Slow and Steady Approach to Becoming a Chef

Posted on June 24, 2013 by


It is a common belief that you either know something or you don’t.  That skills and knowledge are somehow gifted to some people and not to others.  The truth is that we all lie somewhere on a spectrum from knowing very little to knowing a lot and that only through practice can we climb the learning curve.

One area that I have developed considerable skill and knowledge over the years is cooking.  I never set out to become a chef but I have reached a point where I feel very confident in the kitchen.  I cook almost all the meals for my family and cook for larger groups whenever I have the opportunity.

Tim Ferriss has said that learning too cook is actually the combination of a number of different skills.

When people think of cooking what they are actually thinking about is grocery shopping, prep, cooking, clean-up, hosting.  People try to tackle five things at once.  Of course they fail.

I would go further and say that even those skills can be broken down into smaller base-skills that need to be learned over time.

From Top Ramen to Top Chef

I started cooking most of my own food when I was a teenager.  My dad would fill the fridge with groceries and I would have to make my own meals.  Back then I mostly cooked ramen noodles, sandwiches, and hot pockets.

In college I continued to cook a lot of my own food since I was too broke to eat out.  My roommate’s mom used to fill our fridge with groceries and we would cook whatever she brought.  We fried a lot of foods and ate a lot of pasta.

In my early twenties I started the low-carb diet in order to lose some weight.  I started learning about different types of proteins and how to bake and pan-fry them.  I checked the ingredients of everything and learned what had sugar and what didn’t.

My love affair with low-carb came to an end in my mid-twenties and I started approaching food from the low-cal perspective.  I learned how to prepare more vegetables and starches like rice and potatoes.  Now I was checking labels for calorie counts and learning about hidden fats.  My knife skills started to improve as I prepped more fruits and vegetables.

With the addition of my wife in my late-twenties I started cooking larger portions and fine-tuning my palate.  I now had another person to please and it forced me to raise my game to make meals that we both could enjoy.

Flash forward to today and I do the grocery shopping, prep, cooking and clean-up for almost all my family’s meals.  I prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for a family of four.  While I am not a Top Chef or even a MasterChef I feel at home in the kitchen and receive many compliments about my food.

I can’t even cook eggs!

When someone asks me how to learn to cook I am often at a loss for words.  There is so much to learn, so many skills to practice, so many mistakes to be made.  If I had approached cooking with the goal to learn everything that I know now I would have been too intimidated to start.

I have heard people say, “I don’t know how to cook.  I can’t even make eggs!”  and it always makes me laugh.  Eggs are one of the most difficult foods to cook.  They are sensitive, break easily, overcook in a second, and stick to almost every pan.  The simple egg can be intimidating.

When I was eating low carb I cooked eggs every morning for years.  I practiced making fried eggs, omelets, scrambled eggs and hard-boiled eggs.  I learned through trial and error how hot the pan should be and how much oil I need to keep the egg from sticking.  I figured how to flip it without breaking the yolk or tearing the omelet.  I learned when to remove it from the pan so that it could finish cooking without direct heat.

I have had similar experiences learning how to cook steaks, steam vegetables, saute onions, and chop vegetables.  Each of these skills required practice and repetition, trial and error.

Take it one step at a time

That is why I always try to be supportive whenever someone tells me they want to learn to cook.  I ask them what they are doing right now.  They usually have one or two dishes they are proud of.  I applaud their effort and tell them that I used to have only one meal.  Then I suggest that they try changing one ingredient.  Instead of cooking that meal with beef, try chicken.  Instead of using pasta, try rice.  Instead of using green beans, try broccoli.

These simple substitutions allow you to experiment and learn new skills.  Over time they add up.  We often can’t see how far we have progressed until we are able to look back.  Over time small incremental improvements can add up to huge gains.

You can’t expect to reach your goal overnight and frankly you shouldn’t expect to reach it within a couple years.  Enjoy the process.  Realize that every time you try you are gaining more experience, more knowledge, more depth within that skill.  Eventually you will look back on it and realize how much progress you have made.

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Posted in: Learning