Review By Tom Hudson
Does the world really need another cookbook? How many different ways are there to boil an egg or crumple a souffle? The answer, upon reading a few snippets of “The 4-Hour Chef,” is an immediate, “Yes! The world really does need another cookbook. This one.” More than just a cookbook, it is also a self-help guide. It’s easy and fun to read and the photographs are particularly helpful and easy to follow. In fact, the author encourages readers to take photographs of all their meals and share them on Facebook.
Here, the author describes his motivation for learning how to cook and his first, faltering steps. We are introduced to his two guiding principles and two of his heroes. Among the quotes that the author uses for inspiration is one from Bruce Lee, the much-loved late philosopher, actor and martial arts instructor: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” He also embraces a pearl of wisdom from the #1 world-famous host of the Food Network, Bobby Flay: “Take risks and you’ll get the payoffs. Learn from your mistakes until you succeed. It’s that simple.” Ferriss had this typed up and put it on his desk for moral support during periods of self-doubt. So should we. After the introduction, the book is divided into four major sections, Meta-learning, The Domestic, The Wild, The Scientist and The Professional.
This is the backbone of the book, where the author introduces the important principles. While it may be skipped by those who are only interested in cooking, it’s worth delving into at some point. Here, Ferriss talks about the power of outliers, deconstruction (exploring the unknown), assignment (learning to taste), selection (the all-important 80/20 rule), the magic of proper ordering, the carrot and the stick, how to cram six months of culinary school into 48 hours and making slippery ideas stick.
3. The Domestic
This is where you earn back the price of the book several-fold. It is the only section the author modestly considers “necessary.” It is where we’re given the building blocks of cooking in four hours of preparation time: 14 basic dishes, each taking between five and twenty minutes. This is the literal meaning of the title, “The 4-Hour Chef”. Each recipe in this section consists of no more than four ingredients.
After another Bruce Lee quote, we read about the 80/20 pantry and all the ingredients we need. Master a few staples and buy everything “just in time.” Everything in this section “lasts forever.” Learn about the “dirty dozen,” foods that contain the highest levels of industrial chemicals when not grown organically. Discover also the “clean 15,” those foods which, even if not produced organically, can cut pesticide intake by as much as 90 percent. After the basic larder, this section goes on to describe basic kitchen equipment, from lint-free blue surgical towels to cutting boards, scales, pans and other implements, including yet more knives. The Gray Kunz Sauce Spoon is a bit of a mystery and looks like it was fashioned from barbed wire. Here, also, we are introduced to the Sous Vide Water Oven, home of the manufacture of 72-hour short ribs and the Sous Vide chicken breast. The Himalayan Salt Block is listed as an “optional extra” but once you learn what it’s for, you wonder how you ever managed without one.
4. The Wild
Become good WITH your hands and self-sufficient IN your hands. Ferriss says this will be your favorite section. Among other helpful hints, instructions are given on how to kit out a two-person survival bag, what multi-tool to buy for tweezing fishing line or breaking down a 500-pound animal and how to make your own fire-starting paste. My favorite piece of advice here is how to use a cheap starter pistol to make sure no airline ever loses your luggage ever again. This alone may be worth the price of the book. Use only on domestic flights. This section also contains a catalog of all the knives you’ll ever need. After the hard-core weaponry, you will want a tissue or two to get through the section on the importance of rabbits.
5. The Scientist
Ferriss got it wrong. THIS is my favorite section, where Martha Stewart meets Marie Curie. Get in touch with your inner geek as you survey the author’s kitchen/laboratory. Suddenly, you wonder why more standard laboratory equipment isn’t adapted for use in the kitchen. One look at the Sous Vide, a cousin of an old friend from the science lab, and I was coveting it. It will be interesting to see if Ferriss follows in the footsteps of Delia Smith and triggers a global rush on water baths.
This section is broken down into 14 Sciences. In the Science of Gels, we learn how to make Arugula Spaghetti (a fun project to enjoy with the kids) and Crunchy Bloody Mary (not for the kids). The Science of Spherication reveals how to make Mojito Bubbles. In the Science of Powders, we peek behind the wizard’s curtain to see how to make a fluffy powder out of Nutella, the chocolate spread. There is also a chapter on liquid nitrogen. It never occurred to me this could be used in the kitchen! It makes dynamite Cocoa-Goldschlager ice cream in just 30 seconds. Take careful note of the safety precautions and never let the kids alone with it. Not even a teaspoonful.
All of the recipes here are weird and wonderful. As a 4-hour chef, you will use easily obtainable tools and ingredients whose only crime is not appearing on everyday supermarket shelves. Take the balsamic vinaigrette pearls. They require just 15 minutes to prepare using stuff most of us have already lying around in the kitchen, with the possible exception of agar-agar and an exotic-sounding ingredient called EVOO (it turns out to be an acronym for extra virgin olive oil). Sprinkled on sliced tomatoes, these look for all the world like giant, glossy peppercorns. They are just a cute way of presenting salad dressing.
6. The Professional – how to become the best in the world.
This section opens with a dedication to the author’s parents and to Mark Twain, among others, and continues with six reasons for reading at least the first few chapters of the book:
- How to become the best at anything in record time
- Eating and living in high-definition
- Getting into the best shape of your life
- How to become impressive without a lot of effort
- How cooking can give you the advantage in mating
- It’s fun
In this section of the book, the author describes the moment when he discovered how to prepare a two-Michelin-star entree in a hotel bathroom sink in 20 minutes with nothing but Ziploc bags, scalding-hot tap water, and a cheap Polder thermometer. Want to finish that off with a gorgeous pie crust? Use the iron in the closet. One month later, he has an epiphany. It is possible to determine whether a steak has been 100% grass-fed or finished on grain by simply noting the ‘waxiness’ on the palate.
These are ideas the reader can draw from the book to make immediate, life-altering changes. Ferriss focuses on two guiding principles:
- Failure points – the power of practical pessimism
By polling a massive number of his Facebook fans, he was able to identify a handful of common failure points that make people put cookbooks back on the shelf rather than take them home and start using them. These are things like to many ingredients, too much equipment needed, too much work, etc. These are the issues that need immediate attention. They are problems that all master chefs have learned to solve. This is good advice whether you are learning a new skill, preparing for an exam, starting a new job or any of a number of situations in life.
- The Margin of Safety – if Warren Buffett designed menus
Warren Buffett, American businessman and philanthropist, is regarded as the most successful investor of the 20th century. His “margin of safety” refers to the discount at which he purchases shares. The 4-Hour Chef’s margin of safety lies in selecting bulletproof recipes that are guaranteed to work no matter what the environment. Differences in humidity and altitude produce different effects in some instances. A recipe that works beautifully in the Colorado Rockies in December might flop in Death Valley in the middle of summer.
While “The 4-hour Chef” is an awesome cookbook, it is so much more than that. It is a handy guide for becoming a brilliant, super-productive, highly educated, thin and fit human being.
For me, some of the sections, DiSSS and CaFE, were a little heavy-going. The food science is really what grabbed me. He had me at Olive Oil Gummy Bears. Oddly, this was the first page I landed on when I first opened the book. Was the Kindle version pre-programmed for that? For a while, I wondered whether Tim Ferriss was in cahoots with Amazon to analyze the buying patterns of its customers to know just how to grab their attention. Using the principles described in this book, I wouldn’t put it past him.