“The 4-Hour Chef” is a crazy book, with crazy ideas, written by a (probably) crazy person. It’s also (probably) spot-on, taking a sideways approach to how we learn new concepts like, say, shooting a perfect 3-pointer or becoming a master chef. Tim Ferriss is a bit of an outlier. The entrepreneur made a name for himself by finding ways to “hack” our lives and bodies, whether it’s escaping the 9-to-5, getting fit, or learning languages in record time.
Many of Ferriss’ methodologies sound nuts, but their proven success (at least with Ferriss as his own fearless guinea pig) have caused many to perk up and take notice. His two previous books — “The 4-Hour Workweek” and “The 4-Hour Body” — were both New York Times Bestsellers.
In his latest 4-hour quest, Ferriss applies all that hutzpah to the cooking world, compressing what should be years of training into mere hours and simplifying the science of cooking into manageable bites. The promise is that anyone can become an applause-worthy chef in just a matter of months. All you need is his book and some discipline. Ferriss over promises, to be sure. Some people just won’t be able to julienne or get a good sear on a steak no matter how hard they try. What the book does do is provide a set of a tools, and more importantly, a way of learning how to cook. That’s the dirty secret of “The 4-Hour Chef” (aff. link): The goal isn’t to just be better at cooking, but to see if a better way of learning can be applied both in the kitchen, and outside of it.
One criticism of Ferriss is that his guarantees of massive returns from little exertion are snake oil. This isn’t entirely unfair. Not every reader will have the time, money, discipline, or personal connections to devote to Ferriss’ experiments (not everyone is friends with Mark Bittman). But Ferriss excels at taking his privileged lessons and turning them into realistic steps for any reader. The book is held together by the kind of logic that works really well on paper but maybe not in practice. Except Ferriss has supposedly taken care of that step for us by trying out every principle in the book. Can the necessaries of cooking be boiled down to one page? (It’s on page 72.) And can that one page bring anyone from zero to “expert” in any discipline in just a matter of weeks?
That broad mandate helps explain all the truly weird sidebars and segues that pop up in “The 4-Hour Chef.” Want to learn how to make mojito bubbles? Done. How about creating osso bucco in no-time flat? Great. How about the best hunting knives, or why carrying a (registered) gun is a good way to travel through an airport, or how to memorize a deck of cards in 43 seconds, or… wait, what was this book about again? “The 4-Hour Chef” definitely has some weird segues which lose the plot and sentences such as, “This epiphany took place at the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata, India,” somehow delivered without any sense of irony. But it also has a lot of practical tips for people just looking to cook something cool. Pan-seared lobster holds equal share with bacon-infused bourbon cocktails or even sous-vide chicken with kale. Ferriss isn’t reinventing the wheel, but he packages the recipes and lessons in a way that keeps learning rewarding (one of his own principles for rapidly acquiring skills).
A massive section on kitchen essentials is helpful (what to buy and for how much) and surprising (skip a chef’s knife and go for a heavier and safer cleaver). It’s a fun romp through a bunch of cooking styles without spending a lot of time, using funny lingo, or shelling out for expensive kitchen implements.
Is It Worth It?
“The 4-Hour Chef” is billed as a way to become a pro chef in a couple months. Well that’s a good tag line, but the real value of the book is two-fold: As a dissection of the way we learn new skills, and an application of that method to the complex world of cooking. It’s successful on both levels. Beginners will get a kick out of “The 4-Hour Chef” as a way to quickly pick up new skills, and kitchen veterans will appreciate seeing their knowledge base cut up, deconstructed, and flambéed back together. Is “The 4-Hour Chef” going to work for everyone? No, but that’s not really the point. It’s an entertaining book stocked with sharp insights and some glaring blind spots. More than anything, it’s just a lot of fun. And that’s a heck of a good way to start learning.