Do you think eating at restaurants has broadened your palette & made you a better cook?
I started trying to teach myself with Julia's MTAoFC. It was really, really hard. Most of the positive reviews I read began with, "Just like when I studied in Paris," or "This takes me back to France." However, for someone who has never even eaten in a French restaurant, I had no idea how these dishes were supposed to smell, taste, feel texture-wise, let alone how to pronounce them. (I persevered and have since met with some success.) But then, I tried to make risotto from Molly Stevens' book. It was a fiasco. I followed the directions and yet it was HORRIBLE. I've never eaten risotto before, never even seen it in a restaurant. So how do I know I made it incorrectly? Maybe I just don't like it?
So, this got me thinking. Perhaps I could try to seek out restaurants as a way of broadening my palette in an attempt to at least know what the dish I cook is supposed to taste like. What do you think? If not, can you recommend another approach?
I would say that ANY experience adds to your knowledge base.
Me? I never, ever follow a recipe. I read several recipes for any new dish to get a feel for the ingredients, proportions, time/temp ratios, etc. and then just make it.
That way, it is always "Mine".
I agree that it can be hard to make something you've never seen or eaten, but to answer the original question, "Sure, it can't hurt".
In answer to your post query, it's yes, but not in the sense that you're thinking. After spending 3 years as a road warrior and eating a lot of horrible food I came back with a sharpened palette and a sense of anger when an eatery managed to botch even an average ingredient.
The short downtimes between trips had me focusing on trying to source and make best use of the best ingredients possible.
To answer your post's query, restaurants can get fairly expensive especially if you're trying to figure out what specific dishes taste like. Have you thought about cooking classes or even community events where people make different things to share? Do you taste the basic ingredients? That's probably a starting point to first of all figure out where exactly is your palette.
My restaurant dining has absolutely been educational to me - the main thing that I deliberately use restaurants for is trying expensive or rare ingredients that it would be difficult for me to obtain, or that require experience to work with, as well as many that are just "out there" compared to what I grew up with. It was a lot less threatening to me to face my first calamari as an app at my local Greek place then as a frozen square of rings and tentacle clusters defrosting on my counter.
I whole heartedly second DoobieWah's "read lots of recipes" technique also -- I think that you can really excellent sense of the core identity of a dish by reading a wide range of recipes for it.
And watch cooking shows - it's just plain fun, and a very affordable way to get an idea of how a dish should look.
If you are just getting started with serious home cooking, I would also recommend hitting up your local library for a copy of 'Master Recipes', by Stephen Schmidt. He gives bare bones core recipes for a wide range of dishes, and follows them up with wonderful variation recipes, letting you see how the bones look clothed. In my opinion it's one of the very best teaching cookbooks out there. Unfortunately, it is out of print, but I think it well worth searching for a library or used copy.
Obviously knowledge of what a dish should taste like is key to mastering a dish. Why, if you had never tried risotto would you want to make it? One it's a very time consuming dish and something that even in restaurants can be awful. If there was something in particular you had wanted to make, I would definitely suggest trying it first.
In answer to the question you posed in your subject, I think practice makes you a better cook more than anything. I have horrible issues with timing (especially getting sides and entrees to be ready at the same time) and for me it's ruined many a meal. As for tastes, I grew up in a home where the cook was better than 99% of the restaurants I've eaten in, so for me it's a no. But I definitely wouldn't try to make something without knowing what the ingredients tasted like.