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Become an Intuitive Cook: Thomas Keller's Cooking Lessons

Writer Daniel Duane decided to teach himself how to cook by becoming a cookbook zealot. Then a miraculous encounter with master chef Thomas Keller showed him a better strategy.

First, a confession: I'm a recipe junkie, a cookbook addict so hooked that, for years, I was unwilling to fry an omelet without printed instructions, preferably from either of the legendary talents Alice Waters and Thomas Keller. More recently, though, and largely because of a conversation with Keller himself, I've been trying to become more of an intuitive cook, the kind of kitchen wizard who can put together a magical meal entirely by instinct. And I've got a plan for how to do it.

The Alice Waters obsession came first, purely because of a funny biographical link: Waters had been my preschool teacher at the Berkeley Montessori School back in 1970, right before she opened Chez Panisse and became the most influential cook in America. A kid's parents don't let him forget that kind of thing, and as a result, I've been telling people about the Waters connection all my life. So when my first daughter was born in 2002, monopolizing my wife's attention and forcing me to cook our nightly repast, it felt only natural to study the works of my old teacher.

It helps to understand that, in the years prior, I was about 75 percent burrito by body mass, with the remainder consisting almost entirely of Trader Joe's. I couldn't even identify most of the stuff at a farmers' market. So, over a two-year period, I taught myself to cook by working my way through all 290 recipes in Chez Panisse Vegetables (I swear, this was way before Julie & Julia).

I started with gimmes like Garden Tomato and Garlic Pasta. Then, as my cooking compulsion intensified, I began banging out multiple recipes night after night. This bore a vague resemblance to normal life as I plowed through dishes like Chickpea and Farro Soup and Greek Salad, but things got weird when I had nothing but sides left, and I began turning out antisocial dinners like the one my wife still calls "Cardoons Five Ways."

I followed up with Chez Panisse Fruit to cover all the essential plant-based foods. Then it was time for meat, fish, fowl and sweets, so over the next two years, I ripped through all five of the remaining Chez Panisse cookbooks, braising short ribs, grilling quail, baking bread, roasting whole sardines and even grinding my own sausages.

It wasn't all puppy dogs and butterflies, though. My wife has forever sworn off rabbit and pigeon, and we've discovered through trial and error that she has a near-fatal crustacean allergy. Also, after the 11th ice cream recipe in Chez Panisse Desserts, I faced a decision between buying a whole new plus-size wardrobe and eliminating dessert cookery. I chose the latter.

About this time, I began to hear from professional-chef friends that recipe addiction was uncool, that no self-respecting chef would admit to using cookbooks. But there's a lie tucked inside that attitude: Pro chefs, whenever they're dissing recipes, forget to mention that they've all cooked other chefs' recipes thousands of times while coming up through the ranks. At a certain point, sure, home cooks can easily improvise on dishes they've mastered. But they can't get there by roasting a single chicken every other Sunday. So I marched onward.

Then, I got a miraculous phone call: Alice Waters's personal assistant had heard about my project through mutual friends. She'd told Waters, and Waters wanted to hire me for some in-house writing. In person, Waters seemed a little mortified by me. First, she had to deal with the fact that a middle-aged father had once been a preschool student of hers; and second, I believe she found my devotion to her books akin to stalking. So I kept quiet for the first few months, doing my work without trying to get to know my idol.

Then I took a risk: "Just out of curiosity," I said to Waters one day, standing in her home kitchen, "What would you cook if you had fresh peas, asparagus, fava beans and artichokes? Just as a for-example?"

What I did not tell her was that, only the night before, I'd found the very same ingredients in my own fridge. Having already cooked every relevant Chez Panisse recipe, and still opposed to repetition, I realized I would have to improvise. Sweaty with fear, I began by cooking each ingredient in the manner most common in the Chez Panisse books: For the peas and asparagus, that meant blanching in boiling water; for the artichokes, it meant low-temperature stewing in extra-virgin olive oil; for the favas, it meant a little bit of both. And then, because I had seen recipes with similar conclusions, I tossed everything together, moistened it with a little chicken stock, and declared the result my first "spring vegetable garbure."

The question I'd asked Waters, therefore, was a test—or rather, a covert request for the correct answer to a test I'd already taken, the one called "What would Alice do?"

Waters, utterly unaware she was making my day—my whole year!—outlined precisely the steps I'd taken on my own.

Thomas keller's cooking lessons

© Marcus Nilsson

I could have considered myself fully educated, ready forever to eschew cookbooks and live the way Waters exhorts all Americans to live, buying everything in season at the farmers' market and cooking by intuition. For a few weeks, I did just that, but then my wife's sister gave me The French Laundry Cookbook, by Thomas Keller. I had never eaten at the French Laundry—it's above my pay grade—so to me, the book looked like an expensive, haute-cuisine slab of food porn that was less like a cooking manual than a coffee-table status item, letting guests know that you've been to the mountaintop.

Then I read Keller's instructions for boiling asparagus. Before I share them, here are the directions from Chez Panisse Vegetables for the same job: "To boil asparagus, plunge it into boiling salted water."

Keller, by contrast, turned this into a stand-alone essay, "Big-Pot Blanching," a bravura explication of a critical technique. His method depended upon a giant pot of heavily salted water at a rolling boil, and a commitment to blanching only small batches of vegetables, so the water would never stop boiling. As a finishing touch, the vegetables are plunged into ice water, to stop the cooking and fix their color.

It worked; instantly, I became the guy whose every green vegetable turned out tasty, tender and electrifyingly vivid in color. But I also saw with absolute clarity that my culinary kung fu was not yet strong; Waters's books had taught me much, but if I abandoned cookbooks right then, I would never learn all that Keller could teach.

Thomas keller's cooking lessons

© Marcus Nilsson

The French Laundry Cookbook intimidated me too much, so I spent several months with Keller's Bouchon instead, turning our house into a veritable Lyonnaise bistro. Later, I tackled the Americana of his Ad Hoc at Home and found precisely what I sought: minor dissertations on why canola oil beats olive oil for searing (its higher smoke point allows a much hotter pan, and therefore a darker crust on meats); the trick of placing a towel beneath your cutting board so it won't slide around; the cool move of using paper towels to rub the skin off roasted beets.

The list goes on, and it kept me in recipe-addict heaven until I got my next miraculous phone call. This time it was Keller's assistant, telling me that "Chef" would be happy to participate in a magazine assignment I had landed, creating five dishes that every man ought to master.

A week later, I was standing in a sunlit Napa Valley cottage next door to the French Laundry—at which I had still never eaten. Before we began cooking together, however, Keller asked me to clarify the recipe format I wanted.

Exactly the one he'd always used, I told him, seizing the opportunity to say what a gift he'd given in the books he'd written thus far.

But this didn't satisfy Keller; it didn't jibe with his own sense of what kind of recipes were most helpful in a cook's journey. Reaching up to a shelf, Keller flipped open the cookbook he personally found most inspiring, Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie. The recipes were off-putting in their sheer Frenchness and frighteningly imprecise. Oeufs à la Gelée, for example: "Poach 2 eggs for each person to be served, and prepare a jelly with pigs' feet and some veal and chicken bones. In the bottom of a mold, arrange a little foie gras and the poached eggs…Pour in the jelly, allow it to set, and serve chilled." I broke into a cold sweat just thinking about all the unexplained techniques. (Now, OK, wait, does he really want the pig's feet and the chicken bones fixed inside the jelly?)

Keller turned to a less disturbing example for Salade Truffes: "Brush and clean thoroughly some fresh truffles from Périgord. Slice them on a mandoline and marinate them for 10 minutes in a mixture of lemon juice, salad oil, salt and pepper. Serve immediately with some foie gras on the side."

Thomas keller's cooking lessons

© Marcus Nilsson

"See, I love that," Keller said. "You have to have confidence to be able to do that. That's like two sentences! But it becomes yours precisely because it's not, like, 'Take 500 grams of truffle, add, you know, 15 centiliters of lemon juice'—it's none of that stuff. That's why this book was so beautiful to me; it allows you to be the chef." Keller told me that when he began The French Laundry Cookbook, he actually hoped to work in the same vein, creating a cookbook without recipes. But his editor wouldn't have it.

Together, Keller and I produced recipes in the more explicit style, but I went home haunted by that Fernand Point exchange, and especially by Keller's remark about how a recipe "becomes yours." As I understood it, he meant that a cook never quite absorbs a hyper-detailed recipe, always having to return to the book and its precise measurements. In that way, a cook never breaks a recipe addiction, never trusts himself to create.

Recipes like Point's, on the other hand, function more like a friendly voice saying, "Hey, why don't you slice up a few truffles and serve them with a piece of foie?"

That's not a recipe, see; that's a suggestion. Following it requires filling in so many details that the finished product won't be Point's in any meaningful sense; it will be yours. You'll also remember it—not as a recipe to look up, but as a move you once made, and could easily make again.

I'm not drawn to poached eggs in aspic, and I'd have to sell my old truck to buy a meaningful number of Périgord truffles. So I devised a solution of my own: I would create, for my own use, the French Laundry Cookbook that Keller wanted to write in the first place. Keller, then, could become my own Fernand Point.

Starting with a dish called "Clam Chowder," I first followed every instruction, nose in the book. Then, a few days later, I made it again, but this time from handwritten notes I'd jotted down in the spirit of Point: "Sweat open some clams in white wine and herbs, incorporate the juice into a cream sauce, spoon a little sauce onto each serving plate and top with a pan-fried cod cake, then a piece of sautéed cod fillet, and, finally, a 'chowder' made from the reserved clams." After making this dish a few times, I threw away even my handwritten notes. That's when the dish became my own—not because I could make it from memory, but simply because I knew how to sweat open shellfish, make a cream sauce, fry some fish cakes and sauté fillets, and I could now try this with any fish combination that struck my fancy.

I did the same thing with recipes from Ad Hoc at Home: "Cut a whole chicken into pieces, brine for 8 hours, batter and fry"; "marinate a skirt steak in olive oil, rosemary and garlic, sear on a grill." Then I thought of going back to Chez Panisse Vegetables, and that's when it occurred to me: With instructions like "boil the asparagus," Waters came closer to Point than Keller ever had, and if I hadn't been able to make masterpieces from her recipes, it only meant that I hadn't been ready. Now I'm thinking that maybe, once I'm done with The French Laundry Cookbook, I'll finally be experienced enough for that Garden Tomato and Garlic Pasta. But this time I'll get it right.

Daniel Duane, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, most recently wrote about San Francisco's Bi-Rite Market for F&W. He is at work on a memoir about how cookbooks saved his life.

Thomas Keller's Cooking Lessons: 5 Steps to Becoming an Intuitive Cook

1. Start with your all-time favorite recipe from your favorite cookbook. Cook it by the numbers, following every instruction.

2. No more than three days later (so you don't forget too much), take out a piece of paper, write out the simplest version of the recipe that you believe you can work from and cook from that.

3. A few days later, write an even less detailed version—a few sentences at most—and cook the dish again.

4. Over the next few weeks, cook the dish entirely from memory at least several times, but make a small change each time (swap out a spice, change a vegetable), so that the recipe becomes a rough template, not a fixed set of rules.

5. As you repeat the process with other recipes, experiment with skipping Step 1 and then, later still, Step 2.


Published December 2010
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