What Makes A Good Cook?

Hey Jesse—

In your opinion, what separates a good cook from a bad cook?




Whoo, tough question.  I’ve been letting this one simmer in my mind for a few days trying to sort it out.  My first instinct was knife skills, but I had to rethink that one pretty quickly, as you asked about good from bad.  And, whereas knife skills can separate a great cook from a good cook, they are far from necessary to avoid being a bad cook.  One can be a quite good cook with only functional knife skills.

Next, I thought about respect for ingredients: their quality and their integrity.  And whereas I do believe that such respect is crucial for someone who aspires to cook as well as possible, there are plenty of cooks who do just fine without a great deal of consideration going into the provenance of their ingredients.

So, perhaps a passion for the results?  A love for flavors and how they combine?  Again, helpful, but not necessary.  While these can provide one with the motivation to persevere through kitchen mishaps and produce a better result on one’s next attempt, misguided enthusiasm has been responsible for many a kitchen error, from the novice’s tendency to throw the entire spice rack into the pan, to the combination of dissonant flavors (just to see what they would taste like).

Eventually, though, I decided that there is but one quality that truly separates a good cook from a bad:

The ability to follow directions is the one trait that is absolutely crucial in a good cook.  If one is able to follow the instructions set forth and complete a recipe from beginning to end, they should be able to get a predictable, and flavorful results: they should be able to present their food to their dining companions and be complemented on a job well done.

Before one can invent a new recipe, first they must follow someone else’s instructions.  The more recipes one follows, the more one should gain a comprehension of the underlying structure that ties all recipes together, and the techniques that carry over from one recipe to a next.  But lacking any sort of path to guide one to that understanding, I don’t believe that a person who loves others’ food but has never cooked could enter a kitchen and expect to get good results.  But someone who is willing and able to follow directions from somebody more experienced, be it a cookbook author or an instructor, should do just fine, especially if they start with more basic recipes and work toward more advanced recipes as their skill and comfort level improves.

And, from there, with any luck, the rest of the qualities I have lauded (a passion for food and a respect for the ingredients and an ability to use all equipment—including knives—with increased dexterity and efficiency) should come into play and help that good cook to strive for continual improvement and better dining.

Have a question on your mind?  Ask me anything!  Email jwsharrard{at}corduroyorange{dot}com.  Chances are I’ll send you an answer, and I might even use it for a future installment of my occasional culinary advice column.

2 Responses to “What Makes A Good Cook?”

  1. Mike Says:

    My personal sentiment: “It’s easy to make unhealthy food taste good…. a good cook can make healthy food taste good.” aka enough butter, salt, bacon, cheese, cream etc. can make anything taste good.

    Also, a good cook is experienced enough to never make the rookie cooking mistakes.

  2. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Good Cook II: The Sequel Says:

    [...] May, I put up a few musings about what makes a good cook.  The original post prompted a flurry of activity on the site (1 comment), which in turn prompted [...]

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