Thursday, January 30, 2020

"a real cook doesn't need a recipe"

I call bullshit on the idea that "real" cooks don't need recipes. What's wrong with using a recipe? How are you deficient if you haven't memorized a recipe? You're not born knowing how to make gumbo, for example, nor are you born knowing basic cooking techniques, knife skills, ingredient properties, and all the rest. These things must be learned, so you have to start with some sort of instruction.

If I were to interpret the maxim charitably and unpack its meaning somewhat, I'd say that, as a cook masters basic techniques and becomes familiar with the culinary terrain of his or her local culture, the need for recipes will lessen simply because s/he has acquired and developed certain habits. But let's say you're an accomplished cook who has made plenty of soups, salads, sandwiches, and casseroles in your day... but one day, you conceive a desire to make either a Beef Wellington or a timpano—both dishes that are fairly involved in terms of time, resources, and techniques. Do you think you can manage such a feat without a recipe on your very first go? Well, good luck, if so. I'd argue that the cook who can make Beef Wellington or timpano on his/her first try has a very broad and deep knowledge base upon which to rely—a knowledge base that is the result of extensive experience. But the nature of that experience matters. I'd have to ask: does experience with soups, salads, sandwiches, and casseroles translate to the ability to make a perfect Wellington or timpano on the first try?

So why not begin a particular culinary adventure with a recipe? Even veteran cooks use them. There's simply no shame in that. In the meantime, what the maxim calls "a real cook" is merely a person with experience who has memorized and internalized a trove of recipes, techniques, and other bits of knowledge. Showing off that you can make pasta from scratch isn't any more mind-blowing than showing off that you can recite Shakespeare.


John Mac said...

Yeah, my reaction to that headline was bullshit as well. By that logic, an engineer doesn't need a blueprint. A pilot doesn't need instruments. A writer doesn't need punctuation. Oh wait, never mind... :)

Charles said...

Did I miss something? Where did this come from?

I can't say that I have ever thought that real cooks do not need recipes. Part of the fun for me in cooking is coming up with a recipe and then tweaking it every time I make it to perfect it--or get it as close to perfect as possible, at least.

And don't even think about baking without a recipe--that is one area where you want to be precise.

Kevin Kim said...


I think it was from a recent episode of "Binging with Babish," which showed a clip from "Everybody Loves Raymond." One of the characters says the line about not needing recipes.

Charles said...

Ah, I see.