I’ve only worked in a restaurant once, and I was merely a grungy dishwasher. Any efforts made to utilize me in a cooking role were hapless. I couldn’t even fry frog legs. Nothing I seemed to ever do was right, and I was fired. That’s how life can be when you’re working your first job as a teenager and don’t know shit about shit.
Fast forward 14 years, and while I currently enjoy a job as a Help Desk/IT/dude/thing, the allure of cooking has slowly made its way into my ever-expanding list of hobbies. I’d like to share with you some of what I have learned, and while a great deal of it is obvious, it only goes to further the evidence that anyone can cook if they have the time and energy to do so.
1. YOU HAVE TO WANT TO COOK.
You gotta want it. That’s somehow become one of my slogans, and thankfully it hasn’t landed me any awkward slaps in the face or lawsuits. It has to be something you want to do, and it takes effort.
I know that’s stating the obvious, but it’s a big step. As someone who spent many late hours of teenage sleepless nights watching Iron Chef reruns, it’s easy to watch delicious TV food get made by Mario Batali and feel like “I could do that!”
You could actually do this, however.
Don’t be intimidated. Let yourself be happy. Eat well. Cooking is fun.
2. YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES.
I made a peach cobbler with the wrong kind of flour once. My roommate and I ended up eating this sad sugary gloop out of sheer spite before dumping it into the fucking trash. I’ve made purple chicken with blueberries and barbeque sauce. It tasted halfway decent, but looked like somebody scraped out the brain pan of a unicorn and splorted it onto a plate.
“Sometimes…things just go bad.”
Just let it happen, baby. They are mistakes, yes, but they’re your beautiful, sometimes-tasty mistakes.
3. IT’S NOT CHEAP (AT FIRST).
This section presumes you’ve got some collateral to invest into the venture. I think to get started you could drop $20-50 on a big pot, a pan, a cutting board, and a halfway-decent knife, but you learn pretty quickly that cheap knives are dangerous and there’s not much you can make without the right cookware. That shit can add up. I suggest you give yourself at least a $100-250 budget to buy the right things: Glass casserole dishes, some soup pots, baking sheets, cutting surfaces, and most important of all, a good knife.
“Say friend? Some of your foldin’ money’s come unstowed.”
Basics With Babish goes into more eloquent detail if you’re looking for something more visual and bearded. If you have the disposable income, dispose of it. What did it ever do for you anyway?
The stuff you buy will last for years. Poach your family kitchens for their non-essentials to get a head start.
4. ONCE YOU GET THE HANG OF IT, YOU WILL EAT BOUNTIFULLY.
Get some tupperware, because you’re gonna need it, friend. The tradeoff of investing in all the fresh ingredients and cooking tools is that your goddamn fridge will be filled with leftovers – glorious leftovers! This can be particularly helpful if you have a family that eats like a pack of ravenous dogs, or if, like me and your thoughts 26 hours a day are similar to this:
It’s kick-fucking-ass to open your fridge and see plastic tubs full of food at your disposal. You eat like a king, I tell you.
5. GET USED TO BUYING GROCERIES AND PLANNING AHEAD.
It’s best to just accept this shitty reality and embrace it, collapsing against that shopping cart with a hellafied gangsta lean, getting funky on that grocery list and bustin’ on the produce scene. There’s certain times not to go: Weekends from 11am-7pm, weekdays from 4pm-7pm. Mornings from 8-10am are your target, so long as you avoid the people picking up donuts from the store’s bakery.
I advise you to wear shabby clothes, slippers, and don’t shower if you can help it. The shittier you look, the less likely people who recognize you will want to engage you in conversation and overall chances of engaging in any sort of human interaction will plummet wonderfully.
Pictured: The optimal grocery shopping attire
Bookmark recipes you like, or keep them stashed in an app on your phone, write everything down, etc. Make lists, dammit. You will forget ingredients, and don’t gamble by thinking you can make do with what’s in the pantry. “Oh shit, I forgot to grab cabbage. Whatever, I guess this canned spinach from before the Cold War will get the job done.”
6. GET A WOODEN SPOON.
Seriously, and not the cheap $2 ones that look like dowel rods glued to an acorn. Spend the $10-20+ and get yourself a wooden spoon with a nice thick handle. You want it to be robust, as the optimal spoon will be pushing heavy ingredients around, getting amazing bits of fond from the bottom of pans, and you don’t want to have to worry about it breaking off or splintering all because you’re a cheap bastard.
Pictured: A $25 wooden spoon that likely is used to clean litter boxes at the Kardashian home
Like most good kitchen components, a buff-ass wooden spoon will last you years. An expensive one like the Le Creuset pictured above will surely be something your asshole children will possessively argue over as they plunder your home weeks after your funeral.
7. ONIONS, GARLIC, BUTTER, OLIVE OIL, BREAD CRUMBS, BROWN SUGAR, & SPICES.
These will be your friends. They will journey with you interminably throughout the ages. Think of them as Virgil to your Dante, working toward escaping Hell via the magic of homemade fixins.
There is no component I have found more useful or versatile than onions. I grew up firm in the knowledge that I would never ever eat an icky onion EVER EVER, MOM! Years later a guy I was in a band with showed me how one onion can turn a bland soup into a kickass melody of flavor. It’s a transformative “utility” food that people avoid due to texture reasons or the ol’ “I ate a raw onion slice when I was a kid and am scarred forever” bullshit.
Onions are incredible, and if you want to cook anything worth a damn, you must find their beauty for yourself.
Pictured: A dude who cooks almost exclusively with onions
Garlic is the 1b to Onion’s 1a. It doesn’t have a place in every recipe due to its power, but typically when you cook with onions, you cook with garlic. They’re a tag-team. They’re like Hawk & Animal, AKA The Road Warriors, destroying opponents at Cookamania XII via the Foodsday Device from the top rope.
Butter and olive oil are your “I don’t want to burn the shit out of my food” goops that you’ll virtually always keep in stock. Breadcrumbs add texture and body to a variety of everyday foods (put them in your hamburger patties). Brown sugar turns a jar of 80-cent spaghetti sauce into sauce so fucking good your dinner guests will heavily question when you learned to cook from your non-existent Italian granny.
Get a rack of some kind (or, shit, throw it in a fucking plastic grocery store bag; I don’t care) and fill it with the following: Cumin, thyme, rosemary, allspice, chili powder, cayenne pepper, paprika, basil, and bay leaves.
Honey. Vanilla extract. Ginger. Acquire these things and throw them in the fridge/pantry/bed of your truck. Salt and pepper should be available always. Always. ALWAYS.
8. SLOW COOKING IS STILL COOKING, DAMMIT.
If you’ve got a slow-cooker, use the shit out of it. I for one never mind waking up early to dice up some vegetables/etc to throw on top of a delicious hunk of seasoned pork or beef, only to stroll downstairs a couple hours later to smell pure happiness all around the apartment. Giving meat ~8 hours to slow cook leads to an amazing feeling: The first bite of fall-off-the-bone meat that’s taken all day to absorb the carnival of flavors that you surrounded it with in the slow-cooker.
The first words are usually some variation of, “Oh my God,” or “Oh SHIT.”
Pictured: How to improve your day instantly
It’s so easy, too. Before you go to work, throw some chicken breasts and BBQ sauce in the slow cooker. After you get home, fork it onto a plate and feel like you’ve climbed Everest with your mouth (this is not possible, do not attempt it, I’m not responsible for any remains left on the mountainside that will be used as distance markers).
9. DON’T GET COCKY.
I have the fortunate luxury of living with a roommate who can offer constructive criticism of week-to-week meals. Not everybody has this option, however, so don’t think that just because you made an only slightly-burnt grilled cheese sandwich that you’re suddenly ready to host a dinner party.
Find a friend or relative and make them your guinea pig. Nobody in their right mind would turn down free food, so this shouldn’t be terribly difficult. Experiment with recipes, from the easy and mundane to the more complicated and time-consuming. If you’re like me, you’ll find instantly that you make 1-3 things really well and, for whatever reason, 1-3 things you can’t ever seem to make right ever.
Han was nonplussed after Luke wore a chef’s hat as he made a bowl of cereal
My nemesis is chicken. I am horrified of undercooked chicken, and it haunts me at every turn. Banishing it to the slow cooker is my only reprieve. Praise you, Slow Cooker. Praise you.
10. TASTE AS YOU GO.
This final bit of advice is applicable not only to the practical aspect of tasting soups, sauces, chili, etc. as you are making them, but as you eat at restaurants, fast food, etc. – basically anywhere that isn’t your kitchen.
Developing a flavor palate is kind of a presumptuous exercise; fewer things annoy me more than snooties who simply can’t wait to say, “your use of mango was good, but I personally enjoy a freeze-dried dragonfruit reduction more,” or “black garlic would’ve been better, especially paired with a sourdough brioche.”
Having all these new fun words and foody vernacular is part of what makes a hobby attractive, but don’t let it remove you from the everyday pleasure. Grab a McDonald’s cheeseburger and take your time eating it. What is it about this $1 thing that has made it sustainable for all these years? Why do bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns always taste better when made at a local greasy spoon?
Why do Sloppy Joes taste amazing when they’re extra-sloppy?
Same goes for Grandma’s Spaghetti, or your Mom’s Stuffed Peppers, or your Drunk Cousin’s Toilet Pizza. Sometimes there’s just magic there that is waiting to be discovered and passed on to you, so ask.
That’s what I love about it, anyway. I don’t know how useful any of this could be for you, and I don’t feel like I’m any more qualified to give you my two cents on cooking than the creepy naked man covered in baby shampoo who’s writhing against your patio window right now.
Don’t ask him, though, unless you’ve got a wooden spoon to defend yourself.