Confessions of an Ex-Kitchen Disaster

Are you someone who just gives up at the thought of cooking even a grilled cheese sandwich? Does the thought of pouring a can of chicken noodle soup into a pan and turning the burner on make you nervous? Are you in a relationship with someone who drives you crazy because she can’t cook or he won’t cook?

Needless to say, you’re not alone. For every person who is a self-described “foodie” or who seemingly reads every cookbook he can get his hands on, there is someone else who wouldn’t even want to reheat a meal in the microwave.

By reading this article, perhaps you may be wondering if there is hope for you or that person you’re trying to teach how to cook. Based on my experience and on second hand stories I’ve heard from others who have been in a similar position, my answer is a qualified yes.

Why “qualified”? First of all, you have to want to learn how to cook. It’s really like any skill or any endeavor you take on. If you put forth the energy and the effort, chances are, you will learn to cook and at least be competent enough to survive for a few days. If you really dedicate time and effort to watching good cooks, whether they be on TV or YouTube and gleaning lessons from them, you could even find yourself making a journey from kitchen disaster to foodie.

There are at least three practical ways that I know of for people to learn to cook. I’m not talking about taking cooking classes in high school or at the local college. For the purposes of everyday life, that method doesn’t really count toward meeting the goals I’m outlining here. That’s not to say that a cooking class can’t be useful. There is a time and a place for it, and you can definitely learn valuable lessons from a cooking class. Having said that, the three ways I will discuss have nothing to do with formal classes.

Fending for yourself
One of my former roommates was the oldest of five siblings. His parents were frequently away. Therefore, rather than starve or spend money he didn’t have and buy meals at the local fast food restaurant, he took it upon himself to learn how to cook for his siblings. All those times that his parents were away taught him well enough that he could very easily cook for himself once it came time for him to live with some roommates. It was hard-earned wisdom that he was proud to have earned. In fact, he started a cycle that you will see evolve as I discuss the methods.

Watch and learn
By contrast, another roommate didn’t really do much cooking when he was growing up. As one of only two brothers, he didn’t really have the same opportunity that our roommate did to cook and fend for himself and for several siblings. However, once he moved into the apartment with that roommate, he watched as my other roommate cooked, learning through observation. Eventually, he learned a few recipes and was able to at least get by in the kitchen.

Have someone teach you
When I got to the apartment, I only knew a few basic recipes, and even those were often hit or miss. Even though the incident was over a decade in my past, I still had visions of burning noodles in the back of my mind as I proclaimed myself a hopeless ne’er do well in the kitchen. The roommate who had to learn from watching was the one who took me under his wing and essentially forced me to learn to cook. He would stand there and talk me through the steps, but I would have to perform them. Eventually, I started picking things up through trial and error, and even began to expand my knowledge.

The surest sign for me that I made it was when the roommate who taught me to cook tried to make pancakes for me and his “creation” was a combination of seared black mess and gooey parts. I finally gave up and decided I’d make my own pancakes, even though I’d never tried to make them before. Lo and behold, my first-ever pancake was perfect. I knew right then that I’d surpassed my teacher.

In the years since I left that roommate situation, I tried other recipes, getting recipes from my stepfather or the Internet and trying them out. If I screwed something up, I’d usually think about what went wrong and try to correct it the next time I tried the recipe. Most of the time, I learned that what I thought I did wrong was indeed my mistake.

If I had anything in particular I’d point to as my proudest kitchen accomplishment besides my famous apple cake, it’s the fact that I’ve become what I like to call a “from scratch snob.” I’ve baked homemade brownies from scratch instead of using the boxed mixes you can buy in your grocery aisle. That allows me to control the ingredients and make more healthful substitutions. It also leads to a much greater sense of accomplishment when you take an item from ingredients to final product.

One thought that has consistently come to mind is what I consider the difference between a great chef and a kitchen disaster. Both will make mistakes, but where the kitchen disaster will use the mistake as proof that she can’t cook and will then give up, the great chef will use the mistake as a learning tool to improve for next time.

By reading this article alone, you will not necessarily start a journey from kitchen disaster to foodie overnight. But if this article prods you to start learning to cook, then I’ve done my job. There’s an old saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step. Hopefully, your reading this will be your first step toward greater independence in the kitchen.