5 Lessons We Learned from Anthony Bourdain’s “Les Halles Cookbook”
Standing on the shoulders of giants.
The Kitchen Stories ethos is simple: anyone can cook. And it’s true. We espouse that truth with unwavering certainty. All it takes is a basic interest in good food, the willingness to learn something new, and the courage to try. But we aren’t the only ones who hold that belief.
I recently picked up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s “Les Halles Cookbook” to have at the office, because—as my colleague Fritz so rightly stated in a previous article—there’s no better way to learn how to cook than to tap the knowledge of other cooks and chefs.
There’s more to cooking, though, than learning technique. First, you need to adopt one indispensable, intangible skill—confidence. That’s the fundamental starting point for any educational endeavor. You have to be able to tell yourself, “I can do this.”
Enter Bourdain. “Les Halles Cookbook” is at its core a lesson in French bistro cuisine, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a lesson in self-assurance and the use thereof, not just in cooking like a pro, but thinking and behaving like one, as well.
Here’s a summary of our favorite kernels of wisdom from “Les Halles Cookbook.”
You Can Do It
No one is born a cook. It’s a skill that everyone—everyone—has to learn one way or another. It’s not as if toddlers, at the same time they start taking their first steps, simultaneously demonstrate cooking chops, as if they’re biologically hardwired to do so. Bourdain makes this crystal clear in the introduction:
« At Les Halles…almost every single cook in its thirteen-year history has been a rural Mexican with no previous cooking experience. Almost everyone lacks any kind of formal training and entered the business as a dishwasher or night porter. If you think that they spent their childhoods whipping up Mexican regional favorites and developed a natural affinity for food, you are dead wrong, my friend. Ask my saucier to make a chicken mole and you’ll get a blank stare and a middle finger. Back in the old country, Mom did that. »
« Now, of course, they are, pound for pound, some of the best cooks of cuisine bourgeoise in America. I would proudly put them up against any cheese-eating, long-lunch taking, thirty-two-hour-a-week working socialist clock-puncher from across the water. Any day. They’d mop the floor with them. This is less a testimonial to my training abilities than it is evidence of the triumph of persistence, hard work, pure hearts, and a sense of humor. »
If a guy with zero cooking experience can end up working as the saucier in a high-volume New York City bistro, then it stands to reason that you can acquire the basic (and beyond basic) skills necessary to be a respectable home cook.
It’s Perfectly Okay to Make Mistakes
Chances are you might be afraid of cooking because of less-than-pleasant past experiences in the kitchen, in which you made an error that seemed like a royal blunder.
So what? Everyone does. It’s easy to become crippled by mistakes in the kitchen and let them prevent you from standing back up after you fall down, brushing off the dirt, and trying again. This is especially true because a lot of mistakes happen in moments of high stress—like when you’re trying to whip up a meal for a potential boyfriend or girlfriend and end up scorching an expensive piece of meat or splattering marinara sauce all over your pants. Embrace those follies. Don’t suppress them.
As Bourdain says,
« You need persistence; the ability to understand that with every mistake comes valuable information. I’ll tell you what I tell every rookie cook in my kitchen, after he ruins a perfectly good consommé: ‘Throw it out. Start over. Do you understand what you did wrong? Good. Now don’t do it again.’ Know that you can read about breaking a butter sauce all you like; until you’ve actually broken it—just when you needed it—you won’t understand it on an instinctive, cellular level. Screwups are good. Screwups—and bouncing back from screwups—help you conquer fear. And that’s very important. Because some dishes know when you’re afraid. They sense it, like horses, and will—as my friend Fergus Henderson will tell you—‘Misbehave.' »
Always Think Ahead
Bourdain, like any self-respecting chef, is of the opinion that the most useful concept to keep in mind when cooking is mise en place. I’ve already touched on this concept in a previous article, but some ideas constantly need to be reiterated.
The “meez,” as Bourdain calls it, “…is one’s sword and shield, the only thing standing between you and chaos. If you have your meez right, it means you have your head together, you are ‘set up,’ stocked, organized, ready with everything you need and are likely to need for the tasks at hand…In less metaphysical terms, having your meez together means that you have cleaned and cleared your work area in advance and have assembled every item of food and every utensil and tool you will require, and put them in accessible, comfortable locations, ready for use.”
Planning ahead goes beyond the kitchen, though. When shopping for ingredients, organization is just as essential. And, as with most tasks in life, one of the best ways to organize one’s self is with a list:
“I’m a list fanatic,” says Bourdain. “Write it down on a list, I believe, and there is far less chance that you will ever find yourself beginning a sentence with the pathetic excuse, ‘Sorry…I forgot to…’ The very process of writing a list clarifies and focuses the mind. Write enough of them and you will begin to think in lists, automatically prioritizing. While this can leach into your personal relationships and be hell on your friends and loved ones, it makes for crisper and more efficient cooking.”
We couldn’t agree more, which is one reason why we decided to include a shopping list function in our app.
Finally, before you go shopping, always think about what’s in season and if you’ll be able to get it or not. Call your local market, fishmonger, butcher, or specialty shop, and check to see if they’re currently carrying an item you need for your cooking plans. This will help you to avoid (most of the time) the frustrating experience of having to make a change of plans at the last minute.
As you develop your cooking skills and become more adventurous in your culinary endeavors, you’ll occasionally need a cut of meat, piece of produce, type of oil, or some other miscellaneous item that might not be readily available. You could use your precious time to visit fourteen different specialty shops wherever you live, and potentially return home emptyhanded—or you could start delegating the sleuth work to people who are in the know.
“Good cooks do not exist in a vacuum. They are at the very end of a long supply train that begins, in our fortunate case, all over the world. You need friends to navigate. You need connections. You need to be a citizen of the world—or, at least, of your local markets,” Bourdian so poignantly writes.
More precisely, he recommends establishing, first and foremost, a healthy relationship with “…a butcher, a fishmonger, a produce guy, and a specialty purveyor.” As with any relationship, it will take time and patience to cultivate these kinds of connections, but the benefit in the long run can’t be emphasized enough. Think of these people as friends. They’ll come through in times when you need them most and contribute to your life (at least one aspect of it) in invaluable ways.
You’re Only as Good as Your Knife
The majority of the work you’ll be doing in the kitchen will involve your knife. Chopping, slicing, filleting, dicing, mincing, scoring, and so forth. To do any of these things well you will need a high-quality knife that’s well-cared for and always sharp. No questions asked. In much the same way that a medieval knight’s most trusted tool was his sword, a cook’s most trusted tool is his knife.
But you can’t cut corners here. If you plan to cook for the majority if your life—and chances are you will, seeing as how you need to eat every day—then you must invest in a damn good knife. Remember, when you buy cheap, then you buy twice.
Bourdain hits the nail on the head when he says, “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams, and desires.”
If you don’t have a good chef knife at home yet, you can pick one up here.
Knowing how to sharpen and care for your knife is also very important. You can find more information on that topic here.
These are just a few of the useful bits of wisdom that can be found in Anthony Bourdain’s "Les Halles Cookbook". Do yourself the favor of a lifetime and purchase a copy.
Published on June 21, 2016