Branching Out...or Just Getting Started in the Kitchen

Friday, July 04, 2008

Posted by Mike of Mike's Table

By the time I was in college, I wasn't what I would call competent in the kitchen. However, I lived off campus and with a twenty minute walk to the nearest dining hall, often times, the cafeteria food wasn't worth the trek through cold and dismal weather. And so out of necessity and the quell my growling stomach, I started to cook. Not so much cook though really, as put some haphazard assortment of ingredients on a George Foreman Grill and hope for the best.

At the time, I was nervous and hadn't the slightest idea as to where you even begin in the kitchen. Side dishes (e.g. rice, potatoes) came out of a box, sauce came out of a bottle, and my meat options were either chicken breast or ground beef. Cooking was a lot of black magic and I knew no spells. But I kept trying new things, started reading cook books, and every now and then, somehow, a shockingly good dinner would come out of it. Some times, it didn't even call for the George Foreman (imagine that!).

Being as obsessed about food and cooking as I am today, I find it funny to look back and see that this is how I started. However, as my confidence has grown and I talk about my cooking endeavors to friends and family, I've come to appreciate that my humble beginnings aren't unique and fear of the mysteries of the kitchen seems to be a surprisingly common thing. We either don't own appliances some recipe calls for (and haven't the foggiest idea what it even is) or we have a pile of things that we know we're supposed to have, but haven't any notion as to what half of them are for. The fact that I owned a Dutch oven, for instance, was news to me after at least three years of having it in my kitchen (I used to think it was just a different kind of oven).

But so what to make of all this? Cooking is a field full of speciallized tools and an intimidatingly large lexicon of terms, both of which are misused to the point that the odds are stacked against somebody new to cooking who is just trying to make sense of things. I've been surprised to discover how many of the people I've talked to in the past year are not only a little apprehensive about cooking, but genuinely afraid of it. Where does one even begin? How does one encourage somebody to start cooking at home rather than eating out?

I can't say I took the most direct path there, but I almost feel that my bumbling around was the best way for me. I've had both successes and failures, but I've learned a lot from all of them, and ultimately, I'm better off for it. Whether or not you're doing things "by the book," it doesn't really matter as dinner needn't be an exercise in achieving technical perfection. I see it more as a task where you have to push yourself out of your comfort zome just a little at first, and after that, you develop the confidence that will keep you coming back to do it again and again. The worst that can happen is the food winds up in the trash and you order in a pizza to take its place. Whether its a matter of roasting a whole chicken at home rather than buying a pre-cooked one from the grocer, churning your own ice cream, or trying a sauce besides tomato to go with pasta, there's a lot of little things that can go a long way to helping us all branch out whether we're beginngers or obsessed hobbyists. The rewards are many: eating healthier, eating cheaper, the pride of creating something, appreciating the taste, having an activity to share with someone else in your family, etc.

But nonetheless, I've found this is often a tough sell. Its one thing for me to cook and talk about it, but translating that into the courage for someone else to try cooking in their own kitchen still seems to a surprisingly elusive goal. When did cooking become as threatening a subject for some as sky diving? I'd like to have some great insight to bring these thoughts together, but this has been an issue I've had bouncing around in my head for a while and I'm still a bit vexed by it. Are you or is someone you know afraid of the kitchen? Do you have any suggestions for encouraging beginners to experiment and become more comfortable in their own kitchen? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments section.

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This Post was written by Mike from Mike's Table


Great post! I was just on the phone with my 19 year old daughter who is living on her own for most of the summer before returning to college. Main topic of conversation? Cooking! I promised her I'd send as many simple, inexpensive recipes as I can dig up, but it would be so great to see a series of posts dedicated to the skill levels and budgets of young adults!

Ann said...
July 4, 2008 at 3:17:00 PM GMT+2  

i think cooking with other people helps. i have a few friends who aren't confident cooks but we've done "cooking together" where they come over early for supper and help me prep stuff or i'll "supervise" while they cook, offering tips/ helping rescue things.

a couple fo us who are confident/competent but want to try more complicated stuff meet up for a "cooking afternoon" (the most recent one was chinese dumplings) which is great fun.

abby said...
July 6, 2008 at 8:17:00 AM GMT+2  

Very interesting post. I started out the same way, and it took years of blood, sweat, tears and burns to get to writing a food blog. I blame celebrity chefs and convenience food for people off, although the tide is turning now.

Mallika said...
July 11, 2008 at 11:25:00 PM GMT+2  

Great post Mike! I think Abby is right cooking with people helps. I was lucky and grew up with a family that loves cooking and feeding people. Male/female, to be in our family you cook. Actually I don't think it was ever forced on anybody. So far it seems to be working with my children too. I think the kitchen has to be a fun place with not too many rules. I think people get scared that they're going to do something wrong. Perhaps trying some freestyle cooking with just a handful of ingredients and see what happens instead of following a recipe. I think confidence comes from making a few mistakes and realising that it doesn't matter, most things can be saved. By experimenting you can really find your feet in the kitchen.

July 21, 2008 at 10:10:00 PM GMT+2  

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