Cooking Intimidation: Lost Amongst the Trees


Please click for attribution to vercoquin

Chefs are cocky.  Look at Anthony Bourdain. Cocky. Bobby Flay? Way cocky. The chefs I've worked for? Nice guys, but cocky. Arrogant, even.  And even the ones that aren't overtly cocky are Supremely Confident. Hello, Thomas Keller. His economy of movement and calm demeanor in the kitchen are a testament to his incomparable mastery of his craft.

But see that?  He's confident because he knows what he's doing. He's had years and years of experience. Time to perfect even the most mundane of kitchen tasks.  He is surely accomplished enough to delegate prep work to cooks, but I bet he can still cut a mean brunoise.

And the cocky chefs? They're cocky because they know what they're doing, too.  I think cockiness is the extrovert's way of showing confidence.  The quiet ones simply radiate calm.  Either way, chefs know what they're doing.  They didn't start out that way, I'm sure.  But they all had the desire to learn and to improve. To get to the point where they didn't have to actively think about how to do something and focus past the mechanics of the task at hand to the desired result.

A chef will conceptualize a dish with a perfectly lip-smacking, crackly exterior and then will set about performing the myriad tasks necessary to achieve that.  Without really thinking about them.  He sees the forest.  Folks with much less kitchen experience just see the trees.  Each separate method or technique. Each numbered step in a long and involved recipe in a fancy coffee table book.  And when you look at each individual tree, you focus on the bark, the leaves, the way the branches spread. If there are squirrels or birds nesting. If there are ants crawling up the bark, intent on their anty business.

I might be belaboring that poor metaphor a bit. Sorry, metaphor. But when you have to focus on each technique, questions just pop up and productivity suffers. What should it look like? How high should the heat be? Chop or dice? Regular or non-stick? When will I know when it's ready? When do I go to the next step?

I posted a poll on my facebook page asking what, if anything, folks found intimidating about cooking and baking.  I gave a few choices and encouraged folks to add their own. Here, in order from most votes to fewest, are the responses:

Response Percentage
  • Difficult techniques
  • Not being able to find unusual ingredients
  • Vague or limited instructions
  • Long and involved recipes
  • Measurements
  • Not having the right equipment
  • Terms I don't know/Skills I don't have
  • All of the above
  • Unusual ingredients
  • Not knowing the name in English*
  • Fear of failure

So, if the forest represents the end result and the trees represent the individual techniques/methods/steps involved in achieving that end, fully 98% of the responses have to do with the trees. And if you read "fear of failure" as "fear of not being able to perform the necessary techniques," that bumps us up to 100%.  Everyone who responded has issues with the details.

And this is not surprising at all.  Home cooks, myself included, don't have the luxury of practicing all day every day to master the details.

I want you guys to think about this forest versus tree metaphor and tell me what you think. Do you agree or disagree? Why? What would you do to address this? How do you teach someone--or yourself--to see the forest and not get lost amongst the trees?

I have some thoughts on this, and I surely want to hear what you have to say as well. If you haven't taken the poll, I'd love to get your response.

*The language issue is a real problem, especially when translation algorithms might not yield the best results.  All things being equal though, I don't really consider this cooking intimidation as much as I do language intimidation.

PS If the answer you're looking for isn't there, please write it in in the comments. Thanks, and have a lovely day.

Part 2 is here.





  1. elizabeth ann quirino says

    What an interesting post! It helps us rethink now before we write down our recipes. I think the overall feeling is ” if there is difficulty” in some form, then that’s really intimidating. Can’t wait to find out results! 

  2. Micaela P. Torregrosa-Mahoney says

    I learned to cook mostly on my own, so there are times when I’m not confident about my skills. For example, dough is still mostly a mythical beast to me, one I promised myself I would master this year but that I’ve managed to completely avoid so far… Having the right equipment has been another issue, I’ve only had good knives for the last 10yrs (been cooking 34yrs), my pots & pans are just adequate, I’ve never had a stand mixer, don’t own an offset spatula, and bought my first round cake pans last Summer (all my previous cakes were baked in a Pyrex glass 13 x 9 or a Bundt pan). I tell myself that most cooks around the world make wonderful meals with less than I have, but I still often feel like I’m coming up short. One of the reasons I love old recipes is because for a long time I had very little in the kitchen equipment department and the recipes weren’t written assuming I had a food processor or electric-powered mixers. And then there’s my ADD… I fully admit that I’m much more likely to get into a recipe that isn’t overly involved and is more likely to give me near-instant gratification.

    I hope the information helps you. I feel like I can relate to many of the people who are intimidated in the kitchen and survive by using lots of processed foods because they look at a recipe and see gobbledygook. We need to figure out a way to make cooking from scratch more accessible to the average US consumer. Even my MIL oftentimes shakes her head at the from-scratch food I make and says she wouldn’t go through all that trouble.

  3. kitchenriffs says

    Good post, good blog – I found you through your guest post on Cafe Terra.  And I agree with the forest/tree metaphor.  I think the biggest problem people have with learning technique (and how recipes work) is they don’t understand the hows and whys.  Once they learn those, the whole recipe begins to make sense.  Anyway, glad I found you.  I’ll be back.

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by! I love Terra; she’s great:)  My tag line used to be “The Hows and Whys Behind the Whats of Baking.” I think we shall get along famously, kitchenriffs!


Speak Your Mind