A Semi-Autobiographical Guide to Cooking Like a Pro, Part Two: Practice

oyster shells

It’s true. I’m going to trot out that old adage: practice makes perfect. Or, in the case of cookery, practice makes palatable (and, eventually, delectable).

Tradition tells us that I must have learned to cook at my mother’s knee or from a doting grandmother who excelled in the art of the cookie. Hardly. My mom was too busy running school art programs, playing tennis and getting dinner on the table for her adoring husband and two squabbling children to spend time showing me how that last part was done.

When I offered to help I was given the task of grating cheese or peeling carrots or mashing avocados, and later sautéing the mushrooms to put atop the cube steak or browning the ground beef before stirring in the El Paso seasoning packet for tacos.

It was all good practice—and, as someone who now makes a lot of dinners herself, I see now it was actual help—but no great culinary lessons or secret tips were being passed between the generations. My grandmother was, indeed, doting, yet like my mom she saw making the tasty grub that came out of her kitchen as a chore. She would rather take me out to a play and then to the Hotel Sofitel for chocolate mousse than to spend a day in the kitchen.

The Way of Jacques

No, my teachers were trial and error (see Part 1 of this series) and cookbooks, the instructions in which I inhaled. Then my favorite came along: Jacques Pépin. Every Saturday morning I’d tune in to The Complete Pépin on KQED. But I didn’t just learn by watching, I learned because I would get in the kitchen afterwards and try chopping the onion the way he did, filleting a fish using the quick flashes of a sharp knife as he demonstrated, and even de-boning an entire chicken.

Yes, that is how crazy it got. He mentioned at the top of the show that the menu included a deboned chicken stuffed with bulgur, tied up into a bundle and roasted. I thought, “Sign me up.” I popped in a tape and hit “record” on the VCR as I watched with rapt attention. Jacques assured me that all I needed was a sharp knife and a chicken. The sharp knife I had. When the show was over, I headed to the store to buy the chicken. Once home, I played through the demonstration again—knife in hand and chicken on board—pausing as necessary to catch up to the master.

(This is what I always adored about that program: Jacques cooked in real time. Anything active, he did on the show. No bowls of chopped onions sat at the ready. Sure, he was incredibly fast, but still, it made everything seem do-able because you saw it being done.)

I’d cut a chicken into pieces before, but this was something else entirely. Pulling out the wishbone seemed nuts, but there it was, just like he said it would be, and with a few more flicks of the knife and a lot more prodding around with my fingers than Jacques ever used, I got it out. Then I moved on to making a cut down the back. In short, I did a lot more scraping than Jacques did. Made quite a few more cuts. Took a lot more time.

Did the chicken look quite like his when I was finished? No. It did not. Was the skin intact? More or less. Sort of. Had I removed all the bones from a chicken while leaving the whole thing enough together to stuff and roll up? Indeed I had.

It was all rather visceral for a former vegetarian. A bit gooier than I care to get. But it was good fun to stuff and roll and tie it, and the final dish was a hit—so I did it again, and again, and a few more times after that, trying different stuffings and marinades and whatnot. I got so, for awhile there, I was really on a roll with the whole debone-a-chicken thing and got the scraping and prodding aspect of it down to a minimum.

It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about cooking: No matter what it is, you can give it a whirl. Maybe it doesn’t turn out the first time, but you’ll learn something doing it and it will be better the next time around.

That ability to so quickly, visibly and appetizingly improve made me the kind of cook I would become: avid, amateur and adventurous.

The Impact of Time

Then I went to culinary school for six months at age 32. Because I had spent a lot of time in the kitchen and, being a good student, had taught myself a ton about food and preparing it before I ever thought seriously about going to cooking school, I can count on one hand the things I learned to prep or cook at cooking school: debone a leg of lamb, debone a duck, kill a lobster with a blade to the brain, cut vegetables into flowers, and laminate dough. (All things, I feel the need to note, that I didn’t really much want to do.)

I didn’t acquire specific skills in cooking school as much as I acquired sheer practice. I had decent knife skills going in. I had noticed that Jacques held the blade of his knife with his thumb and forefinger, leaving the handle for the rest of his hand, and so copied him accordingly. Yet I had never been given a 10-pound bag of onions with the order to slice, chop, dice and mince them in equal measure.

In short, there is no way to replace spending all day every day in a kitchen. I learned to work fast. I learned to work clean. I learned to work in very little space. I learned to improvise as ovens filled up or supplies ran low.

I am in no way suggesting that anyone who wants to get a few more homemade dinners cooked go to cooking school, or that the average person just looking to make decent meals on a regular basis needs formal training—quite the opposite. Anyone who wants to be any good at anything, though, is going to need to spend some time doing it. You need to develop that muscle memory of cutting and peeling and shelling. And, if you’re a bit nuts, deboning.

The more you cook, the more you may find yourself rearranging your kitchen, with salt right near the stove and colanders within grabbing distance of the sink. You realize how handy it is to know exactly where you keep your kitchen tongs.

This is good news for novice cooks. The reason it seems to take you longer to get dinner together than the recipes say? It could be faulty timing on the recipes, but it might be that you’re still finding your rhythm and learning your way around the kitchen. Give it some time. You wouldn’t pick up a tennis racket, head out to the courts and expect to beat Roger Federer, would you? Would you even expect to play a decent game against your neighbor who plays once a week? No. And you wouldn’t stop playing because of it. You would head back to the court and practice hitting the ball.

That’s how you become a good cook, too. You get in the kitchen and hit the ball. Well, no. That wouldn’t do much for your cooking skills. But you do chop vegetables and mince herbs and brown meat and roll out dough. And you do these things many times over until you don’t have to think about them at all. Concert pianists don’t Google “Where is the A key?” right before a big performance, and once you’ve practiced enough you won’t need to search “how to hard boil eggs” when Easter rolls around.

bag of onions

Practicing Advice: Do the Last One First

Practice, whether it’s running scales or rolling pasta, is by its nature repetitious. When faced with big cooking projects or endless kitchen tasks, whether dozens of dumplings to fold or a pile of pots to scrub, I realize I learned one of the great cooking lessons from my great-grandfather.

The summers when I was 4 and 5 he was still spry enough to take me fishing. He’d catch bass and walleye; I’d hook “sunnies”—small perch we called “sunfish” for their tendency to gather in sunny spots—with a long bamboo pole I held as still as possible. I’d watch the bobber, attached to the line and sitting on the water’s surface, with the intensity of an owl at dusk scanning a field for mice, looking for the slightest movement that might betray a sunny nibbling on the worm wiggling on the tiny hook at the end of the line.

We’d come back afterward and I’d lift and pull the handle on the cast-iron water pump at the high end of the slanting counter in the screened-in fish house while he cleaned our catch at the low end. It was tedious work he made fun by telling stories about jumping trains, fighting the 1918 Cloquet Fire and fishing tales of the exaggerated sort. Still, we’d fish for enough to feed the dozen or more family members up at the cabin on any given weekend. Even for hors d’oeuvres, that’s a lot of sunnies. We’d finally get to the last fish and he’d always say “If we’d done this one first, we’d be done by now.”

I’d always wonder why we never did that. It seemed like an excellent idea. I was 15 and sitting at his funeral at Grace-Trinity Community Church in Minneapolis when I finally got the joke.

Whether it’s a colander full of cherries that need pitting or a bunch of radishes waiting to be cut into flowers, I try to remember to approach each one as the last. I’m getting it out of the way so I’ll be done all the sooner. It is a small mind game, but it works surprisingly well to keep that feeling of overwhelming dread at bay.

Next time you’re practicing a daunting, repetitive kitchen task—be it slicing potatoes or shucking oysters—pick up the last one first and get it the hell out of the way.

Remember, cooking is a skill and skills are something we develop by doing them. Reading about them can add to our knowledge base; thinking about them can nudge our skill set along; watching experts can inspire and delight; but only by doing them do we ever see leaps and bounds of improvement. Or, honestly, improvement of any kind.