices without worrying if it tastes bad for guests. But then again, how many of you can claim to have a roommate who ate glassed vegan burritos and still took it to work the next day for lunch?