So How Did You Learn to Cook?

We have many QT3 members who cook just amazing dishes. Some should really have a Youtube channel for their cooking exploits. @ArmandoPenblade, I am looking at you! Anyhow, I was curious how you got started in cooking?

For me, I didn’t learn to cook until I left for university. My first year was living in a dorm with a meal plan so I didn’t start until second year when I rented a basement apartment. The impetus for me to learn was a desire to avoid the ramen noodle, pizza, submarine sandwich diet which can afflict some university students.

The place I rented had a 4 burner cooktop and fridge with no oven or microwave. Somebody had left a basic cookbook. I don’t recall any specific dishes from that book but the one thing I do remember was learning how to cut up a whole chicken. Useful for saving some money. Equipped with a teflon fry pan, a small pot and a small electric rice cooker, I managed to feed myself reasonably that school term. After that, rented a house with several friends, one of whom could cook. I learned a lot cooking with him. I remember we finished our last final exams at the end of fourth year and celebrating by cooking chicken cord-bleu for dinner.

My sister and I showed an interest in cooking when we moved into a larger house, around 9 years old. As a result we got this book:

After that I developed a love of not just cooking but of cookbooks and learning new things. It was… harder when I had very little money in my early twenties right after a dorm stint that didn’t have anything to cook with. I went back eventually. Outside of unusual shall we say external pressures, I tend to do some very basic shopping, pick up some favorites and shop to recipes instead of finding recipes to make something with what I have too.

My knowledge of food my first year out of college was horrible. It got better when I was in grad school and spent my summers camping in the mountains and working on archaeological excavations. We had a camp cook, but dinners were often just a soup course followed by a stew course, and meat was doled out based on seniority. So I learned how to cook really basic stuff for myself.

I hobbled along with a basic recipe book for a couple of years until I moved in with my (now) wife in New Orleans. That’s when I really got into it. Learned a couple of French sauces, how to cook different types of meat, fish, fowl, etc. We were pretty flush back then, and I really got into the foodie culture. I used to joke I had to be a good cook in New Orleans if we were ever going to have a meal at home.

Don’t live in New Orleans anymore, and my meals are pretty simple now. But I can come up with a recipe on the fly if needed and don’t really feel intimidated by trying new things.

I moved out on my own, working a crap job which meant my financial situation was such that I had 3 options

Eat out all the time, which I could not afford
Starve, which sounded less than ideal
Learn to cook

And basically with the absolute fearlessness of a 24 year old guy with no one else who need to suffer my failures I experimented. Fortunately this was the internet age so I could experiment with lots of options to learn from.

So basically entirely self taught in those early years. Experimenting to recreate dishes.

Also I had no measurement utensils. So my method of cooking by eye/ taste? Well that’s why.

Right and proper. Old Testament. “And so it was that Eliab, son of Helon, having nine score years and forty, was given all of the mutton, and most of the fatted goat, and the Zebulunites were wroth.”

I learned that cooking was normal and not all that difficult from my mom, who’d do elaborate set-piece dinner parties a couple times a year, but who mostly just threw things together after work and often wanted some assistance.

I also did a short stint in food service, cooking the same plates of diner food over and over. There wasn’t a lot of variety, and I didn’t learn much in the way of technique, but otoh I internalized a lot of useful work habits, learned how to anticipate and manage kitchen stress, and got over any worries about making mistakes.

After that, I just picked up stuff in dribs and drabs, mainly through wanting to eat something I couldn’t get (or didn’t want to pay for) at a restaurant.

My parents taught me the basics, initially by letting us help with the preparations (cutting vegetables, watching the stove, that kind of stuff). After a while, they let us prepare entire meals by ourself, with the added bonus that we did not have to participate in doing the dishes then. However, I only really learned to cook afterwards, as a student, by observing what other students prepared, what herbs they used etcetera.

Occasionally, that led to weird problems. I remember making macaroni for the first time, using the cheapest brand (student, what can you say…). I didn’t know how long I had to cook it, so I consulted some cookbooks, al of which stated the same: read the manual on the packaging. However, being cheap as shit, the packaging did not include a manual on how to cook its contents. So I ended up having to try multiple macaroni pieces in various states of rawness before I finally got it right…

These days, my wife does most of the cooking. She likes it more then I do, so I’m fine with that. However, I still make that macaroni!

Almost entirely from this now sadly out-of-print book. My god, 1997. I’m old.

Not all the recipes worked, and much of the book is written in the conversational style that is roundly despised by the “just show me the recipe” foodies today, but it was the perfect introduction to cooking for someone who didn’t grow up in a household that cherished food. I mean, we liked eating, but my parents and grandparents were not particularly adventurous or frankly skilled.

Mostly learned from my parents when I was living with them, then gradually expanded my repertoire over the years after moving out. In recent years I’ve made more of a concerted effort to develop transferable skills and try making different types of meal beyond my usual rotation of 20 or so fairly simple dishes, mostly based on Kenji’s Food Lab with a bit of the Flavour Thesaurus. Have recently acquired Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to embark on some more learning and experimentation.

In late high school, I got super into watching Good Eats as it combined nerdy science, goofy theater school shenanigans, and cool-sounding food in a package I found utterly addictive, despite not having ever really done anything more than putting a can of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls onto a pan and into the oven before. It was one of the programs I’d veg out to on long summer nights when there wasn’t a party or date going on. My poor gf (who’s somehow remained with me despite these clearly troubled early times) sometimes got roped into watching on the couch with me, hah.

This had a side effect of instilling in me a lot of semi-disconnected bits of moderately advanced cooking lore/science, with almost no practical skills at all (I couldn’t have even diced an onion at that stage). Mom wasn’t much of a cook, but knew how to make family favorites and didn’t ask for any help, and my paternal grandmother was a fabulous but fairly secretive cook, hah.

Around that time, as I was wrapping up HS/getting ready for college, I got super into Indian food thanks to my best friend, whose far more worldly and interesting family took me to try it while I was visiting them, as they’d recently returned from a long stay in India, traveling all around. I fell in love with it, but it turned out that in Podunkton, TN, options were few and far between. If I wanted to try anymore of it, I’d need to cook it myself. So we shlepped out to the next big town over, bought a bunch of ingredients we’d never tried before, and tried to make a basic curry, which turned out absolutely horribly. I’d been shooting for Vindaloo, but forgotten to get two or three spices for it, and searched through my TJ Maxx-acquired Indian cookbook for an alternate that used what I did have, settled on Goan Coconut Chicken, and then subbed in western-style sweetened shredded coconut for the recommended fresh. Oops.

Moving away to college put a pause on much of this, as my first two dorms didn’t have much in the way of cooking (I snuck a toaster oven into the latter, and once tried oven-toasting some “fried” cracker-crusted chicken to put between two Eggo waffles in the saddest attempt at recipe creation ever devised). Still, on vacations, I’d use our home kitchen, trying out Alton Brown and Indian recipes alike.

Senior year of college, I got an apartment and dropped my meal plan down to the minimum, so I had to learn quick. I spent the year slowly mastering a handful of recipes, mostly pulled out of How to Boil Water by the Food Network Kitchens, plus a couple gleaned from relatives on dad’s side who were parceling out my now-deceased mawmaw’s recipes like so much gold to the rest of us.

And, uh, lemme tell you. I made a fuckload of often hideous, occasionally gross food, and ate it, because I got X meals a week at the dorms, and X was not a large number, and I was poor as shiiiiiiiiit and couldn’t eat out much at Boston prices.

But by year’s end, I could produce red beans and rice from scratch without a written recipe, and that’s all that really mattered. Plus, I finally got around to making some Vindaloo. And some hilariously puffy “naan.” 2008 was a wild time :)

A few months after college, I landed my first real job and immediately moved back out with my girlfriend, who was at the time still one of the pickiest people imaginable, with wildly different tastes than my own. We didn’t have much money at all, but watching her subsist on a steady diet of Corn Pops, Kids Cuisine, and oven-blackened Oscar Meyers was pretty depressing, so I had to expand my repertoire to include things she’d like, that we could afford. That’s when I really started leaning heavily on the internet and especially Youtube to learn more from. Suddenly, a ton of that stuff Alton had taught me all those years back really started to click into place, and I began experimenting and developing a lot more.

A decade+ hence, there’s a rotating cycle of about a dozen major menus (Cajun, North Indian, South Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Venezuelan, Mexican, Mediterranean, Southern Comfort, British fry shop), each consisting of 5-10 common dishes, plus a few holiday/party specials (Family Xmas, friend’s fancy Thanksgiving, Puerto Rican Xmas/3 Kings Day), that I feel like I’ve more or less mastered, and every couple of months, I’ll try something new to keep it fresh and to challenge myself to grow and learn more.

I spend an enormous amount of time watching cooking Youtube – an hour or two a day, most days, and still occasionally pick up cookbooks to page through and absorb as I lay in bed or hustle in the kitchen. A lot of that is now inspiration: I’ll get an idea in my head, watch/read a ton of recipes/guides/history, and synthesize a take on it, then revise based on how it turned out/what I learned.

Don’t worry, I also screwed up Kraft mac and cheese my first time. I cooked the noodles and drained the water, then set them aside. Forgot to rinse the noodles to cool them down, so they kept cooking in the colander and fused into a giant noodle brick.

My first job was as a bus-boy in an authentic French restaurant. And by authentic, I mean the sous chef always had a cigarette dangling from his mouth while he worked, and the chef was a lunatic. Still, I was amazed at the skill, precision and creativity these guys demonstrated.

I ended up waiting tables for the better part of 15 years, working in places ranging from 24-hour delis to the city’s most expensive steak house. All along, I watched and learned from the chefs and cooks.

Now, I don’t have a great repertoire of specialty dishes, but I don’t embarrass myself in the kitchen, and I’m a Master at the grill.

Everyone should know how to cook.

Similar to others, my first real push to cook most of my own meals was in college. I first made bread then but forgot so much of it that it pains me now I have trouble getting a good loaf. But up into my 30’s even I mostly cooked dishes, not general cooking knowledge. That changed around the time cooking shows and channels came about and like Armando mentioned, Good Eats was a good push for me into better aptitude of cooking, overall, not just a few rotating dishes.

Things I wish I’d learned earlier:
Good knife skills (and how to maintain a knife edge over time)
Better understanding of the often talked about salt, fat, acid, heat additions to food and to dishes
How to use herbs and seasonings to better effect
Sauces - they make a decent dish level up into a fantastic dish

My dad is what we now call a foodie. He enshrined a love and respect for cooking & the first things we learned were cooking at his side.

Those skills quickly came in handy because (1) We were 70’s / 80’s latchkey kids who had to feed ourselves at least half the time. (2) My mother was a truly horrifying cook until the day she died. She literally gave herself food poisoning multiple times.

I started really learning different cuisines and techniques with my wife in college.

And Skipper is exactly right. Learning all of those things would have made me much better much earlier. I’m 50ish and some of those things have only come pretty recently.


My Mom and Dad.

I started working in restaurants as counter help in fast food in 1984. My first real restaurant job I got in 1987, starting as a busboy and working my way up to head waiter at the same place. Got my first job in fine dining in 1992 and worked my way into management by 1997, and then did a bunch of restaurant consulting to help open a dozen different places from 2011-2013.

I cannot cook. I am utterly helpless in a kitchen.

All this college stuff really surprises me.

There’s got to be more who learned at home just because it seemed fun to do.

Well, my youngest daughter (11) definitely is like that. Whenever we are cooking and she is around, she helps, not because we want her to but because she wants to, and she can make fairly complicated dishes on her own now (except for the heavy lifting stuff, like the cast iron stir fry). When she goes to college, she’ll be able to cook whatever she wants, I think.

Her older sister can’t be bothered. She does like to eat though! :-)

That’s cool, and that’s more like how i felt.

I had some culture shock when I did wind up with a kitchen alone, but that was more of a confidence things. I had used recipes so much that I didn’t really feel confident in just trying stuff, that came a bit later when I realized there are some things I actually know and can play with… outside a step by step recipe approach.

My daughter seems to be like your younger. She is 3 and insists on helping mix ingredients.

That’s a good moment, isn’t it? I remember reading a new recipe, for glazed pork chops or something, and going “OH! I know exactly what they’re doing here.” Felt very accomplished!