Today my cookbook SECRETS OF THE BEST CHEFS arrives on shelves all around the country. As a self-taught but enthusiastic home cook (aka: The Amateur Gourmet), I spent a year cooking with 50 of the nation's best chefs -- from Alice Waters to Josￃﾩ Andrￃﾩs, Lidia Bastianich to Tom Douglas -- in order to improve my game in the kitchen. Needless to say, after crossing 11 cities and logging hours upon hours at the stove with these culinary giants, then testing and adapting over 150 of their recipes at home, I became a much better cook. I think my book, when you read it, will do the same for you.
As you prepare to read the copy you'll be buying today (MIND CONTROL), here are 10 quick ways for you to become a better cook based on my experiences creating this book. Start here, then cook your way through the recipes, and chances are you'll be wowing your loved ones with food that you can't believe you made yourself. Trust me: if I can do it, you can do it too.
Make What You Like. Too often people who don't cook finally set out to make dinner and choose the healthiest, most punishing recipe imaginable because they're on a diet or squeamish about making something with fat (how else are boneless, skinless chicken breasts so popular?) This is totally the wrong way to go about it. When you cook, especially if you're a beginner, you should make things that are over the top delicious. Extra cheesy lasagna. Balsamic-glazed spareribs (one of the recipes in my book). Dark, decadent chocolate cake. When you make food that pleases you, chances are it will please others and the ensuing praise will make you want to cook again. And next time you cook, you can scale back a little on the fat without making the food punishing. The key, though, is making something that you yourself want to eat. All of the chefs I cooked with made food that they themselves loved. That's not a coincidence.
Tap Into Your Roots. America is a melting pot and it's easy to divorce ourselves from our cultural heritage when we choose what to eat. Who can blame us, with so many cuisines represented in the mall food court alone? But sometimes it's important to study your own personal heritage in order to discover your inner chef. Lidia Bastianich cooks Italian food not because it's a gimmick or because Italian food is trendy; she cooks it because she's so deeply connected to her roots. Same for so many other chefs in my book. If you're looking for a place to start, think about your own family's history and how you can pay tribute to that on the plate.
Use The Right Tools. Celebrated San Francisco chef Gary Danko told me that, "the right tool can save you a lot of time." That's undeniably true, especially when it comes to the most basic techniques: chopping, sautￃﾩing, flipping something over in the pan. Start with your knife. According to Harold Dieterle (winner of Top Chef season one), beginners should use a German knife, more advanced cooks a Japanese knife. Sharpen your knife the way that Susan Feniger taught me; then steel your knife like Sara Moulton. A sharp knife is probably the most essential tool you can have in the kitchen. Once you experience a properly sharpened knife, you'll understand, on a deeper level, how important it is to use the correct tool for all your kitchen tasks.
Spend More Than You Normally Would on Food. Many of you might balk at this ("In this economy? I've got eight kids to feed!") and I understand your resistance to this advice. But it's undeniable that the best chefs use the best ingredients. Often times, much of what they do is more a matter of shopping than it is actual cooking (see Nancy Silverton's salad of Prosciutto San Daniele, Warren pear, pomegranate seeds and the very best olive oil). Now when I shop for ingredients, I consider it a special indulgence to buy something a little bit nicer than I would normally buy. Think of it as a not-so-terrible vice: some people do recreational drugs. Others spend a small fortune on video game consoles. Is it really so terrible to spend an extra $15 on really good olive oil? Or the best balsamic vinegar? The difference it brings to your cooking will be huge.
Be Bold. When people ask how my cooking changed after writing this book, I have a fast answer: "It became bolder." That's because chefs, by nature, take food right to the edge: when they brown butter (like Samin Nosrat did for her butternut squash tortellini), they take it just to the point before it's burned; when they add salt to something, they add more salt than you or I would, but not so much that it tastes salty. They know that point where just a drop more would be too much and stop there. Learning that art is probably the biggest skill you can develop to make your food taste more like restaurant food.
Think Visually. When Chuy Valencia in Chicago makes a tamale, he opens up the wrapper and tops it with a squiggle of tomatillo salsa, a squiggle of sour cream, slices of red radish and a sprinkling of cilantro. When Daniel Patterson at San Francisco's Coi plates his dish of grilled broccoli and cauliflower, he places everything along the border of the plate, shaping it like the letter C, something I would never think to do myself. But these stylistic gestures have a purpose: they make the food more alluring. The more that I cooked with the chefs, the more that I discovered that the visual often matters as much as how the food tastes. And it makes sense that so many chefs that I cooked with (Renee Erickson in Seattle, Anthony Martin in Chicago) started out as visual artists.
Have an Audience. One thing that I learned during the recipe testing phase of my cookbook is that cooking is much easier, and more rewarding, with an audience. If you're cooking for one, chances are you won't go through the trouble it takes to take your food to the highest level. If you're cooking for two, there's a chance your significant other may not really appreciate all of your effort. Which is why the more people you invite over, the more people you feed, the higher the stakes and, therefore, the more likely you are to learn. Example: Hugue Dufour, the chef at M. Wells, taught me how to make bone marrow with a red wine shallot puree, escargot and garlic, parsley breadcrumbs. This is not a dish I would ever make for myself. It's not a dish I would ever make for myself and my partner. But when I invited a group of friends over to try it? I was suddenly motivated to make it; and when I brought the marrow bones to the table, golden brown on top, I felt like I'd advanced a level in the video game called FANCY COOKING AT HOME. All because I had an audience.
Be An Adventurous Eater. You can't learn all there is to learn about food unless you're an open-minded eater. Amanda Cohen, who's a vegetarian and the chef of a vegetarian restaurant (Dirt Candy, in New York) will eat meat dishes at fine dining restaurants just so she can learn the flavor profiles of those dishes and spin them into vegetarian dishes for her customers. Almost every chef that I met was an adventurous eater; their adventures, in turn, informed their food.
Pour Yourself a Glass of Wine. Even though it was early in the morning when I cooked with Josￃﾩ Andrￃﾩs at his home, the first thing that he did was have me juice oranges and grapefruit for a cocktail that he improvised with Hendrick's gin, brown sugar and Prosecco. We toasted our glasses before proceeding with the other dishes and that immediately set a tone, in the kitchen, of conviviality that was echoed, throughout my time on the road, in various kitchens across the country, usually with a glass of wine. Drink while you cook? Well, yes. Not to excess, of course, but the point is that cooking itself should be a pleasure, not a chore. A glass of wine signals that. And after cooking with 50 chefs, testing 150 recipes, and finessing 400 pages of this cookbook, cooking still is a pleasure. I'll drink to that.
- Cook Often. The best chefs are the best chefs because they spend most of their time cooking. Looking at all of the chefs who I met and cooked with while writing this book, almost every single one either went to culinary school or grew up in a family of cooks. That makes sense because in both cases they had to make the same dishes over and over again until they had those dishes mastered. That repetition reinforces basic techniques -- sharpening your knife, seasoning properly, getting your pans hot -- techniques that resonate throughout a lifetime of cooking. So if you say "I'm a bad cook," chances are it's because you don't cook often enough. Make yourself cook at least three times a week and watch your skills improve immeasurably.