HOW TO USE THIS BOOK: CONFESSIONS, PROMISES, AND GETTING TO 20 MILLION
12 NOON, RIVERPARK RESTAURANT AS A GUEST
“Doesn’t it taste like acorns?”
It did. Mangalitsa acorn-finished woolly boar tasted just like acorns. I was chewing on fall, clear as crystal, in a sliver of cured ham.
The clouds parted, and our plates were bathed in summer sunshine. Resting my elbows on the teak table, I looked out over the East River. Sunday brunch at 29th and First was off to a picturesque start.
Drinking albariño white wine with me were two friends: Josh Viertel, then president of Slow Food USA, and serial restaurateur “Z,”1 whom I’d helped kick caffeine withdrawal the week before. I’d given him an l-tyrosine cocktail and, in exchange, he and Josh were teaching me the inside baseball of the food world.
“Check out the Bocuse d’Or—it’s the Olympics of cooking.”
“If you want a really funny story, you should include how Thomas Keller, as an expert witness in a trial, analyzed a fried egg as evidence.”
“Visit Craft sometime. Leather covers the walls for acoustics. It distributes all the noise to the front and back corners, where the bathrooms—not diners—are.”
“Did you know sauté actually comes from the French ‘to jump’? To train the proper technique, you can put dried kidney beans in a skillet and mimic this motion while kneeling on a carpet. . . .” Demos ensued.
It was all new. I had never successfully cooked before, and that’s why I was there— to learn.
4 P.M., BACK OF HOUSE AS A TRAINEE
“Is this clean?” I asked.
“No. See this dirt, all over the stems? That’s not clean. Use a bowl instead of holding it under the faucet. Rinse three times.”
“Thank you. Sorry about that,” I said with a sigh. I didn’t know how to rinse basil, let alone distinguish it from the two herbs next to it.
I was trailing a prep cook, whose job is to prepare the basics—chopped onions, sorted micro-greens, etc.—before dinner, when the line cooks assemble and plate everything for guests. She’d been told to give me something idiotproof.
“How’s the micro-basil coming?” she asked over her shoulder.
I wasn’t one-tenth through the container I was supposed to sort. I simply couldn’t combine accuracy and speed. Now I was more than an inconvenience; I was jamming up her station.
After 30 minutes of fumbling, I was relieved of duty. It would be observation only for the rest of the night. As a spectator, I jotted down dozens of finer points I’d somehow missed the first 10 times through.
Why couldn’t I get it right?
At 6 p.m. I hung up my chef’s whites, looking like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. I had failed.
The team at Riverpark had been awesome, unbelievably forgiving, and, to my eyes, superhuman. Once dinner got rolling, I noticed that the line cooks’ forearms looked like they’d been dragged through hot coals and barbed wire.
Sixty minutes into the dinner rush, when I was convinced nothing could move faster, the chef de cuisine announced, “Look happy, boys. We have 42 open menus!” That meant 42 people were looking at menus at the same time, which meant 42 orders would hit two line cooks at the same time. Chino, one of the two, kicked into high gear, moving fire and food for dozens of orders like Doctor Octopus on fast-forward.
They were completely unfazed. Another day at the office. Me? Decimated by washing a handful of leaves.
When I walked outside and back into civilian life, I hugged a new bible under one arm: The Silver Spoon, the best-selling Italian cookbook of the last 50 years. To me, it was like holding the Necronomicon. Sisha, the Chilean chef-partner, had given it to me when I first toured the kitchen earlier that day. It was his copy, and he’d insisted I take it after I commented on its beauty.
Now, I felt guilty for taking it.
I edged alongside Riverpark’s outdoor farm, keeping out of frame of a car commercial being filmed in the traffic circle 30 feet away. As I jogged past an extra to catch a cab, he looked at the bundle under my arm and asked with a smile, “Future chef?”
I looked back and returned the smile as best I could.
DIGITAL DEPRESSION AND THE PUZZLE OF COOKING
In 2011, a slow-growing malaise came to a head.
It hit me like acid reflux, a dull ache every time I closed my laptop with nothing to show for my effort besides invisible bits and bytes. One reflective weekend, I decided that I wanted to try woodworking: to make something. I needed to use my hands to create something. Swinging a tennis racket or lifting weights, as physical as they were, didn’t cut it.
Sadly, life got in the way. The Oakland woodworking studio was too far away, I couldn’t commit to a fixed time each week, I didn’t have space for what I’d make—the usual list of I’m-busy-being-busy excuses.
Then, one evening, I took my girlfriend to the mecca of Northern California cooking, the world-famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
Despite a decade in the Bay Area, I’d never been, partially because I still behaved like a cash-poor recent grad (remedied in this case by a gift certificate). Shelves of The Art of Simple Food by Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters lined the wall behind the bar. I skimmed a red-spined copy while we sipped wine and waited to be seated. I ended up engrossed and, much to the chagrin of my girl, took notes while we ate. As I half-watched the bustle in the open kitchen, and assured the server that I’d buy the book, I underlined two passages in particular:
“When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is.” And: “Good cooking is no mystery. You don’t need years of culinary training, or rare and costly foodstuffs, or an encyclopedic knowledge of world cuisines. You need only your own five senses.”
By the time the bill came, I was practically bouncing in my seat. “Babe, I think I could actually do this!”
Cooking would become my tool for reclaiming the physical world. It was time to use my opposable thumbs for something besides the space bar.
The starting point: hundreds of books, filtered by overlaying survey results, average Amazon reviews, and Nielsen Bookscan sales numbers.
Cooking wasn’t the first skill I’d tackled. In fact, I’m somewhat obsessed with accumulating strange credentials, ranging from a Guinness World Record in tango to a gold medal at the 1999 Chinese national kickboxing championships. Given this, why had cooking kicked my ass so many times?
• There’s an overabundance of information. No other subject matter I’ve encountered comes close. It’s a full-time job just to find the best place to start.
• Cookbooks are often formatted for the writers, I discovered, not for the readers. A logical grouping for the writer is rarely a logical progression for the student. Who’s going to cook six chicken dishes in a row?
• Cooking practice can be expensive and impractical. If you have the time, you can practice your tennis serve a thousand times a day for a few dollars. Making a thousand omelets a day? That’s a different story.
So, what to do?
WHY YOU’LL SUCCEED—TWO PRINCIPLES
I eventually learned to cook by focusing on two principles. Both of them apply to all learning and will be your constant companions throughout this book: failure points and the margin of safety.
FAILURE POINTS—THE POWER OF PRACTICAL PESSIMISM
I don’t care why people pick up cookbooks. I’m much more interested in why they put them down.
The hypothesis: if I can address the primary, but often ignored, tripping points, I should be able to increase the number of people who eventually become master chefs. To develop a list of failure points—the reasons people put cookbooks down—I polled more than 100,000 of my fans on Facebook (64% male, 36% female) and looked for patterns. Here are a few:
• Too many ingredients (and therefore too much shopping and prep).
• Intimidating knife skills, introduced too early in cookbooks.
• Too many tools, pots, and pans, which are expensive and require too much cleanup.
• Food spoilage.
• Different dishes finishing at different times, leading to cold food, undercooked food, burned food, etc.
• Dishes that require constant tending, stirring, and watching.
Saying I can create more master chefs doesn’t mean I’m a master chef, even if I’ve improved 100-fold (which I have).
Nor does it mean that this book alone will make you a master chef. It simply means that no master chef exists who hasn’t overcome the above problem areas, so addressing them should be a novice cookbook’s primary goal, not an afterthought.
This book aims to systematically overcome all of the above failure points, step-by-step.
THE MARGIN OF SAFETY—IF WARREN BUFFETT DESIGNED MENUS
Most cookbooks ignore how unreliable recipes can be.
As scientist Nathan Myhrvold points out, even if you follow the exact same recipe using identical equipment and ingredients, humidity and altitude alone can create totally different outcomes. If a cookbook author is testing a recipe in Tahoe during the winter and you try to replicate it in San Diego in July heat, you might fail, even though you follow it perfectly. Rather than hope your environment is the same as mine, I looked for bullet-proof recipes.
This is where the margin of safety applies.
Warren Buffett is the most successful investor of the 20th century and a self-described “value investor.” He aims to buy stocks at a discount (below intrinsic value) so that even with a worst-case scenario, he can do well. This discount is referred to as the “margin of safety,” and it’s the bedrock principle of some of the brightest minds in the investing world (e.g., Joel Greenblatt). It doesn’t guarantee a good investment, but it allows room for error.2
In the world of cooking, I’ll apply the margin of safety as follows: how badly can you mangle the recipe and still get something incredible? In real estate, the adage is, “You make your profit when you buy the property, not when you sell it.” In cooking, it could be, “You guarantee a good meal by picking the recipes well, not by following recipes well.”
Early wins are critical for momentum, so we’ll guarantee them.
THE PROGRESSION—DOM, WILD, SCI, PRO
There are five sections in this book. After META-LEARNING, the progression is color coded for difficulty, just like jujitsu: blue, purple, brown, and black.
From the science of el Bulli, the famed Spanish restaurant that was harder to get into than Harvard,3 to the fish markets of Kolkata to the backcountry of South Carolina, no stone was left unturned in search of powerful simplicity. Turn the page to see what our journey together will look like.
This is where I introduce every important principle I’ve discovered about accelerating learning.
It starts with smart drug self-experimentation at Princeton (inhaling hormones, anyone?), progresses to language learning, and branches off into everything imaginable: sports, memorizing numbers, “learning” smells, deconstructing food, even cramming six months of culinary school into 48 hours.
If you’re only interested in cooking, you can skip this section, but I highly suggest you give it a read at some point. It is the backbone of this book.
THE DOMESTIC (DOM)
DOM is where we learn the building blocks of cooking. These are the ABCs that can take you from the simplest words to Shakespeare.
The goal of this section is ambitious: to deliver all the fundamental building blocks of culinary school in four hours of total prep time: 14 core dishes x 5–20 minutes. This is the literal portion of The 4-Hour Chef. Here, we also begin to answer the question that Sherry Yard, the executive pastry chef of Spago in Beverly Hills, put to me when I explained the premise of the book: “How do you cut time without cutting corners?”
The secret is in sequencing.
If you stop reading here, you will know “how to cook” for all intents and purposes and will earn back the price of this book manyfold.
THE WILD (WILD)
WILD is where you will become not only good with your hands, but also self-sufficient in your own hands. If you’ve ever wondered about urban foraging, fermentation, hunting, or pigeons as food, this will probably be your favorite section.
THE SCIENTIST (SCI)
If WILD is the die-hard pragmatist, SCI is the mad scientist and modernist painter wrapped into one.
Rather than preparing you for spartan minimalism, this section is about rediscovering whimsy and wonder, two ingredients sorely lacking past childhood.
THE PROFESSIONAL (PRO)
Swaraj, a term usually associated with Mahatma Gandhi, can be translated as “self-rule.” Think of it as charting your own path.
In PRO, we’ll look at how the best in the world become the best in the world, and how you can evolve far beyond this book. There’s much more to cooking besides food. Take Chef Grant Achatz “plating” your table, which is covered in gray latex, by dropping and shattering a dark-chocolate piñata full of assorted desserts. It’s texture, theater, and so much more, all wrapped into one.
We’ll finish up with tools for perfecting your own creative powerhouse.
THE MICRO GOAL—ON BECOMING A “CHEF”
Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child. In fact, she could barely boil an egg when she got married.
Late in her career, she became a chef—and changed how the English-speaking world viewed cooking.
In restaurants, the distinction between cook and chef is important: someone who can cook is a cook, whereas someone who can create a menu and run a kitchen is a chef. Calling yourself the latter when you’re the former, as many TV hosts do, is a no-no. In some circles, the cook is a technician, however good, and the chef is the conductor. The former is the bricklayer, the latter the architect of the cathedral.
In The 4-Hour Chef, I use chef in the most literal sense, like the Spanish jefe. Derived from the Latin term for “head,” it signifies boss or leader. This book aims to make you self-reliant, whether in the kitchen or in life: to wrestle control from chaos, to feel like a director instead of an actor, and perhaps to create something bigger than yourself.
In their wonderful book Culinary Artistry, Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page provide a table with three hypothetical categories of chefs (see below).
My goal is to move you from the far left to the right, and the customer quotes will be your own. The most important part of all is that you finish your meals with the bottom-right sentiment. Even if you end your journey at burgers—damn fine burgers, mind you—life can and should be wonderful.
We’ll use training in the kitchen as training for everything outside of the kitchen.
THREE TYPES OF CHEFS—THE PROGRESSION
THE MACRO GOAL—20 MILLION PEOPLE
I’d never had coffee-cup envy before. But this was one hell of a coffee cup:
“Can I get one of those?” I asked. “Probably not,” Sam replied. Well, it was worth a try.
Sam Kass honed his culinary skills at Avec restaurant in Chicago. Then he became a private chef and started cooking for an up-and-coming senator named Barack Obama. Now, as assistant White House chef and food initiative coordinator, Sam is one of the first family’s go-to experts in all things culinary. This spans from national food policy to replacing pesticides in their backyard with crab meal and ladybugs.
When Sam and I met in Washington, D.C., I explained my background in publishing and tech, mentioned the acquisition of this book by Amazon Publishing, and politely asked his advice:
“I have a platform to reach millions of people, and I don’t want to screw up this opportunity. I might not get it again. How should I be thinking about the bigger picture of food?”
His answers paralleled what I’d read and heard from Mark Bittman, the great New York Times Magazine food writer: in effect, that we are at a deciding fork in the road, and the next 10 years (perhaps less) will decide the future of food production in the United States.
Here are a few of my notes, from multiple sources:
• In the U.S., the last generation of career farmers is retiring. Specifically, more than 50% are set to retire in the next 10 years. Their farmland will be up for grabs. Will it go to an industrial agro-corp like Monsanto, and therefore most likely lead to monocrops (wheat, corn, soy, etc.) that decimate ecosystems? Will it be strip malls? Or might it become a collection of smaller food producers? The last option is the only one that’s environmentally sustainable. It’s also the tastiest. As Michael Pollan would say: how you vote three times a day (with the meals you eat) will determine the outcome.
• Going small can amount to big economic stimulus. Let’s look at the economic argument for shifting from a few huge producers to many smaller producers: by diversifying crops beyond corn and soybeans in just six agricultural states, the net economic gain would be $882 million in sales and 9,300 jobs, according to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
• Environmental impact? Converting the U.S.’s 160 million corn and soybean acres to organic production would sequester enough carbon to satisfy 73% of the Kyoto targets for CO reduction in the U.S.
In other words, the fun you have in this book will do a lot of good beyond you and your family. In many ways, our eating behavior in the next few years will decide the future of the entire country.
The magic number and my target is 20 million people. It is the tipping point: 20 million people can create a supertrend.
To dodge the submerged iceberg of industrial-scale food production and its side effects, to alter the course of this country and reinvigorate the economy, all I need to do is make you more interested in food. In total, we need to make 20 million people more aware of eating.
This will lead to changes, starting with breakfast. Then the snowball of consonant decisions takes care of the rest.
Stranger things have happened.
LET US BEGIN WITH BEGINNER’S MIND
Mise en place, called meez in kitchen slang, means everything in its place. Commit this term to memory. It refers to your workplace. In this book, it also refers to your mind, your business, and your life.
One of Anthony Bourdain’s former chef colleagues had a habit of walking up to frazzled cooks in his kitchen, pressing his hand into their cutting boards, and lifting his palm to their faces. As he showed them the detritus embedded in his skin, he’d say, “You see this? That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.”
What does your mind look like?
We’ll find out, and we will make it orderly.
While in Kolkata, India, for this book, I stayed at the iconic Oberoi Grand. The concierge explained to me the hotel’s hiring philosophy: “You can’t bend mature bamboo. But if you get it as a young shoot, you can bend it, mold it. We hire them between the ages of 18 and 21 so we can mold them.” The concierge was one of only 15 double golden key (Clef d’Or) concierges in India, and he knew that sometimes having no experience is a huge advantage. Age doesn’t matter; an open mind does.
This book isn’t baptism by fire. It’s a series of small experiments, with the occasional off-color joke and Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to keep you interested. The only part I consider mandatory reading, DOMESTIC, is fewer than 150 pages! Skip around and have fun.
This book is not the truth, but it contains many truths as I’ve found them, and—even if they’re not your truths—the process I teach can help you find yours.
May all of your creations have just the right flavor, and may the joy of discovery be your guide.
San Francisco, California
August 24, 2012
- To be unveiled later. [↩]
- This principle applies outside of investing. In childbirth, for instance, research reports have concluded that long forceps are safer than suction or a C-section. Veteran ob-gyns, however, disagree. Why? Because forceps are safe if you can maintain no more than 2 lbs of squeezing pressure and no more than 40 lbs of pull, and only if you can repeat this under stressful conditions every time. One of my close friends, who is now a professor at Stanford Medical School, suffered brain damage and hemorrhaging when he was delivered because the doctor used too much pressure. Forceps have a low margin of safety—no wiggle room for mistakes. [↩]
- On a single day in the fall of each year, the restaurant booked the next year’s reservations, accepting approximately 8,000 seats from a reported 2 million requests. [↩]
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