Project Wonderful

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Upping Your Cooking Cred

I'm not a big fan of the classic New Years resolutions, but I do believe strongly in the idea that the start of a calendar year makes an excellent opportunity to take a brief inventory of ourselves and think about what we can do to improve our lives.

For me, one way I wanted to improve my life was by accepting and appreciating my passion for culinary hedonism. This is a fancy way of saying, "screw it: I'm in to food."

However, you will never catch me calling myself a "foodie."  It's a silly, condescending, infantile, bastardization of a word. You don't call people who like to read "Bookies" so why in the Hell would people want to call themselves "Foodies?" It just reeks of negative, stereotypes: self-absorbed, self-important fanatics that pour into restaurants on Friday and Saturday nights, pursuing the latest "fad" in the cooking world; Some new ingredient or technique, some popular drink or fashion. A trend-follower; A culinary hipster. As one professional chef I asked referred to them, "some pretentious asshole that thinks they know my job better than I do."

I'm much more of an "epicure" or a "gastronome." Even a "gourmet," if you must. But a foodie? Never.

But I digress.

If your goal is to become a better cook, there are a variety of ways you can improve without having to shill out thousands of dollars for a professional culinary school.

Here are a few really good ways to learn more about food and cooking that cost nothing.

Narrated (sparingly) by Anthony Bourdain, PBS' series "The Mind of a Chef" is an interesting look at food and the passion it can ignite in people.  According to their web page, the show "peers inside the processes and explores what drives and inspires the culinary vision of some of the country’s most innovative chefs." All of the episodes are up on YouTube, but they charge $2 to watch them. Instead, pay attention to when your local PBS station is airing the episodes and tune in. Its worth the effort.

If you've never seen the Food Network show "Good Eats" you have no idea what you're missing. Alton Brown is a geek about food in much the same way that Neil Degrasse Tyson is about astronomy. He explains every detail and nuance of how to do do something in a fun, and mostly frenetic way. I always learn something new. And you don't even need to have cable TV to watch the show. Every episode is on YouTube. A fan of the show has put together an easy to read database of every episode and a link to its corresponding YouTube video. This is great reference to bookmark.

If you are interested in the science of food perhaps even more than what you can get from Alton Brown, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has their Science and Cooking Lecture Series online free of charge. This is a collaboration between Harvard and some of the top names in the culinary world and their lectures discuss in detail the science behind the food from elasticity to emulsions, polymers, sous vide, and more. Its a very detailed and often overlooked series of lectures.

Want even more formal training? Think of ChefSteps as an online culinary school. They offer free classes in techniques, great recipes to try out and a whole lot more. More than a few professional chefs use this site for inspiration and resources and they get involved in their message forums. The result of all of this is that its a one-stop-shop for learning more about the culinary world. And its (mostly) free.

Chef John over at Food Wishes puts together some great videos showing techniques and instructions for a variety of dishes. His stuff is always fun to watch and his friendly, casual approach makes learning the recipes very easy.

And finally, you are looking for some good, basic instruction videos from an expert, check out some of the stuff that Gordon Ramsay has produced. His YouTube channel is updated regularly and has a great assortment of recipes to try out. And all of his videos are free of his ranting, screaming evil tyrant shtick.

I would also encourage you to use YouTube to its fullest advantage. Look up videos by people like Jaques Peppin, Jamie Oliver, and Thomas Keller. There are a lot of videos out there that can show you some expert techniques. 

If your goal is to become a better cook, maybe some day even call yourself a chef, these are some great tools to help you. 


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