The most important things we want to know cannot be found in a Google search.
In this era, cookbooks seem hopelessly outdated and inefficient. You can’t search for recipes with the same ease that you can search the web. You can’t link to your shopping list. Even Amazon’s Alexa can’t tell you where the recipe is (although that would be a useful application of Artificial Intelligence in the home!). Yet every time I declutter my bookshelves, I refuse to eliminate my cookbooks.
I love to cook. I used to teach people how to cook (that’s a story for another time). And over the years I’ve cultivated a nice collection of cookbooks. Sadly, I haven’t cooked much in the past decade; cooking, like so many parts of my life, got pushed aside as I became a solopreneur and focused on building a business. (The irony in that is also for another time.)
I recently decided to make an effort to cook more often. To get my creative juices flowing in that realm, I’ve developed a new Saturday ritual over the past several weeks: I select a cookbook and spend some time flipping through it.
Sometimes I’m actively looking for a new recipe to try, and other times I just want to skim the offerings, see the pictures and get inspired. The books are there. I might as well use them.
I was immediately hooked by Chef Colicchio’s confession that he never wanted to write a cookbook because he feared that it wouldn’t capture the essence of what he is about. His view is that recipes aren’t the point, and he couldn’t wrap his head around how to capture what inspires him about cooking and his creative process.
This comment touched into something that has been floating around in my mind as I’ve explored other cookbooks in my collection. It’s a theory informed in part by William Zinsser’s classic book On Writing Well, which I’ve also been reading in this time span.
The theory is this:
The best cookbooks aren’t about recipes at all. Like any good book on any topic, the best cookbooks tell a story. The recipes are like windows into the chef’s soul, reflecting his personality, values, and priorities.
The choices that a Chef makes when crafting a cookbook reveal as much about him as the choices he makes in sourcing his food and creating a dish. Each is a piece of his story, and together they offer lessons that apply far beyond the realms of cooking and eating.
Several weeks ago, my search for a recipe in Ina Garten’s Parties cookbook rewarded me with a new framework for teaching marketing principles to entrepreneurs (if you want to know more about that one, make sure you’re on my list). Like Garten’s essay, Colicchio’s Preface is abundant with lessons and insights that resonate far beyond the kitchen. I couldn’t help but reach for my yellow highlighter, and it struck me that this section of the book contained what is perhaps the most crucial recipe of all: how to craft an extraordinary life.
“Understanding the whole felt more important than slavishly following each step,” Colicchio writes in sharing how even at a young age he wasn’t keen on recipes, and it resonated with me as a lesson to heed when following any process.
In this age of online courses and “success blueprints” it’s easy to fall victim to the myth that all you need for success is the recipe that worked for someone else. My own experience has taught me that modeling another person’s system — rather than blindly following their recipe — can be helpful, but only if I have the requisite foundational skills to pull it off. Colicchio articulates this beautifully in sharing wisdom he gleaned on his journey:
I guess I realized all along that following recipes couldn’t make me into a chef, but learning technique could.
I had intended to quickly flip through the book before heading out to the Union Square Greenamarket, but I found myself engrossed in his recounting of his evolution as a Chef: from his start at the snack bar at his family’s swim club and the new Burger King (really!) in his New Jersey town, through the hills of the French countryside to the four-star kitchens of the most legendary Manhattan chefs, to his own restaurants. (This book, published in 2000, predates his role as judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.”)
As a life-long New Yorker with a passion for food and cooking, I am familiar with many of the New York places and people he mentions. It’s fun to read about his meeting Danny Meyer before Meyer opened Union Square Cafe and became a legend in New York and international food circles. But the real thrill for me was in reading about the lessons he learned along his journey and how he learned them: the summer he turned out 1,200 corn muffins, 20 cheesecakes and 20 lemon chiffon cakes a day to learn that he hates to bake, the stint at an Italian restaurant where he learned to butcher, the experience he gained by trying his hand at every job in the restaurant.
One recurring theme in his story illuminated for me a truth about success that I’ve found in other people I’ve worked with, met or researched. True success is not just a product of hard work and dedication. To achieve meaningful success requires the intentional seeking out of situations where you will grow and of people who are willing and able to help you expand.
I was struck by how often Colicchio left a position of stature in one place to immerse himself in a new experience where he would be out of his depth. Its not easy to shine the light of awareness on an area where you’re not growing, and even harder to forgo stature and comfort to seek the experiences and people who will help you grow. Both require tremendous courage, and I find myself harboring a new level of respect for a man who was already one of my favorite chefs.
The 20 pages of the Preface and Introduction to Think Like a Chef offered me more insight on crafting a business and life of meaning and purpose than many training programs I’ve attended, and at far less investment of time and money. I’ll be revisiting this book often as I marinate juicy morsels from his story.
Colicchio was right: the recipes aren’t the point. The true value of the book is in reading the story and extracting the mindset. You learn to think like a chef by understanding how a chef thinks, not by recreating the recipes.
It occurs to me that even if (when?) we reach the day when Alexa can tell me what page in what book has the recipe I’m seeking, I don’t know that she will ever be able to extract the richer connections and patterns that I can find by opening the book myself.
And perhaps that’s the most important lesson of all: true meaning does not come from getting the answer, but from the journey of seeking it out.
And, a good book is always worth keeping on the shelf.
What are you reading right now? Are you reading in a paper book or digital? Please share in the comments!