11 June 2009

On creative cooking beyond recipes

As regular (?) readers will know, I sometimes use cooking skills and knowledge as a paradigm for exploring learning and the acquisition of competence and even expertise. So I am a sucker for anything which holds out a hope beyond Richard Sennett's ten thousand hours in a kitchen. (His account of culinary craft is one of the weirder parts of a sadly unfocused book.)

Indeed, following a recipe is a low level of skill. Thank goodness it can be acquired relatively easily, because otherwise we would eat less well than we routinely do. Tweaking or glossing a recipe may come next--improvising in the absence of some ingredients, spicing up a little... Then there is substitution--either of ingredients or of cooking methods. It's a bit tough if we grill it; let's try roasting more gently for longer. And eventually, there is invention based on deep understanding of how ingredients interact. We can all invent randomly (I remember a dish Pete Eggins and I cooked one evening in hall in 1965. It was based on a Katherine Whitehorn recipe, I think, for fish in a tomato sauce. It so happened that none of the ingredients matched the recipe precisely---wrong fish, wrong sauce, wrong method, but hey!...

It was revolting. Even as students we threw it away!

Knowing the underlying principle matters. Whether this guy's emphasis on ratios is the key, I doubt. But getting beyond the concrete is indeed what facilitates systematic progress.

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