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The 'tipping point' or how many times did you learn to cook?

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I'll admit to cooking for years. Yet, as I reflect on earlier meals and menus, I realize that the early attempts were good but not great - and I thought my self an excellent cook then. There seems to be tipping points when my food reached a different level:

Grade school - When I learned that there were other foods besides steak and rice - and I could make them myself
High School - The first trip to Europe and the exposure to different flavors and thoughtful food prepared with quality ingredients
Marriage - The rhythmic production of meals and it's repetition made me a less self-conscious cook and discovery that simple is great
A stint in Italy - The awareness of the relationship between culture and food - the reasons food tastes different in different countries, regions or towns - and to respect that
Vegetarianism - This will sound strange to most -the drive for flavor and texture in dishes made me a better overall cook - even for meat

What were your tipping points and for what new catalyst should I search?

(If this has been done before, please let me know and I'll pull it.)

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  1. I know what you're talking about. I've been cooking for 33 years. Started out simple, then grew more curious about food. Collected cookbooks, started experimenting. When I got married, I loved to entertain and prepare beautiful, sometimes almost exotic foods. I went through every cuisine I could think of that we liked, and felt like I had conquered them to our satisfaction. I am known as an excellent cook, and my career was spent in Food and Beverage, front and back management. I have trained cooks who turned out to be so talented and good. Now....I'm more relaxed and confident than ever. I still collect cookbooks (my husband wonders if one can have too many..) and am curious as ever. I seek out the finest ingredients I can find. I can't pinpoint a tipping point (sorry..) - I think it was probably 8 or 9 years ago when I decided to cook to please and not impress.
    Interesting: I may get back to you on this!

    1. I grew up on my Mom's kitchen counter so I have always had a bug when it came to cooking, even if it was simplistic in approach when younger. As an adult I have worked in and around the world of fine dining and the businesses that support restaurants. These experiences gave me the drive to cook at higher technical levels while honing skills. The "tipping point" for me is my desire to eat VERY well on a very limited budget while raising a family. This in itself has made me really respect the simple complexities of rustic Italian cooking, and Thai cuisine while chasing the "dragon" of the various styles of Indian and Asian cuisines as well. It is a journey that my wife and I love going on despite the fact that sometimes the kids are less enthused but are willing to try.

      1. My mother was a good cook but had a very limited repertoire thanks to my father's limited gastronomical parameters (i.e., meat&potatoes, no "ini" food). She enjoyed watching Julia Child so I picked up pointers from the PBS cooking shows - first and foremost Julia, but also Jacques, Jeff, and Justin....never realized the pattern before!

        1. The tipping point for me was when I somehow came to understand that I have an unerring memory for flavors, and that I should pay attention to how these things are arrived at and trust myself to get there. Very scary, given that I started out panicking whenever the water was boiling and my box of frozen peas wasn't open yet! But I learned to relax and enjoy the process, and to trust both my instincts and my body of acquired knowledge. Since then it's been quite a few pieces of cake!

          1. My 'tipping points' tend to be when I get curious about new cuisines -- through people I meet, places I go, foods I've tried or want to try. I'm a newbie cook, but here are mine so far:

            - Learning how to make pasta when I was 10, since mom would put the pasta in a pot of (cold) water, turn on the stove, and boil away until she remembered to check on it (at least 30 minutes later). Am now the designated pasta maker.

            - Declaring microwaved Bagel Bites too chewy, and opting for the toaster oven instead -- simple things amazed us in college...

            - Since Italian was the most easily accepted in my house, it was the first non-Chinese food I learned to cook. In the beginning, it was fake Italian -- basically making clean-out-the-fridge fried rice, but subbing in pasta for the rice. I've since learned a few real Italian dishes, but the bar is set pretty low at home. My parents still love Sbarro and Olive Garden.

            - Jewish cooking from an old boyfriend's non-Jewish dad (he made latkes better than the (Jewish) mom).

            - Spanish cooking from my host mom in Madrid, who had never hosted a Chinese student before and wanted all the recipes -- we did a lot of trading. I'd spend nearly every afternoon during the week in the kitchen with her, 'helping' (learning to) prep a proper Spanish lunch.

            - While in Spain, I traveled to Morocco with an ex-Peace Corps grad student and met his old host family. The women of the family taught me how to roll couscous by hand -- none of that boxed quick-cooking nonsense. Since women are traditionally sequestered to kitchen/house duties there, I spent most of my time in the kitchen with them -- endless amounts of couscous, hot and cold salads, tagines, and a really great 'pancake' they would make for breakfast (but thicker, denser, and more savory -- but, not quite like an arepa).

            - A slight foray into Korean food, when I had a particularly strong craving for those tofu casserole-like soups and the spicy cucumber pickles I had as banchan once. No idea what these are actually called -- sorry.

            - My first friend in college was Bosnian; her mom gave me the recipes I always asked for -- burek, sarma, ajvar -- and her dad would ship us 'care packages' consisting solely of his homemade suho meso.

            - After many years of campaigning for a 'real American Thanksgiving meal,' mom acquiesced -- and designated me as the one who would have to cook the entire meal. First time I ever attempted gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, that weird sweet potato/marshmallow combination, pie...and, the first time I ever roasted anything in the oven.

            - The SO is half Puerto Rican, so I've really gotten into Puerto Rican cooking -- also does wonders for the grad student budget -- but he works in sports admin (football ops) and went to school in the South. So, lots of sports-watching food (dips, guac, chile con queso, wings) and, finally, all the Americana-type food I grew up without! Mac 'n cheese, coleslaw, country fried steak, biscuits and gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and so on. My arteries will never be the same.

            1 Reply
            1. re: theannerska

              My husband is Bosnian and Sujo Meso was a revelation to say the least! There was a Bosnian cafe where I could buy it in Los Angeles, but I haven't found a source for it here in Portland OR yet.

            2. Having a boyfriend in early college who took me to my first Chinese restaurant! But somehow the lever had started to tip about a decade earlier, when my (otherwise highly skilled) mother had made what she called "chinese" food, i.e. celery and onions with soy sauce, cooked unto death in a pressure cooker, and served over very mushy rice. I flat out refused to eat it! No, no, no. I knew in my child's heart that it was not really food. And that's also when I noticed that the world is comprised of good food (mostly what I got at home and at relatives' houses) and not so good food. And i had a choice.

              1. I'm young so this is going to be fairly short.

                My first trip to HK that I remembered, grade nine. This was when I first appreciating food, I realized that it can be really good but I just started to really like eating until...

                Last year/2007? I forgot the exact date and this is kinda embarrassing because I sound like I'm easily influence but Alton Brown did it. I started watching Good Eats. I started cooking for myself because I was trying to save money and I was watching his show because I liked his sugar cookies recipe. I learned a lot and his show actually made me interested in the "why does it happen" aspect of food. And thanks to him I learned basic techniques which I used to make my own dishes. Tadaa~

                1. I know exactly what you mean and was just thinking about this yesterday or so.

                  I feel like maybe I'm learning so much at the moment and applying it that whatever I knew/learned before seems very basic and while at the time I thought I was a great cook for my age I now know that it's a constant learning experience..

                  -When I became a vegetarian that was a tipping point.
                  -Through that I got into healthy food..
                  -Started going back to ethnic foods to preserve my heritage, which also lead me to like foods I never did when I was growing up.
                  - Cooking without recipes and inventing new dishes through international inspiration
                  -Getting cable: The food network? (does that count?! )

                  Now into very Simple, healthy and tasty using minimal ingredients..

                  -

                  1. Tipping points:

                    1. When I was about ten years old, my friend, a girl of about the same age, received "The Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls." He mother gave her permission to make apple crisp under her mother's watchful eye. We partnered to make the dish. Peeling and cutting up the apples was endless and I was sent home with half the dish. My parents raved. I was on my way.

                    2. During my 'tween to early teenage years, I couldn't make a bad dish. (In reality, I made PLENTY of bad or mediocre dishes, but my parents never let on. Whatever I made was "great"! I received so much encouragement from my parents at this point that i just wanted to go further and further in cooking.

                    3. I discovered Julia Child on television. (This was the late sixties to early seventies.) My parents bought me her cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I" and, later, Volume II. I made two (for me) seminal dishes: poisson a la parisienne, a fish dish using baked fish, accompanied by a heavenly cream sauce and a similar dish, using chicken breasts, with a creamy (but different than the sauce for the fish) sauce containing white wine, mushrooms, shallots ( white onions were substituted--you couldn't get shallots in Northwest Indiana in those days).

                    3. After making the two cream sauces above, I learned that with the right sauce, you could served shoe leather and get rave reviews. The world of sauces opened up to me and I discovered the importance of fond and, more importantly, how to make a pan sauce from it. Someone on television, I think, showed me how to make pan sauces, but I don't think it was Julia (although they were in her book): The Frugal Gourmet?--I just can't remember.

                    4. On a trip to New York, in my mid teens, I bought "The New York Times International Cookbook" by Craig Claiborne, on impulse, and the world of foreign cooking, beyond French cooking, which I already adored, opened up to me. Chinese cooking, in particular, called to me. I specifically remember making Szechuan Shrimp from that cookbook and being astounded by how different (and good) it tasted from anything I had eaten up to that point.

                    5. At age 17, I spent a summer in 1968 living with a Mexican family in Saltillo, Mexico. There were some other students living at the house, but they came and went in three week, or so, intervals. I was there for the whole summer, could speak Spanish pretty well, and took the time to get to know the family. They, and their neighbors, taught me Mexican cooking.

                    6. Most of the culinary education for this amateur cook was over by my late teens. All I had to do was read and experiment on my own. But one more significant event happened when I was in my forties. A new cable network appeared--The Food Network. It was like having a cooking seminar available to me seven days a week. Sure, a lot of what they taught I already knew, but a lot was still new to me--like let your steaks warm up before you grill them and you'll get a much larger area that's medium rare and juicy, while still charring the outside. Why did I never think of that?

                    (I don't know how to go back and see if my paragraph numbers are in sequence or look for typos, so I hope this text is okay.) And I'm wondering: what am I going to learn next?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: gfr1111

                      Nice post - I too received the Betty Crocker book (pancakes with initials!). And your #2 point made me laugh since I was 'given' the kitchen in my teens to make whatever dinner I wanted when I wanted - I just didn't realize it was because both my parents worked and they'd eat whatever was served.

                    2. Betty Crocker Recipe File. My Uncle bought me the "starter kit" and every month a pack of recipes with photographs would arrive for me to add to a "tab" within the file. By the time I had the entire recipe file organized I was in junior high and pretty much in charge of preparing family meals during the week and cooking & baking with my Grandmother on the weekends. Big tipping point for me remain those recipe cards.

                      My daughter runs a restaurant school and has the recipe file in her office. Every now and again out comes a file card....just for fun!

                      Sure my own experimentation, use of interesting ingredients and palate have grown over the decades but that green box with cardboard cards gave me confidence and direction from a young age.