How To Become A Great Cook Without Being A Chef

by | Nov 12, 2012
Photo by Sara Bjork

Photo by Sara Bjork

I have a confession to make: I don’t love to cook.

Sure I like the idea of cooking, and I’m glad that I can cook, but my idea of a perfect day rarely involves spending time in the kitchen.

What I really love is food.

I love to shop for ingredients and envision the delicious dishes I can make with them. I love the taste of fresh, ripe, seasonal produce from the farmers market. I love the way good food makes me feel. I love the knowledge that what I eat helps me thrive.

But cutting stuff up and putting it in a pan isn’t particularly fun for me, though I certainly enjoy the fruits of my labor.

For me cooking is a means to an end. I cook for my own health and happiness, and for whomever I happen to be sharing my time with at the moment.

This is enough for me.

I came to realize my lack of cooking passion over the past several weeks as I’ve watched my fellow food bloggers fret on Twitter over holiday meal plans, perfect cookies and fallen souffles. It became very obvious to me that I had no desire to entertain dozens of people or perfect the quintessential holiday recipe.

I’m proud of the food I make and it’s always important to me to do a good job (I love eating, remember), I just don’t have that extra drive that distinguishes a good cook from a true chef.

For some, cooking is a true passion–they adore being in the kitchen and everything it involves. These are my heroes. They are the brilliant chefs responsible for the exquisite food all over this wonderful city. They construct the fabulous recipes I count on when searching cookbooks and blogs for something new. They photograph the beautiful dishes that inspire me to try a little harder. Without passionate chefs we would not have spectacular food, and I am profoundly thankful for them.

But not all of us can be amazing cooks. Fortunately it isn’t necessary to be a Michelin-rated chef to make delicious food.

Simple, fresh cooking doesn’t require any special talent. It all starts with excellent ingredients and just a few basic techniques that anyone can master with practice.

The moral of the story is that you do not have to be a kitchen ninja (or even particularly enjoy cooking) to be able to feed yourself well on a daily basis. The most important step is getting in the habit of buying good-quality, seasonal food and learning the basic skills you need to whip up something you enjoy.

If you get in the habit of cooking for yourself, it will one day stop feeling like a big ordeal and become second nature. You’ll get faster at chopping, you won’t need to constantly check recipes and measure ingredients, and you’ll intuitively know when and in which order to add things to the pot. But all this takes practice, and if you don’t make a regular habit of cooking for yourself it will continue to be difficult.

The good news is once you are comfortable in the kitchen, more interesting and complex recipes start to sound appealing. This is not necessarily because you learned to love cooking, but simply because it is easier for you.

Once you’ve broken the proficiency barrier you open a world of different dishes and cuisines, unchaining yourself from repetitive stir fries and culinary boredom.

For the non-chef, this is the level of proficiency you want to achieve. You do not have to love cooking to enjoy making dinner. You just have to get beyond the point where you struggle with it. It really isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Why do you cook?

Originally published January 4, 2010.

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43 Responses to “How To Become A Great Cook Without Being A Chef”

  1. jeff clark says:

    I love to cook for cooking’s sake. I consider it my creative outlet. I don’t paint. I can’t play any musical instrument. I try photography, but only 1 out of 50 pictures actually look good. But there is nothing better for me than to spend an entire Sunday cooking slow cooked food for that evening or for consumption later in the week. I came to cooking later in life. My wife says she cooked the first 25 years and now its my turn to cook. So bring on the fresh farmer’s market produce. Lets have that sustainably raised protein. Lets pour a glass of wine and enjoy the process of cooking as well as the end product.

    • Darya Pino says:

      That’s awesome. For me I notice cooking gets more and more stressful as the number of people I’m cooking for increases. I’m pretty happy to cook for just myself or one other person, but more than that and it starts getting painful. Maybe I’d feel differently with a bigger kitchen 😉

      • Peter says:

        I feel the same way, but I always chalked it up to not having much experience with cooking for many. Things like “how do I keep this warm while I do the other thing” are pretty baffling to me. Maybe you do love to cook, but cooking for many is just a different skillset?

      • Darya Pino says:

        That could be. I never minded doing soup night.

    • asuph says:

      Pretty much how I feel. Cooking can be a great de-stresser. But even I can’t enjoy it on large scale. Small groups — upto 4 maybe. And the thing about cooking is, it has instant gratification, unlike my day job.

  2. Sophia Ayala Gettys says:

    Hey there,

    Great post! I didn’t love to cook either, but the shopping was definatrely appealing:) I’m an artsy kind of person so seeing it as an art form has helped me. It’s as the cooking is like way of blending my colors when I paint. You have to get the perfect balance of colors… the cool thing about cooking is that it’s one which uses all your senses! I found this the most intereting. Taste wasn’t all that important… I used to eat anything cooked for me or that would cook it’s self, but as I learned to cook and did that at home more and more it IS like second nature not a hassle. Since eating at home I’ve lost weight and am so thankful to really KNOW what is going in to my body, and my family’s for that matter!

    Take care!

  3. Matt Shook says:

    I’m pretty much an extreme “type B” personality, except when it comes to cooking…where I think I turn into a bit of a control freak. I cook because I really enjoy the meals I make, I have complete control over the quality of ingredients, and it’s often more enjoyable to eat in comfort at home. The times I do eat out are usually social occasions or when I’m too exhausted (mentally or physically) to be bothered with throwing something together…I like my cooking to be a relaxing process.

  4. Lori Jablons says:

    Great post, Darya! I just wrote about this very subject. I love cooking because I love to create, eat and feed others. I also love to figure out how to make things. Excellent point about becoming comfortable in the kitchen–once you realize it’s not so serious and start having fun the world really opens up. 🙂

  5. Sam says:

    I just adore cooking not just myself but mainly for others to see the smiles on there faces when they taste the variety of flavours. Its so good to love food, I really have a strong passion for it. But I can not call myself a chef! My partner for some reason gets very stressed when cooking but I find it enjoyable and relaxing.

  6. Renee Martin says:

    Great encouragement! There are three things I like about cooking – 1. taking every day fresh, good for you ingredients and making something yummy, 2. Taking existing recipes and revamping them to be good for you, and 3. Sharing the food and revisions with others!

  7. Jean says:

    The only reason I cook, like you, is to prepare healthy food. The onlny thing I like about it is when I’m entertaining people (and then I like the entertaining part, not the cooking part). One thing that really helps me is to have a set plan for the week. It keeps my food prep and thought time minimal. It takes 15 minutes once a week, and then I know when I need to do once I get home.

  8. Ralph says:

    Man, I needed to read this. I was looking for a little motivation to get me back in the kitchen again. Although I do like the sound of being a kitchen ninja-or any type of ninja for that matter-you’re right when you say that it is all about preparing something on a daily basis.

    Question: are those pomegranate seeds in cereal I see in your banner?

    • Darya Pino says:

      Awesome! Glad to inspire 🙂

      Yes, though I don’t like that picture because the cereal is processed grains, but yes those are pomegranate seeds on top. My favorite breakfast topping!

  9. Amen! A gourmet I am not – and I’ve been known to cry in the kitchen…. But with a few tasty handy ingredients – topped with nuts & goat cheese – served on a pretty little restaurant style plate – I feel pretty proud of myself.

    Great post! Here’s a little what I’ve learned “trying” to hang out in the kitchen….

  10. Stephanie says:

    I feel very similar to you – I love food and the end result of cooking, but I don’t really love cooking. I actually used to find it stressful! Part of the reason I started my food blog was to force myself to cook more, and now I no longer find it stressful, but I can’t say I totally enjoy it. I think you’re totally right about it becoming more second nature the more you do it. I’m not quite there yet, but that is my goal and I know I’ll get there soon.

  11. Alice says:

    Great post! I’m a fair-weather cook. Meaning I’m a busy full-time working parent who is always on a rush to take care of the family while also meeting my professional obligations. Luckily, I think I’ve become pretty adept at the quick, healthy week-night meal. There are days (mostly on the weekends), when I love having a big cooking project and spending hours in the kitchen and letting my creative culinary juices flow. Then there are days where I just want a fast, healthy meal to keep us all plugging along. I’ve also taught myself that really simple food can seem very “fancy” when it’s presented in particular ways. I love food and I do love to cook – I just try to pick my spots and keep my priorities straight. If I don’t feel much like cooking, I’ve developed a stable of fast, healthy things that require very little effort.

  12. Kristina says:

    I love baking but I simply don’t have the passion to cook. Cooking is a chore although I love the dishes I make. But just like you, a perfect day doesn’t involve me fretting over pans!

    But you are right. I simply have to UN-HATE it. Great post!!!

  13. Satu says:

    I think I’m somewhere in the middle when it comes to cooking. I mostly eat what I prepare myself, but because I live alone I don’t try new dishes very often. It’s not very inspiring to prepare meals for one person.

    I don’t know if it’s even possible to be a “foodie” if you live alone. Who would eat all the food you prepare?

    I was very inspired about cooking when I read Julia Child’s autobiography last year.

  14. Keith says:

    There is a harsh reality when it comes to getting down and dirty in the kitchen. As much as I may love adding and crafting ingredients, blending spices and painstakingly getting the right balance of salt/sweet/sour in a dish, the prospect of the enormous amount of prep and all the washing up can sometimes put me off a bit. Most of the time I love cooking. It only works when I’m not being rushed and I am left pretty much alone in the kitchen to get lost in my own thoughts and concentrate on the job in hand. Yes, like you, and many others, I LOVE food. Not just eating it, but what it means, where it comes from, how its made, who made it, every facet of it just fascinates me. There is still a lot I have to learn about it and through you, all the other food bloggers, recipe books and cooking classes just bring me that bit more knowledge day by day to keep it interesting.

  15. Chef Shedric says:

    As a culinary school educated and professionally trained chef with countless hours in kitchens, one might expect me to disagree with this article. However, Darya you are spot on! Culinary is how I express myself artistically. It’s my medium of expression (See Photo: I love the fact that food is multi-sensual, universally enjoyed, and passion inspiring. I think the World needs a balance of those of us who love cooking and those who simply enjoy the fruits of that labor.

  16. David says:

    Like the article…. and absolutely love the photograph! 🙂

  17. Mama Mary says:

    I cook because my mother couldn’t. She believed that all food should be well-done, then cooked some more to kill all the germs. I saw a Julia Child episode on PBS at age 10, and cooked for myself whenever I was allowed.
    Nowadays, I love cooking and baking. I love the satisfaction of taking ingredients and making something fabulous out of them, even if it’s only bread or a pot roast. If the food if fresh and local, all the better – I have become more concerned with mindful eating as a personal step against Big Ag.
    I also love feeding other people. I was lucky enough to find a partner who loves to eat my cooking, and I have family to give my extra bakery to, because eating a couple of slices of cake if good, having the rest in the house will lead to eating the entire cake over 2 days as breakfast, lunch and dinner. So I give away bakery to daughters on a regular basis.

    Your outlook on cooking is a great one to have, and one I’ve tried to instill in my non-culinarily-inspired daughters. Good foods prepared well aren’t solely the province of trained chefs, and it’s easier than it looks!

  18. Jamie says:

    Shoot. I saw the title “How To Become A Great Cook Without Being A Chef,” got excited that someone would finally show me how and started reading.

    Then I read “It all starts with excellent ingredients and <> that anyone can master with practice” a little further down.

    Then I read “The most important step is getting in the habit of buying good-quality, seasonal food and <> to whip up something you enjoy.”

    And then the post was done.

    But what are they? Those basic techniques and basic skills, I mean? At the store I pick up some fresh fruit and standard salad vegetables and then quickly push my cart past the leafy greens section before I can have a panic attack because I have no idea what to do with them.

    My feelings toward cooking are similar to yours, and at first I felt ashamed and thought I had to learn to love cooking in order to eat healthy. Luckily, hearing your story (and other friends/family who have similar ones) makes me feel better about learning to tolerate (maybe eventually enjoy?) cooking as a means to an end.

    But how do I do it?

    • Jamie says:

      Oops — I obviously need to learn more about HTML.

      The phrases I was trying to emphasize and instead accidentally eliminated were:

      “just a few basic techniques” and

      “learning the basic skills you need.”

      Sorry about that!

      • Jacqueline says:

        Jamie–I was once in the same boat you are in–no idea how to do any of it. I watched a LOT of Food Network–had it on whenever I was at home doing whatever; I attended some (a lot of) cooking classes nearby; read food blogs and recipes; and did much trial-and-error. I remember the day I tried to wing it in the kitchen with kale and garlic and failed. I swore I was done and that I’d buy all my food from then on! But I kept on trying…I agree with Darya, the secret is to keep it simple (I used to go for all the complicated recipes). Steam, saute, or roast your vegetables. Combine them with whole grains and/or beans. You can learn some salad dressings or just go with good olive oil with or without lemon juice. I also LOVE to eat, and I used to love to go to restaurants. I won’t say I’m the greatest cook ever, but I find I now prefer my cooking to most any other.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Hi Jamie,

      Thanks for asking. One resource I used constantly when I was getting started and still rely on frequently is called Cooks Illustrated. The online subscription is like $30 a year, but it is totally worth it. Basically they test all their recipes a zillion times on different kind of kitchen equipement until it is totally idiot proof. That being said, even Cooks is more fancy than you need to be.

      Flip through my recipes and look for the kale one. I use that method to cook like half the vegetables I eat. Basically just a little olive oil in a pan, sea salt and cook the greens until they’re bright green (don’t over cook). Add a little garlic to the pan at the end for flavor (just don’t let it burn) and you’re done. Learn a basic stir fry, a basic vinaigrette for salads, how to cook beans, rice and lentils (you can search my recipes for each of those), and roasted veggies (find my cauliflower recipe). If you need more help, Mark Bittman’s podcast, website and book “How To Cook Everything” should point you in the right direction. Once you get started, just stick with it until you’re feeling more adventurous. Then search the food blogs 🙂

  19. Monica says:

    I fell in love with cooking in college, and as part of a synergy of events, this led to my interest in health and health/food science. I had wanted to be a cartoonist early in life, but I became entranced with science in high school, set my colored pencils aside, and was in need of a new creative outlet. I spent my sophomore year living in a large student “co-op”. Our industrial kitchen provided a new creative laboratory for me to play in when I needed a break from reading brain research articles. I was lucky that buying local, organic, seasonal produce was a routine of the house (who knew vegetables were so damn good?), and it was easy to create good meals with good ingredients (though I admittedly sent a few failed projects to the compost bin). As I got more comfortable in the kitchen, I found that I really wanted to know more about how my ingredients were grown, how they affected human and environmental health, and what science principles underlie my kitchen tinkering. Cooking continues to provide an outlet for my creativity and stimulation for my mind (thanks to summer tomato for contributing brain food). There is still so much to learn (slash, so many more tasty meals to enjoy!).

  20. Alice says:

    I cook so that my family can enjoy healthy, tasty foods. It used to be more of a chore, but I’ve come to enjoy it (most of the time) as a creative outlet. Not that I don’t love a night off on a regular basis! I’ve learned so much by watching cooking shows and perusing many cookbooks from my local libary. It’s my own personal challenge to see how healthy and yummy I can make our meals without spending tons of time in kitchen. As a mom who also works full-time, it’s imperative for my sanity that our meals be quick & simple.

  21. I grew up with parents who loved to cook (especially my mother). I also loved trying new food, sushi, gazpacho, etc. I’ve become the “world cuisine” cook in my family. Now that I have my own apartment and am in charge of my own grocery shopping, I buy freshest possible (so very hard living in a small college town in South Dakota…). I’ve came even more into my element. I’ve always been a type A with the kitchen, but I cook with a very free mind. I hardly even follow a recipe other than possibly using it as a guide for the first time making it. I’ve had a few messups, chili so spicy I couldn’t eat it, gazpacho way too garlicy, etc. But I’m still at it, trying to talk class mates into the ease of cooking, why buy prego when you can make a nice cheap homemade tomato sauce in 30 minutes or less?

    I also LOVE food, I’m one of those “accidentally chooses most expensive item on menu” people, I’ve had everything from sea urchin, to blood sausage, to monkfish liver, to brain cheese. Cooking is my creative outlet I guess.

  22. Christopher says:

    I cook because I have to and it’s cheaper than going out every night. That’s pretty much it. I love good food. I love eating it and the feeling of satisfaction after. I like spending time with friends over a meal. I hate everything else about it. I despise meal planning, shopping, recipe hunting, food prep, and the actual act of cooking. Oddly, I don’t mind cleaning up.

    I’ll admit: people who find cooking relaxing or use it as a creative outlet…more power to you, but that completely puzzles me. I’m never more stressed than when I’m cooking. And what I cook is rarely all that great. Even in my small town, I can guarantee that there are half a dozen restaurants I can go to where the food will be much, much better than anything I make (minus the stress of shopping, cooking, etc.). The only reason I’m not at these places all the time is money. If I were independently wealthy, I would most likely eat out for all meals or hire a personal chef.

    So I cook because I have to. That’s it. And I figure if it’s that the way it is I should try to learn how to do it better and make the food as good as I can get it, which is why I read this blog and a couple others. But it’s most definitely *not* out of a love for the kitchen. I hope that doesn’t make me a pariah in these parts…. 🙂

  23. Tammy Mollai says:

    By nature I’m good in cooking and creating recipes that are healthy and tasty. I go through a lot of trial cooking before I come up with the extreme makeover dish that is healthy and tasty.

    “In my experience, food and passion always intertwine. Passion is food for the soul’s mood at any particular time.” Tammy Mollai

  24. BNE says:

    Great chef I’m not, but I love to cook for my family. Thanks for a great article.

  25. Dee says:

    For me it’s the same as you. I cook for health and convenience I’m surely no chef. I always say, I cook things that are good to eat, it may not necessarily be delicious, but it’s safe, healthy and edible. I’m still very challenged in the kitchen. My 17 year old loves to try recipes – especially those that involve baking casseroles, cookies and cakes. I just buy the peas, veg, meat and add herbs and spices for palatbility and do the basic cooking so that it is fit for human consumption… I have no lofty aspirations to be a ‘best cook’ since that really is not my primary objective – would be a nice to have though, probably one day….

  26. julie says:

    I cook because I like to eat, and if I eat restaurant/take-out, I cannot maintain my lower weight. Also, I love the pretty colors and strange veggies at the farmers market, so I want to make pretty things, and eat them. Before I bumped into my first farmers market, I mostly ate out of cans and boxes, then I wanted to buy the pretty produce. Unfortunately, that stuff doesn’t prepare itself, I had to figure out what to do with it. OK, I admit, most of my stuff doesn’t always end up pretty, but it’s tasty enough. It’s strong motivation to be normalish weight, not obese, though chopping veg not my idea of a good time.

    It has gotten easier in time, mostly I eat the same 4-5 dishes and cycle through them, but two or three times a month, I make something totally new. I agree that it’s a lot more fun to cook for others, especially if they appreciate it, but I learn on myself (emergency burrito appreciated) and I make enough for 3 or 4 leftover meals, as well.

  27. Ian Dixon says:

    Hardly any recipe is truly complicated though the brain might say it is.
    Time consuming and needing the correct steps to be followed perhaps.
    I tend to cook to what might be called a ‘peasant’ style ie I keep things simple yet I can ramp up when needed

  28. I started cooking when we had food intolerance issues in my children. No soy, no dairy, no nuts made for very few “convenience” foods. I did not cook much in my life before kids. They have outgrown their intolerances, but I have learned that I prefer my own cooking to most prepackaged, premade foods. 🙂 So I guess our trials for a short time were a blessing for the long term. I realized I was comfortable in the kitchen when my mom and sister started teasing me about never following a recipe without substitutions/changes.

  29. i really enjoyed this piece. Sometimes, I find it difficult to find ways to motivate others to cook because I really like to cook. This was an encouraging piece that empathizes with those who find cooking a chore. I feel knowing what goes into your food is hugely related to how you eat and can sway your choices toward more nutritious food.

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