What Makes A Good Cook?
(from the Introduction)
A good cook must love to cook. Without that, you can forget it, for a cook who cannot find pleasure in the processes of cooking will easily become bored. It is a good sign if you enjoy cooking for yourself alone, and are quite happy to take the time to make something interesting even when no one is coming to dinner.
Nothing else is essential. Qualities like great technique, the ability to come up with interesting new recipes, or a powerful belief in your own talent are certainly nice to have, but are only necessary if you are planning on opening a three-star restaurant. But most of us, wisely, are not, for there is no shorter route to a life of fatal stress and financial ruin.
There are other qualities I admire in cooks who do food well, and one thing they will almost certainly agree on is that it takes more than good food to make a meal memorable. Meals that leave a lasting impression do not always necessitate amazing food—in fact, the food can sometimes be quite ordinary. My definition of good food is not that it stands out, but just the opposite: that it fits in. Without harmony between all the different elements of an evening—food, atmosphere, setting, conversation, mood—there is no balance, and the chances of creating an experience that people will remember are shot in the foot.
As people who love to cook, we can be tempted into making amazing food for our friends, simply because we can. The time for that is when your friends are as passionate about food as you are, and are happy to spend the evening talking about it; go for it and let your passion show. But when, as sometimes happens, your friends are not as food-obsessed as you, serving amazing food runs the risk of upsetting the applecart of the evening. Food that does not demand to be the centre of attention will be a much better background for a broad-ranging conversation, and allow for some other element, such as the pleasure of the first outdoor dinner of the summer, to be the memory that people take away.
Bear in mind, too, that the consequence of serving amazing food to non-foodies is that you will never be invited anywhere again. Friends will be convinced their food can never come up to your standards (which may be true), and they may also be convinced that you only eat things that are very exotic, very expensive, or very difficult to make, and this is almost certainly not true. We who love food must take care not to intimidate our friends by dazzling them with our own brilliance. It can easily be mistaken for smugness.
I am not particularly good at technique (though I get better with practice), nor especially creative when it comes to inventing new dishes. But there is one thing I am good at, and that is making food that works for the occasion at hand, whatever it may be. I can come up with a menu that reflects the setting, enhances the atmosphere, and supports the conversation, and when that is done, that is within my skill set. (It is not a good idea to plan a menu around recipes you cannot make!)
There is another talent I have observed in cooks I admire, and which I have tried to cultivate within myself—the ability to produce something interesting out of not very much. A good cook can look in a sparsely populated fridge and find the makings of a meal; non-cooks look in the same fridge and complain there is nothing to eat. I like the challenge of the sparse fridge, supplemented by supplies from the larder (usually pasta, I admit).
At the end of the day, what a good cook wants is to be able to cook for themselves and their family and friends, to make satisfying and delicious things to eat, to welcome guests to the table with warmth and generosity, and, in the process, to give pleasure to themselves and to others. Learning to trust your instincts is an important part of the process. It is easier said than done, of course, but remember that inside each of us is a feeling for food that is ours and ours alone. No one else can cook like you. If food is one of the ways you show your talents to the world, trust that you know what you're doing and do not hold back. Take risks but don't be stupid. Some people say that you shouldn't try out a new dish on guests; I would say it depends on the guests. With that in mind I would also say: just the one course.
ne last piece of advice that over the years has made me appear a better cook than I am, which I have always attributed to Julia Child (perhaps wrongly, but if anyone deserves the credit, it is she): a cook should never apologize (for their food, at least). You may think you have made the most unholy mess of a recipe, and perhaps you have, but the chances are good that your friends will have no idea unless you make the mistake of telling them. Julia's advice, and mine to you, is to let them enjoy your food in blissful ignorance.