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The 4-Hour Chef: Lengthy Book Offers Short Cut to Kitchen Excellence

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

WNYC

Author, nutritional supplement entrepreneur, tech investor and speed learner Timothy Ferriss promises in his latest book, The 4-Hour Chef, to teach you the skills you'd gain in six months of culinary school in just 240 minutes.  

Those 4 hours are about the time it took me to get through the first 20 pages of this dense, wide-ranging tome. I've got 620 more to go.  

"Why such a big book?" I asked Ferriss.  "I thought this was going to simplify things."

Ferris explained that, because there is no one perfect book for everyone, he's written five. "This book was 250 pages longer," he said. "I cut it down. This is the most distilled form of the book."

The 4-Hour Chef is not just a cookbook, or an instruction manual that promises to take non-chefs "from making scrambled eggs to making $30 restaurant entrees in 24 hours." Cooking is just the medium through which Ferriss shows readers how to learn anything fast — from the Icelandic language to the freestyle stroke in swimming to the free throw in basketball.  

The first section, Meta, is about meta-learning, Ferriss' method of accelerated learning. "I look at the 20 percent of activities that would allow me to do 80 percent of what I want to do," he said.  

The Domestic section is what Ferriss calls the core of the book, offering 15 core culinary lessons (braising, mashing, steaming, cooking for groups, etc.) that each take 20 minutes to accomplish.  That's where the 4 hour premise comes from.

In Wild, Ferriss discusses about foraging and game. In Science, he writes about — yep — the science of food and cooking. He also indulges in off-topic "What if?" and "Why not?" questions, like "What if I ate 15,000 calories in 20 minutes?"  The fifth section, Pro, demonstrates how to master classics like the French omelette and a roasted chicken.  It also offers recipes that allow cooks to get creative with flavors, textures, smells, ingredients and methods.  Here you'll find cauliflower crème brûlée and instructions for making a rose centerpiece out of bacon.  

Ferriss explains in The 4-Hour Chef that he became interested in cooking after growing weary of a life structured around technology. (He got his start creating an online nutritional supplement company, then moved to investing in tech start-ups like Evernote, Shopify and StumbleUpon.)  "I needed to use my hands to create something," he writes.  

He thought of woodworking, but couldn't find the time to get to a class. He hit upon cooking after an extraordinary meal at Alice Waters' game-changing restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. He found learning the art of cooking extraordinarily hard.

Ferriss promises to make it easier for those following in his footsteps by overcoming the common problems that cause people to mess up in the kitchen and abandon it altogether (too many ingredients, intimidating knife skills, too many tools, food spoilage, different cooking times and dishes that require constant tending).  He also promises newbie chefs a "margin of safety" in his recipes and instructions, so that they can screw up badly "and still get something incredible."  

"Early wins are critical for momentum," he writes in his introductory chapter, "so we'll guarantee them."

One early win for me was reading the introductory chapter.  If learning to cook is daunting, reading about learning to cook in The 4-Hour Chef is doubly so.  I'll be reading more through the Thanksgiving weekend. Ferriss will be my guest on Monday when I host The Brian Lehrer Show.

There are no recipes for a simple, roasted turkey in the book.  There is one in the Science section for Turbacon Epic, "a quail inside a Cornish hen inside a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey inside a pig."

No, I won't be making it for the holiday.  Neither will Ferriss. He's going home to East Hampton to have dinner with his folks, who were without power for 10 days after Sandy barreled past Long Island. He's letting his mom do the cooking.

"She enjoys being the conductor of the turkey," Ferriss said. "I will not interfere, but I will definitely help."

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