More thoughts on cooking

November 5, 2009

My earlier post on The Chef & the recipe book user attracted several interesting comments and was heavily re-tweeted. One of the issues raised was the use of recipe books to enable improvisation. Now this is an important point. My own learning (and I am an enthusiastic amateur here, especially proud of my Venison Tort) was similar. Yes I watched my Grandmother, but mine was the generation where cooking was for girls (despite having a progressive mother) and the assumption was that I would be with my father.

Now some of that I enjoyed. He and I built three sailing dinghies and a sea canoe together (all of this passed the measurement tests for single design). He instilled a life long love of working with wood and a degree of fanaticism about detail. Most of the fixed furniture in our house was built, using reclaimed mature timber, by my good self. The garden on the other hand I am afraid I rejected. It may have been the first experience of clearing the whole top soil from a half acre plot, following by digging in cartloads of manure from nearby farms and stables (stored under my bedroom window), and then relaying the top soil. After that trauma I never went back into the garden

Sorry, I am rambling, now back to those recipe books. When I went to University I had to start cooking, and then living in a commune for three years I had to take my turn in the kitchen. For the first 15 years of my marriage I did the cooking. When I started I used recipe books, although I always had a tendency to improvise. As I got more experience the improvisation increased and I started to create my own recipes by blending concepts from a floor to ceiling bookshelf full (and yes I built the bookshelf, full mortise and tenon joints by the way, no cheating I knew my father was watching). From there I started to read the appendices and early chapters which talked about the theory, that improved my improvisation.

I never served an apprenticeship though. so I will always be an amateur. I do buy the food first, based on what looks interesting and fresh in the butchers and green grocers. I am blessed with an outstanding butcher who specialises in game. Once I have the ingredients, then and only then the recipe books start to function as a form of augmented memory. I recall things from years back, find them and blend the ideas. Not as much as I would like given the amount of travel, but it remains a major source of relaxation. Something that one starts and finishes, unlike most things in my work life!

Now my theory is tacit (in the true sense of that word, not Nonaka’s corruption) so it would be difficult to teach and I know I am not the same class as a professionally trained and mentored chef. It is theory informed, and I don’t think improvisation (or successful improvisation) is possible without that. However my claim is to informed amateurism. So to return to the original metaphor about the nature of consultancy: doesn’t the consultant claim to professionalism? Or their learning may involve recipe books, but leading practice …..

(Picture credit to Gene Logsdon)

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