Learning to cook, to learn

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Cooking is something I love to do. I have spent many hours in the kitchen over the years. After a journey, (I think) I am now a competent cook.

My initial experiences of cooking were rote. Ask mum, then use exactly those ingredients in those quantities. Rote was driven by a lack of knowledge, a lack of understanding and, mostly, fear. I made the things mum made, in the way that she made them.

When you know nothing, all you can do is repeat what you see. Start using the tools, get familiar with processes.

As I grew into the world, my culinary journey took on new dimensions. I watched great chefs on TV and, eventually, I got to eat at their restaurants. I watched amateurs grow their repertoire of skills on Masterchef.

Observe the world. See how others do things. Learn what the art of the possible is. Be inspired by possibilities.

I began to experiment with recipes that I had not seen cooked but were written down, tried and tested by others. That way, I expanded my horizons. I learned new techniques, I used new ingredients.

Learn by doing. Learn by continuing passive discovery.

Slowly but surely, I started to substitute. Parsley for coriander. Orange for lemon. Potatoes instead of rice. I used the recipes, sure, but I played around. I started to understand ingredients, groups of ingredients. I got a sense of properties. I began to chart my own course away from the paths drawn by Ottolenghi and Cotter, though at this stage the paths they mapped were still very much in view.

Move from passive to active. Explore ideas. Expose yourself to just beyond the boundaries of the familiar. Celebrate those small wins that you achieve just by being a little bold.

I slowly realised I didn’t need the comfort of the guidebooks any longer. I had trodden the paths (with the slight detours) enough that they became familiar. I could execute these recipes, no problem. I started to get a feel for things. Dish doesn’t taste great? Not enough salt. Too much sugar. Get some lemon in there.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Move some basic things from System 2 to System 1. Take experiences and failures and understand what went wrong, and how to avoid it next time.

At this point, I still did not understand the principles. I could make some great dishes for sure, but I did not really stop to think that much about why those dishes worked. At some point, I did stop and I did ask those questions.

Always ask why. Always go one level deeper.

The biggest realisation I had was that what really makes a cook is his or her principles of good food. I have now have built some principles of my own: A good dish combines a mix of flavours – sweet, salt, sour, savoury. A good dish provides a mix of textures. A good dish has an aesthetic, a mix of colours.

I have developed a set of boundaries – boundaries that are more open, that allow me to combine things in ways that I have never done or seen before, but boundaries nonetheless – that make sure that whatever wacky ideas I conjure up will have a greater likelihood of edibility.

Once you have the basics, try to develop a set of principles, then work from these principles. to try new things.

It is important to me to keep trying out new dishes, new approaches. I have recently added pickling as a technique. I have added new ingredients to my armoury, things like nutritional yeast and peanut butter.

Continue to explore the boundaries. Continue to try new things. Continue to test those principles.

Cooking, like most things, can be boring or interesting; fun or a chore. My love for it stems from the fact that it is now a creative practice rather than a functional one. This has come from years of exploring it and being inspired by great chefs, restaurants and food. I have achieved a delicate balance where it is familiar enough to me that I can do things, but there is still huge scope for the new and exciting.

As an interesting counterpoint, I never enjoyed learning the piano. As a child, I got taught it through a lot of rote learning, with limited scope for exploration. I was not quite lucky enough to be inspired: Neither of my parents were musicians, nor did we go to many concerts. I was not ever encouraged nor inclined to engage in composition. As a result, I no longer play the piano. Today, after my breath has been taken by some incredible concerts and the value of music is sharply in focus, I regret not having taken more time to learn a musical instrument.

The process of becoming competent involves thorough learning of the basics, usually through (boring) repetition. What helps us through this, what gets us to the other side, is being given the opportunity to explore (to have one’s own victories and defeats and to learn from them) and inspiration (shown how all that boring stuff relates to the opportunities to do cool, possibly great, things further down the line).

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