Monday, September 10, 2012

Rehearsing Being a Chef: A Different Way to Look at Cookbooks

Ah ha! A good idea! For several years now -- while it may seen absurd that an aspiring chef is saying it -- I've had a disdain for cookbooks. I just don't like reading recipes. I've thought them mechanical and uninformative. Much more to my preference are books on theory; that is, how food works and interacts to give us the experiences we have. Right now the Good Eats cookbooks are really the only cookbooks I like right now.

But perhaps there is something to obtain from reading recipes, and really I've just been reading them wrong all this time? I have a copy of Charlie Trotter's Raw from the library right now, and in thinking about it I began thinking why the recipes work the way they do. I'm not actually making any of them right now, to be clear, so the thinking was purely intellectual. I thought about the textures, the forms, the flavors . . . say! This is how a chef should think, shouldn't he?

Aside from an lasting disdain of general cookbooks, I've also been embarrassed at my cooking endeavors, as I constantly fear I can't afford to do valuable practice, and that I fail to understand what's going on. And that is key to good cooking, isn't it? Understanding what's going on.

When that word passed my mind I realized that if I read recipes intensely I *could* obtain the benefit of automatizing how to think like a good cook, which can serve as a gateway for actually being one. Automatization is essential to developing later expertise: What you've mastered is what comes easiest to you, as a matter of habit from extensive training.

If I want to be a good chef and cook well, then I not only need to learn theory (i.e. food science), I need to learn how to think in terms of pairing and contrasting flavors, textures, aromas, and temperatures, and aside from good old cooking practice, which nothing can replace, why don't I intensely study the recipes of good cookbooks? Taking notes and all, such as why particular methods were used, what they achieved, how complete it is, how it compares and contrasts, and on and on.

What I'm particularly thinking of is utilizing this as a variant of mental rehearsal from the book Evolve Your Brain. From this and other neurological reading, I've learned that you can actually indirectly train a skill outside of physical practice by engaging in intense mental visualization of it. For instance, The Brain That Changes Itself mentions an experiment involving participants learning how to play a piano piece. They asked one group to "practice" purely by playing the pieces in their mind over and over again, and they found that the people who just mentally rehearsed not only learned the piece, they also, if I remember correctly, learned it as well as the group that did actual physical practice. It makes sense. Neurologically speaking, our skills are composed of our brain circuits, and in developing an ability it develops the neurons and synapses as well, so to mentally visualize performing a skill requires the brain to stimulate the requisite networks, which, if done repeatedly, develops them. The piano players who learned the musical piece purely by mental practice stimulated the areas of their brain responsible for actually performing the skill, so when time came to perform they were able to actually perform the piece.

It makes perfect sense, then, to read good cookbooks as a way to automatize a certain mode of culinary thinking. It will never replace actual practice, no, but what a great supplement! I've also toyed with the idea of using this method as a way of, say, developing knife skills, since in the mental world the food and potential for practice are infinite, whereas they are not in real life, and also cost money.

I'll try to include this type of rehearsing into a full-blown study regiment, taking notes and whatnot, sooner or later, but for now I think I'll be loose and continue reading the Charlie Trotter book more intensively. The prospects of this practice seem very good to me. "We are what we repeatedly do," as Aristotle said.

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