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Path to take to being a very good Cook at home

Hi guys.

I must say that this site is EXTEREMELY addictive!!

And I have caught a sudden and extereme fascination with wanting to make my own cheese, bake my own bread,s pastries, cakes, cookies, pies, desserts, etc.Making my own lunchmeat/ coldcuts/ deli meats-- and just being a GREAT GREAT cooker who can make food superior to that of fast food and restaurant food.

I am not looking to cook professionally or hold a job as a chef or have a cooking degree, I just want to be a GREAT GREAT cook at home.

I have heard from others that culinary school is not needed for one who wishes to take this path. But restaurant/bakery experience is needed.

and I am wondering "Why"? How could the experience of working in a kitchen under a chef contribute more to your cooking expertise rather than cooking in an everyday kitchen under yourself?

Is there a way that one could learn how to be a great cook/chef without having to work in a restaurant or something? I think I would just HATE having to work in fast food or restaurant places, and dealing with the conditions they deal with.

If anyone could help-- it would be greatly appreciated... thanks a BUNCH, guys!

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  1. While I think that having worked in restaurant kitchens certainly helped me to be a good home cook, I don't think it is required. I would just find a couple of cook books that you really like and work with a couple of recipes until you master the techniques required for those recipes. After you master the techniques you are able to develop your own recipes and that is where the real fun begins.

    1. You can definitely be a good home cook without restaurant experience. In fact, a lot of restaurants have conditions that home cooks generally don't have like high BTU stoves. So if one is a restaurant cook, they will probably have to do some adjusting at home like my father-in-law has to do when he cooks at home. And you probably won't learn too much working at a fast food restaurant except learning to take the frozen french fries out of the deep-fryer when the bell goes off.

      I think the reason why some may say that working in a restaurant is helpful is repetition. The more you do something, the better you get at it. Home cooks generally don't cook in volume as restaurants do. So unless you've been cooking for years and years or have the self-discipline to practice your brunoise skills for hours at a time, your skills will probably be not as honed as somebody who does this 12 hours a day, six days a week for years. But the more you do something the better you will become at it. Read books (recipe books, technique books), read Chowhound's Home Cooking board, read cooking blogs, watch cooking shows, watch cooking demonstrations on youtube -- it will come. If you feel it's necessary you can even take a weekend class.

      1. You do not have to work in a restaurant or any commercial food service to become a very good home cook.
        You will however be a much better home cook if you learn basic skills properly from the very beginning.
        Cooking like any other art or craft has a vocabulary and basic techniques that practitioners build upon as they become more accomplished.
        You can't follow directions in recipes if you don't understand the vocabulary.
        You can't do what the directions tell you to do if you haven't learned the basic skills.

        The quickest and easiest way to accomplish your goal is to take a basic cooking course at a good cooking school for non-professionals.
        Places like Sur la Table for instance offer classes in basic knife skills which they integrate with simple menus that will get you on your way.
        A basic pastry class would teach you how to make pie crusts of several types from which you can make sweet and savory dishes.
        A bread making class would include not only bread but pizza crusts and other similar yeast-based baked goods.
        Once you learn a few of the building blocks of cooking skills, you will be able to use cookbooks to expand your repertoire of foods that you are able to produce.

        It's a lot easier to take some fundamental classes - and a lot more fun too - than to struggle along on your own. Another advantage is that you learn correctly from the very beginning and won't have to un-learn incorrect technique at a later time.
        You will get a great running start and probably make some great friends who share your interest in food.

        It's great that classes are available now. It wasn't so easy decades ago when so many of us had to use Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a home study course and watch her TV show to learn how to cook. That's still a pretty good idea, but cooking classes may be just what you want.

        1. About 35 years ago, I worked in a couple of kitchens. I've had a career outside of food since then. I've become a very good home cook over the last 15 or so years, and I have to say that my restaurant experience had little to do with my more recent success. My mother was always a great cook, and I learned more from her, in terms of techniques and ingredients, than I ever learned in the professional kitchens. I started out washing dishes and ended up doing some prep work and assisting on the line. I did have some instruction, especially regarding knife skills, but never from the chef - he was much too busy to bother with me. There's no guarantee that working in a kitchen will get you any decent instruction. Mise en Place (preparing the ingredients you need ahead of the actual cooking) still stays with me. But those are easy to learn - the knife skills come mainly with practice. Timing - knowing how to tell when things are done - smelling, listening, generally sensing, all come with experience. Sometime around the 10th time you grill a 2" thick strip steak, you'll know when it's medium rare from pushing it and watching it spring back. From then on, you'll always have that touch.

          Get books and DVD's that teach you what the various methods of cooking are - boiling, broiling, braising, grilling, roasting, what the basic cuts of meat are from all your critters, what the basic prep methods are. You can't go wrong with Julia Child - The Way To Cook is very good at explaining why as well as what. You can still buy her old shows on DVD.

          Working in a real restaurant kitchen could definitely help, but it would take time. Fast food teaches you nothing with regard to cooking. My oldest son used his Burger King experience to get his foot in the door at a decent restaurant where he ended up being a line cook on a couple of different stations, so it isn't necessarily entirely useless. But like I said - it all takes time. I don't think it's worth it, and I think most people could learn more, quicker, from following Julia Child's instructions.

          1 Reply
          1. re: applehome

            Must agree with Apple--I learned a lot of my cooking skills from Julia--both from tv and from cookbooks. Could not live without The Way to Cook.

          2. Hey Achilles,

            Welcome to foodie fun!

            I think that the first four posters are so helpful. One of the first good points is from JPC -- find a few good books that YOU love. I have found that books I adore sometimes do not work for my mother. Julie Sahni for some reason works fine for me, but not for her, where Madhur Jaffrey tends to work for both of us, once we cut the salt in half. But if you are into Indian cuisine, both authors have books that can give you good guidance.

            If you are in NYC, you can go in person to Kitchen Art and Letters, and talk to the owner Nach or manager Matt. They are also very helpful over the phone -- they may need to make a phone date with you so they can devote time to your questions, but I have spent years visiting them, and their knowledge and quiet joy of food and all things liquid is contagious. They also do free book searches (unlike most stores) if you find a raggedy book you need to find with a real binding...

            I have taken a few courses, but along the lines of a weekend knife course (most important thing I learned there was to hone my knives every time. Considering the cost of knives and pro sharpening, that weekend has paid for itself!) My fun foodie joy has been taking a cooking course or two in Thailand -- I was very lucky. But any course, no matter where, has been a short one to stoke my interest and give the basics. MakingSense is right about the basic classes. And classes are easier than videos in the beginning if the teacher is nice.

            I'll never forget my mother saying how she loved watching Child on tv because she was a hoot, but that she took five pages to explain how to boil water and it was just too much. So that was the wrong book for her for sure.

            As Miss Needle said, repetition is indeed a good thing depending on what you wish to create. I am not interested in baking, so I have avoided the perfecting of making things rise in my personal oven. But I know that repetition is important depending on what you are ultimately hoping to make, if precision is required (mirepoix anyone?). Just always have a comfort backup, so if it doesn't work out, you still have a yummy to sit with munch and smile.

            I bet your love of food could be killed by a stint in the food industry -- mine was for a while, and my experiences were brief! I got a full degree in fashion design, and it took me years to be able to separate myself from the bad of the rag trade and love good design again. Of course I am now addicted to Project Runway and Top Chef, so time does heal all sorts of wounds :-)

            Depending on how you like to cook, you can take the slow food route, which is my way, as I am just slow. I turn on the radio or tv, and commune with whatever it is on my cutting board. After honing those darn knives, of course. It is just all about the joy, which is why you like this website. No matter how you cook and learn more, it is correct. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Food is life and joy and in these often difficult times, a simple lovely lasagne (hey, that was my dinner!) will bring goodness to our little corner.

            1. 1) Read (cookbooks, mags, boards) to learn: a) the purpose and process of the various techniques; b) about ingredients; c) how to choose the freshest or best quality ingredients at the store; d) how to tell when your pan, oven, ingredient or mixture is ready for the next step.

              2) Watch on television professional chefs who also like to teach--credentialed chefs who are committed not just to entertaining and sharing recipes with viewers, but who constantly talk to us about the *science* of food--how to know when a shellfish is fresh, or what changes an ingredient undergoes appropriately when it's cooked in the right manner. Once upon a time I would have been talking about Julia Child, James Beard, or even Madeleine Kamman, whom I don't think is on television currently. Today, I'm talking about people like Jacques Pepin, Emeril Lagasse, Sara Moulton--they are chefs, first, and their celebrity is merely a consequence of that.

              3. Practice, practice, practice. Put another way, learn by doing. Cook, cook, cook.

              4. Do your preparation and mise-en-place. Pre-heat your oven, gather your utensils, measure out your spices, slice your vegetables and set them out in a logical sequence, butter and flour your baking dish, before you put anything in a bowl or cooking vessel.

              5. While you're learning, don't skip a step, even the tiniest one, that's spelled out in one of the reliable, acknowledged basic cookbooks (e.g., Joy of Cooking). Don't skip an ingredient, unless the recipe offers substitutions. Pay attention to your recipe. If the recipe tells you to beat something with a handmixer for two minutes, set a timer and beat it for two minutes, not one minute and 45 seconds. If the recipe tells you instead to look for a certain change in the ingredients (e.g., coats a spoon thinly when cooked enough, or changes color to a creamy white), look for those changes, instead of following the clock inflexibly.

              6. Measure twice.

              7. Taste as you go so you can adjust seasonings. Add seasonings in increments; you can add more, but you can't take out.

              8. Clean as you go. Keep your workspace organized, sanitary and as uncluttered as you can, to prevent confusion, mistakes and accidents.

              9. Don't be afraid of the inevitable failures and disappointments, which you *will* have if you're going to take up cooking as a frequent activity. Embrace the occasional fallen cake or the burnt, rather than caramelized, onions, as opportunities to research what may have gone wrong, and how you can do better next time.

              10. Enlist a candid but supportive family member or friend to be your honest taste-tester. You want someone who isn't hypercritical, but who also isn't reluctant to offer suggestions for improvement. Ask what he or she likes about a dish you've prepared, what he or she doesn't. Was the texture good? Was it too salty, not salted enough, just right? Did it *look* appealing? Hint: If your guinea pig tells you everytime you make something that it was "perfect", then you're missing an opportunity to improve your cooking. Now and then you will make something "perfectly", but few of us do that too often...

              11. Congratulate yourself heartily on everything you do that you think turns out well. Keep motivating yourself. Learning how to cook, and how to cook *better* is a lifelong process, but every success, whether little or big, breeds more success.

              12. Eat the final product with joy, thanks and gusto!

              2 Replies
              1. re: Steady Habits

                Although it doesn't sound romantic, cooking is chemistry, math, and physics.
                As you read through what Steady Habits wrote, pay attention to the importance that "steady habits" play in good cooking. Measuring accurately, organizing well, paying attention to the details in the instructions, the changes the ingredients undergo when you apply different processes to them, etc. And perhaps most important, taking note of your failures and trying to determine WHY you failed.
                Cooking is SCIENCE.

                Once you conquer that and it becomes second nature, the ART can take over and the fun begins.
                One of my favorite books is Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.
                It has lists of common foods paired with things for which they have a natural affinity. It helps you create your own recipes and also helps to avoid terrible mistakes. There are reasons why good cooks don't put certain food together. The flavors fight like cats in dogs in your mouth. It's a good read.

                Most of all, enjoy the journey. There is never a final destination. Always something new to learn.

                1. I can't imagine that working in a restaurant kitchen would make you a better home cook. My advice--get some great cookbooks and just cook and cook and cook!!!

                  1. An instructor of mine Jacques Pepin said that a good home cook will usually be a better cook than a professional cook, but probably wouldn't survive in a professional kitchen. They are two different things.

                    A home cook is cooking from the heart for for people that you care about. A professional cook is executing a meal for many people and is concerned about volume, speed and consistency.

                    I wouldn't worry about working in a kitchen. Just realize, as with most things, it will take time and a lot of mistakes.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: chocolateman

                      You had Jacques for a instructor?

                      (so jealous)

                    2. TASTE TASTE and TASTE some more.The only thing that changes is the setting and tools.The "home" cooks I know are lacking in nothing.The skills are the same.
                      DO NOT assume the recipe is great as written,taste your food at every stage.It's really just desire and practice,lots !!!!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: lcool

                        What everyone is saying is right on the money!

                        However, you must also have the love for the food and passion and as crazy as it may sound respect for the ingredients. You experienced Foodies know what I am talking about and achilles007, you soon will too.

                        For example, I never baked bread up until 2 years ago, I mean I thought I could never do it, I thought the proceses was too long to even try, one day I opened my grandmother's cookbook, picked a basic bread recipe and did it...But I took it step by step. When the bread was finally ready (and yes it took a while) it was the most amazing bread I had ever tasted, from that point I had respect for the Ingredients (yes, for flour and yeast for those two basic ingredients can create something so darn good) ...Now I baked bread all the time and all different kinds too.

                        ANd id you make something and it doesn't turn out the way you wanted it too...SO WHAT, try again another day

                      2. The way to good cooking is the same as the way to Carnegie Hall: practice! Try new things and if they don't work out (this guaranteed to happen every once in a while), try again.

                        As far as formal instruction goes you may want to consider cooking classes for home cooks - ask at your local cooking store or community center. A lot of what goes on at restaurants isn't really applicable to home cooking. And a home-cooking class won't make you quit your job to wash dishes and chop vegetables for nothing or almost nothing.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: mordacity

                          WOW!!! Thanks a BUNCH, you guys!!!

                          THIS IS REALLY HELPFUL!!

                          I swear this site is the GREATEST!

                          You all are the greatest foodie cyber friends a guy could have.. THANK YOU!

                        2. Besides the suggestions above, it was really helpful for me to watch a few very good home cooks do their thing. In my case, it was a combination of my grandmother and my -then-roommate, both of whom were (and still are) excellent home cooks. Watching TV chefs is one thing, but it made a big impression on me watching a few folks without a state of the art kitchen and an army of assistants to prep turn out great food in an everyday setting.

                          1. cookbooks are a great place to start... but following a recipe exactly is like painting by numbers kits. you will have a picture when you're down, but you will now have advanced your artistic ability.'

                            watch chefs cook, in homes, on tv, wherever.

                            dont be afraid to experiment - if you screw something up - so what? its one meal in a lifetime of meals. you learn more from failure than success.

                            just cook. and then cook some more. find the flavors you like. play with them. see why they work. then cook some more.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: thew

                              Just cook is right, thew. Also cook for others, with love. After a while they'll rave about your food everytime they see you, saying what a terrific cook you are, and eventually you'll believe them ...... and become that!

                            2. All the above is excellent advice. I'll add another concept: think and taste in four dimenions when learning to cook.

                              The w - axis are the flavors salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. The flavors you sense are most often combinations of these. Learn the tastes and the combinations. This is important but often forgotten.

                              The x -axis are the real life ingredients that manifest the flavors and that require workable combination: As with the basic flavors, why is salted watermelon good and salted pear not? How can rice be both a sweet and a savory dish?

                              The y - axis is what you do to ingredients - peeling, skinning, butchering, de-boning, draining, sectioning, salting, brining, marinading, soaking, slicing, chopping, dicing, julienne - ing, brunoise - ing, stuffing, rolling, flattening, tenderizing, swearing at, and more - before heat is added.

                              The z - axis are cooking methods - baking, broiling, grilling, simmering, blanching, poaching, frying sauteeing, roasting, charring, toasting, stir frying, deep frying, braising, steaming, microwaving, smoking, BBQing, - that combine ingredients, flavor combinations, and lead to physical-chemical transformations of our ingredients and flavors. Learn each of these to some extent.

                              At the end you'll be making complex sauces and dishes that require perhaps quite a number of ingredients or perhaps not, but will require a lot of steps. You will know why you can't just toss it all in a pot or pan or wok or dish and crank up the heat. You'll have fun doing each step with each combination of ingredients and going on to the next and to the next until you have an incredible dish or sauce (that people might not even understand as the reason why they like the seemingly simple but devine stuff you prepared for them).

                              In the beginning, just think about how these four dimensions always add up to what you cook.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                Very interesting stuff, Sam. Some thoughts - Why is the w axis limited to the taste sense? Where does the smell sense - and the whole concept of complex flavors come into play? I think you're absolutely right in isolating the 5 basic flavors - that gives you the basic profile of the food. But the complex flavors layer and build on top of the basic profile, mainly from aroma, and I see nowhere in your definition where that fits in.

                                Also, the x-axis seems almost more folklorish than scientific. Maybe it's a trial and error thing and a way to categorize something you need to file away for future reference. People don't like oregano in their hamburgers... that kind of thing. (I just learned that one, by the way.)

                                Perhaps I'm getting lost in the interplay between the w and x. There are interplays between all the axis, of course.

                                Have you developed this further in terms of each of the spectrums on the axis? Like, what are the ends of the cooking axis, perhaps from pan searing to boiling, then roasting, in the middle, to broiling - from conduction to convection to radiant heat.

                                Anyway - you're right about frameworks being a good aid to help you learn. They allow you to organize what you learn in a manner that can be accessed easily. Your 4-axis framework should work well for cooking.

                                1. re: applehome

                                  You're right: taste and smell go together; and texture and presentation are certainly a big part of cooking.

                                  As to food combinations, there are a number that seem to work everywhere and others that don't work anywhere. Some are in doubt: cheese and fish for example.

                                  I came up with the framework after seeing how all of you above had already made several excellent points and largely had the bases covered.

                                2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  this reminds me of this cookbook recently acquired:


                                  they break tastes up into tastes that push, that is heighten other flavors by pushing them to the forefront: salty, sweet, and picante
                                  tastes that pull, ie tastes that highlight other underlying flavors, either broadly or narrowly: tangy, vinted, bulby, floral herbal, spiced aromatic, and funky
                                  taste platforms: garden, meaty, oceanic, and starchy
                                  and tastes that punctuate ( this alsoi includes textures, like crunchy and smooth): sharp bitter

                                  an interesting approach to building and balancing foods, to say the least

                                  1. re: thew

                                    the only emphasis missing is where on the tongue/ palate the ?greatest impact is.
                                    For example ;salt modifies or changes bitterness - but not the entire tongue is involved,tannins have no "taste" but are well perceived by most.
                                    Which is back to my first post and teaching tool,TASTE and ? remember ? file and taste some more.Be your own best tool.

                                3. You have to know the rules before you can break them. I took basic cheff/cooking courses years ago at hospitaliy courses in my city. But what I know now is that because I understand the basics of why and how everything works tastewise, I'm free to experiment.

                                  That's why I love watching chef shows like Michael Smith whose motto is "cookng without a recipe". Or Jamie Oliver with his "lug" of oil or "knob" of butter.

                                  Once you get your basics of understanding the techniques, teaspoons and cup measures don't matter so much (unless your'e baking). After that it's taste and now to balance them.

                                  1. Practice! And find some mouths to feed. I think the best way to learn is to have a group you can cook for on a regular basis ( many people will be happy I am sure). Remember that once you master a technique you can change it up. If you can take a knife skill class, that is great. Another thing I would do is get an instant read thermometer- it will give you the confidence you need to serve meat and know it is at the temp you want. Also, dont make dinner and have every dish be new, make one new thing and a few things you know you make well or something easy.This will sound cheezy, but gather people you love, try out new dishes and enjoy them together.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: cassoulady

                                      Agree totally with practising. About 15 years ago a bunch of us formed a book group with the criteria that we would take turns hosting and the host would cook up and serve a full-course dinner from scratch. This has been great fun and lacked the pressure of throwing a "special occasion" or holiday dinner party.

                                      Let me tell you, regularly planning a menu (often based on food or meals mentioned in the book), researching recipes and cuisines, cooking and serving a few times a year has given us all lots of practice, not to mention that I have accumulated all kinds of "stuff" for entertaining - interesting china, proper water and wine glasses, neat tablecloths, etc.

                                      It's been challenging and fun and there's nothing like getting together with close friends for good food and wine and talk. But if we hadn't set up this "structure" (which is very loose by the way, members have been known to order food in because of various reasons), I'm not sure I would have this wonderful food/book relationship with these particular friends.

                                    2. Commercial establishments use techniques and tricks that make sense when you're making hundreds or feeding many people. For home cooks, sometimes those techniques and steps aren't worth the additional angst and trouble--thus the problem with cook books written from a professional angle.

                                      I think that the best way to learn to cook well is to pick a couple of dishes you like, and master them. Roast chicken, a loaf of bread, angel food cake, puff pastry--whatever appeals. Once you've got one recipe down cold, step up to another that uses different skills or techniques. (Home made charcuterie will be a fair distance in the future.)

                                      Don't try to perfect restaurant dishes at home when you're starting. Most people would rather eat honest pot roast that's perfect than some tall food concoction that misses. I'm a good home cook, and my husband's a chef, and while I can do some of the stuff he does, I'm not about to set up a whole mise in my smallish kitchen, just so I can throw a dinner party or feed my family.

                                      1. I agree with other posters. You can become a great cook without working at a restaurant by just trying things, using cookbooks, utilizing other resources (like this site) and paying close attention to the nuance of different styles of cooking.

                                        Two things that will really help is A) using quality ingredients and B) using quality cookware that you are comfortable with. You don't need to go and spend thousands of dollars either. You really just need a quality set of knives, I reccomend a cast iron skillet and a set of decent set of pots and pans. Quality cookware with quality ingredients should yield quality results. Start small and simple and work you way up to more complicated recipes. Have fun! Cooking is a great way to spend an afternoon with a friend, loved one and you can learn together. I don't recommend trying un-tested recipes for friends or especially a dinner party, it can lead to a bunch of unnecessary stress and damage your confidence. Cheers and good luck.

                                          1. re: joannekatescoat

                                            yes! don't be afraid to use salt. to use butter. to use HIGH heat.

                                          2. To become a decent (good) cook, all you need to do is cook. Use what's available, experiment, watch what other people are doing. There will be successes and failures, but really, that's the process.

                                            Professional experience is not needed at all.

                                            Start with the simple things--pasta, rice, eggs (I taught my fairy-Godson scrambled eggs when he was 5). If you mess up once, try a different method.

                                            The best professional chef to watch is Jacques Pepin, although you may have to TiVo him and watch him in slow motion.

                                            Take it slowly and have fun!

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: Caralien

                                              My advice is that it is not that difficult or even complicated. Decide what you want to make and follow the recipe exactly. Then critique your meal and decide how you would make it better. It is a matter of continual improvement. Years ago, I wanted to make barbeque as good as Arthur Bryant. Today, I rarely eat barbeque out because it just doesn't measure up. Same with Italian. It is all a learning experience.