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March 8, 2012

Battle Hymn of the 20Something Chef


There are two words --- two special and terrifying words --- that should be familiar to most new cooks in their twenties.  Are you ready for this? Say it with me:



No, this is not an exercise in negative mantras or de-motivational speaking.  Let me explain.

When you’re in the kitchen for the first time as a solo artist, it’s tempting to choose the most exciting recipe you can dream up.  If you’ve always loved eating gnocchi, empanadas, lobster ravioli, or chocolate soufflé, you might be persuaded to try these recipes first.  How do I know? I’ve been there, hunched over my college dorm’s dining room table, rolling out dough and wondering how much flour I need to sprinkle to keep it from sticking to the entirety of the rolling pin and oh my god, there’s flour all over the carpet and I don’t have a vacuum, help!

I’ve been there in the trenches, my friends, and it wasn’t pretty.  The first time I ever attempted to make my own caramel was a cruel reminder that only a perfect relationship can withstand the pressures of boiling sugar.  I was standing over the stove with my college boyfriend, watching the sugar water boil gloriously, turning gold and then golden brown.  I added the cream, just as I was supposed to, when the unthinkable happened.  The whole pot of caramel seized and hardened, turning my liquid gold into hard candy.

“Do something!” I shouted, before dissolving into tears.  BF stormed out, and I was left to pry the caramel off the pan, alone.

Another, more successful failure, was the time I made chocolate mousse.  It was an Ina Garten recipe and tasted fantastic.  Feeling sublimely confident, I patted myself on the back and brought a few ramekins to a friend’s house for him to try.  I watched him begin to eat the mousse, feeling the swell and stirrings of pride, when suddenly he stopped eating and began to study the ramekin.

“What is it?”

He was silent, lost in thought. 

“Oh god, RJ, what’s wrong with it?”

He wrinkled his brow slightly and reached a hand down into the ceramic cup, extracting a long, light brown hair.  I must’ve been a subject of pity, because the next thing I knew RJ was digging a spoon back into the mousse and finishing his serving with gusto until there was nothing left.    

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had to trash watery gazpacho, rock-hard Indian naan, pumpkin bread that refused to rise, or lemon bars that became closer to scrambled eggs than custard.  Not to mention the roast beef that spent 6 hours in the oven and never cooked in the middle.   The point is, we’re supposed to dream big.  Cooking is incredibly exciting, and there’s nothing like the rush of accomplishment when you realize you can make something at home that you once enjoyed only in a restaurant. 

A banana nut bread that’s the best you’ve ever had, and just so happens to have emerged from your own oven.  A crockpot ropa vieja that makes you believe in lazy Sundays like never before.  A red sauce that’s so close to Grandma’s, you want to UPS tubs of it to your relatives. 

The learning curve is a gentle one, as long as you have enough patience with yourself.  Sure, if you’re going to try something on the difficult side, at least buy enough food to make it twice, or three times depending.  Sometimes a dough can’t be saved, and that’s okay.  Into the garbage it goes, never to be seen again! But the stories, ah—with any luck—the stories will live forever.

Those two words I mentioned earlier? Kitchen + Disaster? Make them your battle cry.  No time spent learning can possibly be a disaster.  Go forth—make something delicious, make a mistake, and enjoy every minute of it.

Looking for more help in the kitchen? Check out our list of 20 Cookbooks to Get You Started and you will be on your way to mastering the art of cooking.

Kayleigh George is a Senior Marketing Associate in HarperCollins Academic and Library Marketing division. She operates the blog The Roaring 20s, and also blogs for HarperCollins library blog, Library Love Fest.