Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review (part 1): The 4-Hour Chef

I picked up a copy of Tim Ferriss's new book, The 4-Hour Chef in hardback. And the Kindle edition too, since my wife indicated she'd be more likely to read it if she didn't have to lug around the huge (670 oversized pages) tome, and I wouldn't mind being able to read it on my computer or iPod either. In a way, it seems wrong to think about reviewing a cookbook before spending some time in the kitchen with at least a whole lot of the recipes. Or even reading most of the book. I've done neither, but I wanted to start commenting on it now instead of waiting for later.

So. If you're not familiar with Ferriss's previous work, I'll offer some background. His first book was The 4-Hour Workweek. This work had a lot of valuable parts to it, even if you don't follow the basic plan to spend way more than 4 hours per week putting together a business that can have large portions outsourced and/or automated such that you only need to put in about 4 hours per week of actual work while the business brings in big bucks. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but my point is that you could get a lot out of the book even if you don't even try to go that route (I haven't). His second book was The 4-Hour Body, which he described as the journal of a mad scientist, as he basically did his best to figure out through contact with experts on the cutting edge and through self-experimentation the most efficient ways to optimize performance in all sorts of ways. One of the central elements in the book was "losing fat," which revolved around his "Slow Carb Diet" and a handful of over-the-counter supplements, but there were also sections on building muscle, getting stronger, running faster and farther, enjoying better sex, enjoying better and/or less sleep... and hitting a baseball and swimming and... anyway, there was quite a bit to that book as well.

Which brings us to The 4-Hour Chef. There is, no doubt about it, more to this book than learning how to cook. As the subtitle puts it, this is "The simple path to cooking like a pro, learning anything, and living the good life." It's too bad Tim Ferriss never aims very high, isn't it?

Ferriss has described the book as being first and foremost about optimizing learning, with cooking just being the primary example at the heart of the book. There are five sections, plus appendices, and the first--"Meta"--is all about learning. He talks here about strength training, swimming, judo, languages, Japanese characters, shooting a basketball, making a fire, chess, tango, the World Memory Championships, and a whole bunch of other things, but always his real topic is learning, as he explains and breaks down his method--which is at once the method he used to put together this book, the method the reader can, theoretically, apply to anything, and an important part of the methodology that he will use in the book to teach the skills of a chef.

And this is an important distinction: although the book has quite a few recipes in it, it's not so much a cookbook the way that The Joy of Cooking or any of the many recipe websites on the web are cookbooks (i.e. collections of recipes). Ferriss most wants his reader to understand techniques. The techniques are taught through recipes, but each of these recipes also includes variations (to the point of being whole other recipes) and more indirect suggestions for applications of the technique, which themselves invite some experimentation ("Could I do this with X instead? Let's find out!")--of which Ferriss would certainly approve. The point isn't to learn some recipes that you'll cook over and over, though chances are you will; the point is to learn techniques that will allow you to improvise your own "recipes" as needed.

Because this is already getting rather long, I'm going to break it up over the next day or two. For now I'll just say that I'm quite enjoying this book, both for the cooking that it has me doing and for the sheer enjoyment of reading what Ferriss has to write about. There's a very real danger here that Ferriss is going in so many different directions that readers won't be able to follow him. Some people will almost certainly get frustrated and say "Can't you just tell me what I need to know about cooking??" Ferriss does speak to those people, and encourage people to skip ahead as needed. For my part, I'm fascinating by just about everything he has to say, both because he makes all the various topics interesting, and because he reveals so much of himself, and he's a pretty interesting character as well. Both his content and his tone are engaging, so that I find myself very much reading ahead of where I can possibly get in the kitchen, because I want to see what he's going to tell me next.

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