Last week, I sent my friend Ben in LA a box of cookies. I had baked a ridiculous amount of several different types: chocolate cherry chip, madeleines, hazelnut-anise, olive oil and, of course, Medz Mama’s cookies. Since I knew Ben wouldn’t mind eating my leftovers, I packed up a sampler and headed to the post office. When he got the cookies, Ben phoned to say thanks and we had a nice little chat, so I was surprised to get another call a few days later, after he had tried each one.
“Krikey,” he said, “you could sell these.”
When I heard that, I felt a thrill; what a nice compliment! Once I had thought about it more, however, my excitement quickly faded. After all, I hadn’t invented the cookie recipes, nor had I put my own twist on them. With the exception of Medz Mama’s cookies, I had pulled my miscellaneous cookbooks out of their cupboard (and in the cases of the olive oil cookies and the madeleines, I had gone to Mark Bittman and Heidi Swanson respectively) and dutifully followed the instructions to the letter. The result was an abundance of homemade cookies, to be sure. But should I have truly received the credit for making them?
(A quick deviation from the plot: I’ve made mention of my love for Top Chef in the past; what I failed to bring up is my love for Tom Colicchio. Perhaps love is a strong word; obviously I don’t know the man, only his television persona. Regardless, he is my favorite judge on the show. I appreciate his no-nonsense, straightforward demeanor, and I like how that mentality comes through in his cookbook Think Like A Chef.)
If you just follow recipes, you’re not teaching yourself how to cook. Once you understand technique — how to roast something, how to braise, how to sauté properly — you won’t need recipes anymore. You can start cooking your own food.
Is Colicchio right? Can you not learn how to cook by reading and trying recipes? Obviously, you need a basic sort of understanding when it comes to the fundamentals, and I know I can thank my mother for teaching me that. That said, is what Colicchio is describing the craft of cooking, or the art?
To me, running alongside a recipe shows the understanding of the craft, while inventing a unique recipe is the sign of art. When it comes to cooking, I most certainly lack the artistry. I’ve never claimed to be a good cook; if anything, I’ve claimed to be able to follow a recipe really well. This past Easter, I served two entrées and four side dishes that I had never made before, as well as a whole string of desserts whose recipes seemed interesting; I’m pleased to report that everything ended up tasting exactly as intended. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t items that cause me to lose culinary confidence, because I’m nervous about roasting a whole bird and I find the idea of using yeast a bit terrifying. (At least I’m not alone.) But does this mean I don’t know how to cook?
This past Sunday I had book club over for brunch; at the last minute I decided to bake scones, which I hadn’t ever done before. Since I didn’t have my cookbooks handy when I made up my mind, I turned to Google and found a recipe. The result was so lovely that I baked a second batch immediately after my friends had left. Here’s a photo of the wet ingredients meeting the dry, which I snapped because the cranberries simply looked so pretty, with the white cream puddling in their little crinkly wrinkles.
If the delicious product I turned out of this bowl means that I can’t cook (or bake), then that’s fine by me.