I think there are a lot of preconceived notions about how one should learn to cook. But really, cooking is just like anything else: different people just learn differently. So if you just pay attention to how you learn, you can find a way to learn how to cook more easily and have more fun while doing it.
Without a lot of expensive genetic testing, I’ve determined that cooking is in my DNA. I come from a very rich food background, which is a polite way of saying my family is very food obsessed. My love of cooking emanates from my father Jerry. His next meal was always contemplated while consuming the current meal as well as through every food magazine that came to the house each month. Even though I am the first professional chef in my family, I often think that my Dad would have been happier as a chef than he was as a stock broker. His kitchen was always filled with the smells of garlic sautéing, something with baking with chocolate or my Mother’s braised beef brisket bubbling away in the evenings.
My fiancée Jamie’s family hunts and always has “the gravy” cooking. They always cook in a rustic, traditional way with a lot of fresh, wild game depending on the season.
I learn by doing and seeing; that’s how I learned to cook professionally. My “schooling” became a whirlwind right out of high school. First culinary school at the C.I.A, then a host of apprenticeships with 12- to 16-hour workdays in some of the country’s great hotels and restaurants.
I didn’t really have time to read cookbooks during those early years. When I wasn’t working, I was sleeping and partying (as most young chefs do!) But I was an intent learner who asked lots of questions, wrote everything down, tasted constantly, and burned with a passion to absorb what was going on around me. Thanks to my Dad, I was treated to dinner in some of the greatest restaurants New York City had to offer. It’s here where I learned that seeing and eating another chefs food is the greatest tool for learning.
The first realization in my career came on my 15th birthday at a dinner at the legendary Lutece restaurant owned by world famous chef Andre Soltner and his lovely wife Simone. To this day, his spoken words still ring in my head. My father had asked Andre when he came to the table to sign a menu for me; “what is the most important thing about being a successful chef?” He (Chef Soltner) stuck out his chest and raised his head proudly and said “you have to be married to your profession”. And I have been ever since! The second came when I was 20 years old while cooking a dinner with Julia Child & Jacques Pepin; they were having so much fun cooking simple dishes from their cookbooks. It was here I learned that food did not have to be complex or overly played with to be great. Just use the freshest ingredients and treat them well.
So as you work to improve you’re cooking or even simply learn how to cook, ask yourself some key questions. Are you a cook that is more comfortable making up your own recipes and cooking off the cuff and relying on your taste buds? Or are you the kind that needs a well-defined guide? Perhaps a combination of the two? If you are a visual learner like me, take some hands on cooking classes, ask a chef you admire (professional or home) if you can watch and cook with them. Ask a million questions! If you are someone who learns well from books, choose your cookbooks carefully. Choose ones which emphasize seasonality and ingredients.
Either way, just cook & have fun!
And remember Bon Appétit