I have known several people with this attitude. "I can't cook," they say, while making Kraft macaroni and cheese from a box. "Will you teach me?"

So you go into the kitchen and try valiantly to show them how to make real macaroni and cheese. And they take one look at you measuring out the flour and butter for the white sauce and say, "that's too hard," or "but you just know how," or "but how do you make it work?" And you put the whisk into their hand and tell them to whisk until the butter and flour combine, that this is called a roux, that it will be the base of your sauce, that flour helps thicken things. They take the whisk and sort of stand there, holding the pot handle, stirring gingerly until the flour and butter are at least tentatively mixed. "Ok," you say, "now whisk in the milk." "But how do I know how much milk to add?" they say, or, "how can I add it and keep whisking?"

They forget that they were making mac and cheez before, perfectly confident of their ability to stir two things together. They get defensive. They get frustrated. They get angry. Then they give up. "I can't learn to cook," they say. They don't realize that cooking is a process, or a craft. You can't just read a book and suddenly become a kitchen whiz; neither can you whip up a perfect pie crust on your first try. Those people who get frustrated and give up--no, they can't cook right then. They can't cook because they refuse to practice. So how do you learn to cook? You just cook, and see what happens.

Often, intimidating cooks--you know, people who produce fantastic souffles at the drop of a hat, or who throw bunches of seemingly random things into a pot and come up with an amazing soup--have been cooking their entire lives. They may have grown up in the kitchen, watching their mother make dinner, helping press hamburgers together and steam vegetables as soon as they were old enough to touch the stove. Years of experience make them confident. They know complex techniques because they have seen and practiced them over and over. They have no problem throwing strange ingredients together and seeing what happens because they have done it so often before. They feel at home and relaxed. They don't worry too much about screwing up; if they come up with something fantastic, great, but if they don't, oh well.

Thus, learning to cook is much like learning to be in the kitchen. Relax--the food isn't going to bite you, and it's no big deal if you mess something up. Try hanging out with your friends while they cook something. Ask what you can help with. Watch what they do, and ask why they do it. Pay attention to the cooking process, and eventually you will see how and why the ingredients work together. Get familiar with different foods and their cooking techniques. Then start to get comfortable with your individual cooking skills by following some simple recipes.

Measuring, stirring, chopping vegetables, cracking eggs--these are not that hard. You probably know how to do all of them already. If you don't, they only take a moment to learn. More advanced things, such as kneading dough, might take a little time to learn. This does not mean you can't learn them, however; it just means that you have to practice. Most cookbooks will have a technique section, so you can look up any process you don't understand. Or you can ask a friend (or your mom, who generally knows Everything about cooking) to help. Do NOT give up if your first recipe turns out badly. Resist the urge to throw down your spoon and storm out of the kitchen. Everyone's first recipe turned out badly, I guarantee. Just laugh it off and try something else.

Remember also that lots of foods can handle mistakes. Most dishes requiring chopped vegetables, for instance, will not suffer if you accidentally chop them either too small or too large. If you are making spaghetti sauce, and you add too much basil, you can add some more spices and tomato sauce to balance it out. Or you can see what a basil-heavy sauce is like; you might like it. For some recipes, like soups, you can add ingredients in any order. Then if you forget something, you can just throw it in later: the whole soup is not ruined. Meats can be marinated for any amount of time; the flavor will just be stronger if you forget about it for a while. Don't panic if you do something wrong: you can most likely fix it. The main exception to this rule is baking. I would not expect perfect results if you accidentally leave out (or double) the baking soda in a batch of cookies. I would also not recommend trying to knead the sugar you forgot into a dough that's already been in the oven five minutes (I did do this once). And pay attention to things in the oven: another thing you cannot fix is burnt food.

But don't give up. Read the recipe. Experiment. Pay attention. Keep going, and you will learn to cook.

In any given week, you can find me chopping, stirring, baking, dicing, kneading, slicing and steaming somewhere in the order of 50 hours. That is 52 weeks a year, owing to the sad fact that I don't take holidays. I don't do this because I am a masochist, or because I need to pay off a debt - I do it because I love cooking. It has taken quite a few years of working like this, and a similar amount of time having conversations not unlike the ones in chancel's write-up above, to come to a simple conclusion - a dichotomy that sadly sounds like all those "There are two types of people in the world…" gags.

There are people that will cook, and people that won't.

I have come across a large number of those that won't over the years, and their reasons are numerous and varied. Some simply have no desire to eat other than to ensure that their bodies have the nutrients to keep moving. These are the individuals I truly feel sorry for. How they came to have such a dispassionate regard for eating, I don't know - but of all the "won't cook" tribe - these are the ones of whom you could genuinely say, "can't cook". The lazy crew comes next. These are a funny bunch; on the whole they enjoy food and can recognize when it is good. I have even met a few closet gastronomes that fall into this category. They could be among the best cooks I know, with the aptitude and palate they possess - but the will just isn't there. They would love a bouillabaisse for dinner, but pizza is simpler, because it is just a phone call away. A newer phenomenon is the intimidated cook. These people possibly enjoy cooking, and may even feel like experimenting in the kitchen - but the deifying of celebrity chefs, along with their cookbooks laden with oh-so-modern, narrow depth of field photography has scared them off. They will tend to keep cooking a range of dishes that they are comfortable with, rarely veering from their comfort zone into the scary world of media-led cuisine.

At the other end of the spectrum you have hopeless cases like me. I had little choice in the matter - sometime in my late teens I started to gain an almost consuming obsession with all matters culinary. I read voraciously. I asked constant questions of restaurateurs and providores. I even spent a few years photocopying local food journals into a compendium that I could carry around with me - containing ingredients, recipes and guides. I cooked over-ambitious dinner parties for unlucky and bemused guests. I went to sleep thinking about cooking, only to wake a few hours later thinking about the same dish. Permit me if I may to coin a colourful Australian phrase; I was like a roo caught in the headlights.

This obsession was obviously not going to fade anytime soon, and eventually I traded in my life of incomplete university degrees and odd jobs for the sheer thrill and insanity of commercial kitchens. Like most addicts - I felt a burning desire to share my poison - to indoctrinate like-minded fiends. When the web started to become massively popular, I saw it as a medium (along with millions of others) to get my personal message out to the masses. I hit all the HTML tutorials on the web and learned enough to make sure that pages loaded cleanly and (almost) uniformly in different browsers. Things started small, but they gained rapid momentum. Before a great deal of time had passed I was devising new additions on a daily basis - shopping hints - knife techniques - more recipes. The act of sharing my passion for cooking had oddly taken over cooking itself…and became my new passion.

All this energy and excitement however, was pretty much pissing in the wind. I had a steady, yet miserly trickle of visitors to my website. I submitted to all the search engines, learned how to communicate with meta-tags like some digital age Esperanto, yet still the hungry throngs did not arrive. There was just too much out there, too many small time cooking sites. I still remember the excitement of my busiest day - I had 57 unique sessions. 57 - I may as well have opened the living room window and shouted recipes out into the street.

On the 6th of March 2001, I pulled down the shutters on my old cookery website, packed my bags and wandered over to preach the good cooking word at Everything2. Since I have arrived here, I have become almost obsessed with the notion of convincing those who don't cook to try; and those that do to cook to the best of their abilities. One factor remains the same however - no matter the skill level of the cook, I always try to remind them that cooking shouldn't be serious and pretentious and exclusive, but has the potential to be enjoyable, sociable and rewarding.

So what exactly is a good cook? What is the makeup of their approach to food, and if you aren't quite at that level yet - how do you make the leap?

I don't see a good cook as the person who can prepare the most delicious meal. Rather, I see a good cook as someone who primarily has an enjoyment of eating good food and sharing that experience. Notice the sharing part - that is very important. A sense of hospitality, I feel is essential to becoming a good cook. Another essential trait to possess is confidence. By this I don't mean the confidence to prepare an elaborate and difficult dish. The confidence I talk of is much simpler in concept. It is the ability to head to the vegetable grocer, or the butcher, or the fishmonger and select the absolute best ingredients - without a shopping list or a recipe. Even if you don't feel confident to do this alone, use the resources available to you and ask advice from the providores you buy from. Of course, a supermarket will not provide this level of service - so take this as a hint - shop where the people selling the product know what it is and what to do with it - if at all possible.

If you are inexperienced in the kitchen, the qualities I outlined above may well seem just too unobtainable. Some of you may feel that a leap of faith like buying ingredients without a recipe or a list is just too great a divide. You may say that your confidence will never get to the level required. Well, believe it or not - there is a way to get there. It will take some effort, but it is perfectly achievable for the keen. It may sound obvious, but you just gotta cook - and cook some more. Don't cook the latest and greatest from a glossy food magazine, not yet anyway. Cook one example of many styles of food, slowly and at your own pace. Be careful and try to select recipes that are shining examples of their ilk - true classics. This may not seem an easy thing to do, but trust me - they are out there. Cook one pasta recipe - but make sure it is a pasta recipe from Marcella Hazan. Cook one French casserole, but make sure it is an Elizabeth David. Cook one Thai Curry, and make sure that David Thompson wrote the recipe. Paula Wolfert for Middle Eastern food, Charmaine Solomon for just about anything South East Asian. These people all have one thing in common - they exude passion in their recipes, and they understand the importance of doing the simple things in the right way. If you master one each of their basic recipes, you will be well on the way to being confident enough to select an array of raw ingredients and come up with your own recipe.

One trap many keen cooks will eventually fall into (I did) is the overly elaborate dinner party. It may seem like a good idea at the time to invite 10 guests around for a sumptuous 5 course meal. How could they not be impressed by your arcane food knowledge and sheer skill? Very easily let me tell you. Cooking on this scale and of this detail is left to professionals for a couple of very good reasons. Firstly, the logistics and detail involved in creating a complex degustation menu is simply mind-boggling. The preparation needs to be exact, timely and measured. Your cooking environment needs to be up to speed - I'm talking 2 (possibly more) ovens - 6 burners, deep fryers and grills. Workspace needs to be abundant, with benches for preparing and plating. The second and most important factor is you. Your guests didn't come just for a dazzling meal - they could have gone to a restaurant for that. They are also here for your company, which will be sorely lacking if you are in the kitchen all night arranging architectural masterpieces.

If you made it this far, you deserve some small reward. I will provide it in the form of succinct advice from someone who has made all of the above (and many more) mistakes over the years. Great food is rarely the fussiest food. It is never the most designed food. Great food is as simple as picking the best ingredients and paying respect by cooking them simply. One of the finest meals I ever took was simply cheese, bread, wine and fruit. Here is what made it so good - The cheese was Reggiano parmesan, the bread was a sensational wood fired loaf, the wine was Piper Heidsieck Champagne and the fruit was a perfect autumn pear. Add to that the company of someone dear to you and a sunny autumn afternoon, and you have perfection that all the chefs in the world cannot surpass.

What then is a good cook? A good cook loves company, a good cook loves food, a good cook has a sense of hospitality and possesses if not overt, then blossoming confidence. A good cook will ignore trends and never fall to over-ambition. Finally, a good cook will know when not to cook.

Can't Cook Won't Cook is also a BBC game show that was aired between 1997 and 1999.

Each show, two people who couldn't , or wouldn't cook, were forced onto the show by friends. Under the enthusiastic guidance of the host, often Ainsley Harriott, they would try to cook a meal, the host himself showing them how it should be done.

When the meal was finished, the aforementioned friends would then be blindfolded and fed what the non-cookers had concocted. They would decide what the best meal was and who the winner should be.

 

OK, this is, admittedly, a tiny bit off topic, but providores? Seriously? Reggiano parmesan? "Wood fired loaf"?

Listen, I live in Swindon. The reason you've never heard of it is because it's mostly a suburban shit hole. The closest thing to a "providore" I've got is a hallal butcher, and if I asked him to butterfly my lamb I'd get the sort of look that, considering my nationality, I'd be well within my rights to be uncomfortable with.

What we get, here in the real world, is just about the medium grade of supermarket; we're not even posh enough for a Waitrose, let alone anything with a decent fish counter or a reliable selection of fresh herbs. So I'm afraid I can't compete with your perfectly ripe fruit and your fancy champagne. If I take the above description of a perfect meal verbatim, that means that I can never produce really "great food".

Well, bollocks to that. I fucking hate ingredient snobbery, always have done; but to find it in a node that's supposed to make cooking less intimidating for people is just, well, obscene! Choosing only the ripest Italian plum tomatoes and the finest Iberico ham is not cooking - it's shopping. It's consumerist and limiting, and in circumstances in which nobody is trying to overcome the cognitive dissonance by paying you a lot of money for the privilege, ultimately pointless bullshit.

It's true that some people will never learn to cook, whether because they don't want to or for some other reason that, while seemingly trivial to me, is significant enough for them. But most people do cook, up to a point; they do that because they have to, because we all have to eat and because, despite what Jamie Oliver chooses to tell you, the majority of parents don't actively set out to bring up their kids on overprocessed shit that's bad for them. In those kinds of circumstances - and, at the risk of repeating myself, those circumstances represent the real world - here's what I think really makes a good cook:

A good cook can make an interesting meal from the dullest ingredients; a wonderful meal from the worst ingredients; a sumptuous meal from the simplest and cheapest ingredients. A good cook will try - and succeed - to satisfy the various likes, dislikes, appettites, allergies, regimes and religious restrictions of all her diners while keeping the meal nutritionally balanced and tasty. A good cook knows how to cook in bulk without losing any of the flavour and sophistication of a dish. A good cook can make the evening meal into a culinary adventure, day after day after day after day, through toddler years and teenage years and toothless declining years.

A good cook, in fact, is someone who feeds people. The only thing you really need in order to become a good cook is to want to do that. If all you ever learn to make is "mom's chicken soup", "those special cupcakes of yours, dear" and "auntie's famous lasagna", then you will have a repertoire to be proud of.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.