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.