The motivational speaker Zig Ziglar tells the story of the lesson he learned when visiting his elderly neighbor, Chuck. Chuck was fixing Zig's lawn mower and Zig exclaimed, "I wish I could fix things like that; I never had the talent for it."
Chuck told Zig he had felt the same way - always envious of technical talents and always feeling technically challenged - until one day years earlier when Chuck had to bring his lawn mower to Zig's grandfather. Chuck had said, "I wish I could fix things like that; I never had the talent for it." Zig's grandfather had laughed and said, "Most that do well, don't do well because of talent; most do well because of patience and practice."
Zig took his lawn mower home and with a little patience and practice, he fixed it himself.
Believe it or not, I have become a much better cook since I retired from teaching restaurant management. Pressured by the need to "look good," I stuck with those recipes that I knew would come out right. Now that I am free to be myself, I have stopped flipping past the "fussy" recipes, and giving away the cookbooks featuring recipes with more than 10 ingredients.
Many of you have asked, how do I become a better cook? Listen to Zig's grandfather. Patience and practice play a larger role than talent. Here are some obvious and fun ideas to improve your culinary competence.
1. Just do it. To become a cook, you must cook. It you are afraid, do it anyway. If that recipe scares you, just try it. If a food appeals to you, try making it from scratch.
2. Just do it often. If you only cook once a week, it's doubtful that you will ever get past the amateur level. First and foremost, to become a better cook, you have to practice. The more you do it, the better you will become. If the desire to cook is not followed by cooking, then the desire is not to cook.
3. Make mistakes. It's only food; you are not cutting diamonds.
4. Cook with friends. Everyone knows something you don't know. Plan cooking parties or "do-it-yourself" dinners. Start a cooking club where you all decide on challenging recipes.
5. Take a class. Obviously, the more you learn, the more you know. This can be lots of fun, but it's important to practice what you are taught.
6. Sign up for cooking magazines. Download a cooking app. There is nothing more motivating that flipping through "Bon Appetit" during your afternoon tea or evening cocktail. Order "Taste of Home" and "Food and Wine." See what is being made by grandmas and by gourmets. The way to be a better cook is to know what is being cooked.
7. Pick a cookbook you like and make everything in it. One item from each chapter at a time. Start with Betty Crocker and end with Thomas Keller.
8. Write in your cookbooks. Learn from your efforts. This is a way to remind yourself about what you liked and didn't like, what you changed and if you will ever make it again.
9. Keep a recipe book with comments. If you get better by practice, you need to keep your recipes in order to practice them.
10. Master 10 new recipes. Pick those recipes you would like to know, ones you would love to eat or think will really impress. Make them over and over until you know them by heart and they always come out perfect. Knowing a master recipe by heart comes in handier than you might think.
11. Plan a week of menus, and include one "stretch" recipe in each meal. Some examples of "stretch " recipes include: meringue, puff pastry, beef stock, poached salmon, dauphinoise potatoes, asparagus souffle, brioche, from-scratch chocolate pie, bechamel sauce or deboned roast chicken.
12. Sign up for Top Chef University online. I highly recommend these thorough cooking lessons.
13. For 10 straight days, make one recipe each day from 10 cuts of meat: chuck, flank, sirloin, shoulder, etc. Or, make one recipe each day from 10 different meats: pork, lamb, veal, beef, bison, etc. Make 10 different vegetarian dishes, make 10 different sorbets for dessert, make 10 different pies - you get the idea.
14. Visit a Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table or the Johnstown Restaurant Supply store. Vow to buy one speciality item and use it. Use it two times a week for a month.
15. Never apologize. Julia Child tried her recipes out on her many dinner party guests. No matter how bad it was, she never apologized. That way, she always thought she was a good cook.
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