As with anything else in life, if you want to be a success at cooking, you have to be willing to go all in, and commit to the challenges ahead. It is not a path for everyone, for you are guaranteed heartache and frustrations. But, if you complete the journey, you will have the power to bring happiness to both yourself and others. With knowledge of the pain involved, I hesitantly present to you the six secrets to becoming a great cook.
1. Fundamental Understanding
The first step to reaching the next level in cooking, is gaining an intellectual understand of what you are doing. It is not enough to follow a recipe; you have to comprehend the whys.
When you understand why you do something, it will keep you from taking short cuts. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen cooks give up on frying something completely, simply out of boredom. If you understand that when you are caramelizing onions, you are fundamentally changing the taste of them from biting to sweet, as well as making them easier to digest, you will not be so quick to say, “ok, I think it’s good enough.” In fact, the phrase ‘good enough’ should not be a part of your vocabulary.
This intellectual understanding is the foundation for the rest of the steps. This doesn’t mean that you can’t start cooking without a full understanding of all of your spices, and methods – the process of becoming a cook amounts to on the job training – but as you work, continue to research the whys. Though in the beginning, it may be enough to copy someone else, or to follow a recipe, you can’t have long-term success without true understanding.
2. Detachment towards the Critics
Giving up the need to please everyone is a must. This may seem harsh, but letting go of the attachment to others’ pleasure is part of being a cook. Cooking can be an exhilarating, creative process, but when people don’t like what you’ve created, it is very easy to become sad or depressed about it. Whereas, you may be thinking that the cook is king, others may consider the cook to be their servant. Understanding people’s limited perception, we as cooks have to endure their complaining.
People develop their tastes at home, and everyone’s home experience is different. That means that it is impossible to please everyone. Plus, people approach food in different ways. Some come to eat in a desperate state, and devour the food. Others simply take it as medicine to keep their bodies functioning. Still others want a taste explosion in their mouths, while many are seemingly offended by the mildest of spice. Knowing your audience, you can try to please the maximum amount possible, but more than that is never going to happen.
3. One-Pointed Focus
You have to be focused on what you’re doing. We live in a world where multitasking is a requirement of life. But if you want to be a great cook, you have to concentrate on it. If you are looking at Facebook, or Twitter, are wrapped up in family dramas, or simply engaging in happy conversation, you are likely to mess up.
It is often the little things that will take your cooking to the next level. This goes along with intellectual understanding, but it is not enough to know, you must have a commitment to doing all of the little things, such as making your food hot enough, to be successful. Some ingredients, like coconut milk, might be added right at the end. You don’t want to lose the flavor by overcooking, but you still have to bring it to a boil, both for taste, and safety.
People can feel the love you put into your work. If you are distracted while doing the job, they’re going to know it. Eating can be the closest thing to a spiritual experience that many people have. For this reason, we should give it the respect and attention that it deserves.
4. Engaging the Senses
You have to master the sensory experience of cooking. Food, for the experiencer, is not just about nutrition; it is also about the look, the texture, the smell, and the taste of it. And the experience of making food, is not just about adding ingredients, but being aware of the changes that are taking place.
After time, you will understand what is happening with your food simply from the smell of it. You should know when something is about to burn, before it actually burns. You have to be aware of all of the different kinds of pre-burn smells. You should be able to tell what your food tastes like from looking at it.
You also have to pass the sensory experience on to the eater. The eater should be able to conceptualize the taste first from seeing it. As well, the display must be beautiful. If your food doesn’t look good, it is hard for it to taste good. People are not able to let go of what they see, to accept what they taste in their mouths. Display is half the battle, along with temperature, taste, and texture.
I hinted at it earlier under intellectual understanding, and indeed knowledge will make this step easier, but patience is important enough to have its own category.
Too many cooks get wrapped up in cooking fast. Getting it over with. Getting the food to the people before they complain about it. The problem is that even though people want food right away, slow cooked food is both healthier and tastier.
Besides the process of cooking, we also have to be patient with ourselves. The learning process can be slow, and you will get a lot of criticism along the way. When we understand that learning to cook is an ongoing process, and that people complaining is the way of the world, we can steadily move forward.
If you don’t want it, it will never happen. Very few are born with the natural instincts to be great. Most of us are not Mozarts or Michael Jacksons. But dedication, and one pointed focus, are the qualities that can overcome most hurdles.
Like Julia Child, you have to become obsessed with your craft, if you want it to become magical. That means time, tears, and tolerance will be needed for the journey. It is not an easy lifestyle, but if you love it, you can make it happen.
So, how many are up for the challenge? It is a body, mind, and soul process that you are engaging in. But, there is no doubt that if you are willing to put in the time, willing to flow with the madness, and are ready to take the abuses that comes with the job, you will definitely be successful.