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Cooking

Cooking Curriculum

Chez Panisse chef Cal Peternell's advice for teaching others to cook well
Chez Panisse Chef Cal Peternell
Photo: Ed Anderson

TV shows, cookbook authors and, yes, the all-knowing Mark Bittman want everyone to learn to cook. But teaching is easier said than done—how, exactly, does one impart those home-cooking skills?

It was a phone call that got Cal Peternell, chef at Alice Waters's legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, interested in showing others the basics (and then some). His son had packed up and gone to college across the country without a complete grasp on everyday cooking concepts.

"He called me at Chez Panisse on a Saturday night, right before service, and asked 'What kind of meat do you use in Bolognese?'" says Peternell, who then realized it was already dinner time on the East Coast—way too late to start the long-simmering sauce.

Advising his progeny to make eggs for dinner, not braised meat, Peternell also came up with a recipe for a quick-cooking "fake Bolognese" to whip up the next time his son craved Italian but didn't plan ahead. This call, the first of many from his son, led Peternell to create a kind of syllabus that became his first cookbook, the recently released Twelve Recipes (William Morrow, $27).

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In the process, he learned to teach. And if you're already a good cook and are looking to impart some cooking wisdom on a less-experienced pupil (a friend, significant other, whomever you choose), Peternell has some friendly advice.

First, he says, you have to show your students how to make what they like eating—even if it's ambitious, like Bolognese. Have them "master one thing that they love to eat and keep making it," Peternell says. Repetition improves skills.

Cooking is tactile, so lessons should be hands-on. Plan together, shop together and—if you're an Alice Waters acolyte like Peternell—grow a garden together. Even if that last one is out of the question, it's important to get your pupils involved in the decision-making process right from the start. "That kind of ownership brings them in and keeps them in," Peternell explains.

With that in mind, don't simply turn your student into an assistant. That's no fun. "It's tempting to give young or inexperienced people simple tasks," Peternell says, but don't. If there's menial work, you need to show that's it's part of a larger mission: dinner. So, for instance, if your pupil picks off all of the parsley leaves, he also gets to grind the parsley pesto. Back off.

And there should always be parsley pesto. In Peternell's curriculum, every lesson ends in a meal, and individual tasks like picking herbs are never just an exercise. "Making something with your own two hands can be a profound accomplishment," Peternell says.

Finally, don't forget to show off the magic—that alchemy that keeps you coming back to the kitchen. Maybe it's mixing the salad dressing ("emulsifying can make a big impression," Peternell says), maybe it's watching a soufflé rise triumphantly to the edge of the pan or something else entirely. Whatever the case may be, make it yours (and your student's) and make it count.

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