Recipes Are Dumb: A Recipe Blog
If I’m not mistaken, Forwards are supposed to be written by famous acquaintances in an attempt to set a tone that the author of this book has some semblance of credibility. Alas, my most famous acquaintance is my dog, Freckles. His pictures have received DOZENS of likes on Instagram, but he is unavailable as he is currently busy with barking at nothing in particular. Also, this appears to not be a book. Tis a blog. Since this blog will satisfy my writing itch, it will be as close to a book as I will probably write. So pretend that it's a book. (Author's note: Books, for my Millennials out there, are when pages from the Internet are non-3D printed on paper and bound together. Paper is made from trees.) Either way, books need Forwards (science), so here goes:
CHEF KYLE SHANKMAN HAS SO MUCH CREDIBILITY, YOU GUYS!
There appears to be some extra space here, so I will elaborate. Mr. Shankman was raised in a family of whatever-the-opposite-of-foodies-is. He ate boxed macaroni and cheese and frozen bagel pizzas with a frequency that would suggest that he lived in more of a post-apocalyptic bunker than in a small house outside of early ‘90s Atlanta. Even though he would eventually become a successful restaurant chef, culinary instructor, and personal chef, the magic was created in those days of trying to figure out how the hell to make your microwave cook at 50% power (still not sure).
You see, because he is not one of those chefs who remembers stirring tomato sauce and making gnocchi with his Italian grandmother (mostly because he is not Italian), Kyle was not a natural. Like those of you who buy cookbooks, he had to learn how to cook as an adult…after learning everything else about life. That means dealing with more than just learning a new technique. It means also wrestling with fear of failure and anxiety about wasting money and time. And if you are just following a recipe, then EVERYTHING HAS TO BE RIGHT OR IT’S GONNA BE RUINED OH NOOOOO.
That’s why he hunkered down one day in his awesome Spider-Man robe to start writing about how recipes are dumb. That's not to say that recipes aren't important. They provide structure and consistency, but they are still a pretty dumb way to learn how to cook. Techniques, on the other hand, create true confidence in the kitchen. The ability to look at an ingredient and know how to take it from Point A to Point B feels almost like a super power (not unlike web-slinging).
So, a word of warning: There are some moderately terrible “recipes” in this blog, but there are loads of delicious life lessons.
Thanks, Kyle! Great Forward!
You know, I have started and stopped lots of books up to this point. Anyways, I think I’ve had trouble finishing a book because I felt that, as a chef, my role as an author was to write a cookbook. Unfortunately, I don’t really like cookbooks…at least not in the traditional sense. Don’t get me wrong. There are some phenomenal books of recipes out there. Thousands. And you should buy them! (You’re welcome, Thomas Keller). With that said, when I follow a recipe, even if the food turns out beautifully, I don’t necessarily feel “accomplished”. It’s like, “Congrats! You have measuring spoons and a kitchen timer, and your reading comprehension is pretty good!” Also, there is, at least for me, a ton of stress associated with following rules. Cooking and exercise are the ways by which I release stress, so I want food preparation and weightlifting to bring me to a place of Zen-like calm. How much could The Buddha bench, I wonder?
I still read “recipe books”. I just don’t read them for the recipes. I’m looking for that chef’s insight, usually found hidden between the cook times, weights, and measures. This is my attempt to write a "book" of food insight.
I should take a step back though, and give you a true introduction. If you get to know me, this will be way more fun! I did not grow up eating the best of food, either in quality or health. I adore my parents. They just worked a lot. God knows they understood the importance of a healthy diet. They were both competitive bodybuilders, and they work to this day as successful physical therapists. They just, quite frankly, didn’t feel like they had the time to make us scratch-made meals. So they didn’t. We didn’t know the difference though at the time. We were happy, and we never went to bed hungry. My love for food wouldn’t come until I was a bit older.
Somehow, I became a dad at the age of 17. Weird. As I write these words, Trevor is approaching 16 years of age. Weirder. He's also arguably a better cook than I am. SHAMELESS PLUG: Head over to our events page to find out how you can eat his food!
Anyhow, being a teen dad kind of derailed a traditional pathway to success. I was a great student, top 10 in my class. I graduated with honors and was accepted into Georgia Tech’s Architecture program. That didn’t end up working out. My first day on campus should have been a clue that it wouldn’t.
I couldn’t live on campus, since I was already a regular Al Bundy. (I was married with children). I don’t care if I’m dating myself with that reference; I stand by it.
I had to get up at 4:30AM to get to a bus stop. That bus would take me to a MARTA station (Atlanta’s transit system). I would take an underground MARTA bus to the North Avenue station. There, I would wait for The Stinger, Tech’s transit system. Strangely enough, I was late on my first day. My first class started at 7:30AM and was “Intro to Math”. I snuck to the back of the auditorium of probably 100 or more students and tried to catch up. Despite this being an “introductory” class, I had no idea what the professor was writing on the white board. It was literally all new to me. Terrified, I just started copying everything he wrote in my notebook, in hopes that it would eventually start making sense. All of a sudden, ¾ of the hands in the room go up. The professor stops and impatiently asks, “yes?” One of my peers responds with, “Um…Professor? I think the x at the end of the equation should be a y, yes?” Professor says, “Whoops! You’re right! My apologies.”
Needless to say, I didn’t last. I would have needed to spend all of my free time on my studies, but I HAD to spend all of my free time on work to support my young family. I needed a new plan. I chose architecture, because I felt like it would be the best outlet for my creativity. It turned out to be mostly math. See above to understand why that was a problem. Searching for a way to be creative and make money was proving to be a challenge. I was pretty down in the dumps after dropping out of college. I was working as a server in a sports bar and barely making ends meet. I must have at some point expressed interest in cooking, because my dad showed me a newspaper clipping (most old-timey phrase I've ever written) of a culinary school advertisement. Le Cordon Bleu would be opening soon in Atlanta, and they were accepting applications. Even though I had never once considered becoming a chef, something about this piqued my interest. I had already kind of resigned myself to being in the service industry until the end of time. Again, I was not in the greatest state of mind. If I’m going to work in restaurants, I thought, then I could at least work in GOOD restaurants if I had a culinary degree. So, in an effort to make more money, I gave Le Cordon Bleu all of my money. Bad at math.
Culinary school turned out to be a lot of fun. As I cooked, I learned that I was good at cooking. It was a revelation. The journey almost immediately became more important than the destination. I don’t want to misrepresent myself though. It’s not like it was some sort of magical moment in which I picked up a knife for the first time and julienned the hell out of a carrot. On the contrary, I will forever own the nickname “First Blood” at LCB Atlanta. In my first week, I was doing a “chiffonade” of spinach and “chiffonaded” my finger right with it. My instructor was a wonderful man by the name of Chef K. As a young man, he left Ghana as a war refugee. He has seen some terrible things, and when he saw my fingernail lying amongst the spinach, he said, “we must go to the hospital”. His accent sold it. We went to the hospital. After the bandages came off, I continued to work diligently to get better. Not to get some job anymore, but instead because I loved it.
I graduated with honors in 2005. Up to that point, I had been working in a country club near our home north of the city. To get the job in the first place, I basically agreed to do dishes. I just wanted to work there. I would be given more responsibilities beyond cleaning though. I would help prep, and more importantly, I was the punching bag for the other line cooks. Day 1, I was given the task of slicing calamari. As great as culinary school is, it doesn’t really teach you to be fast. I wanted to be perfect, but as my fellow cooks reminded me on that day: “We’re frying those and throwing them in a bowl, Failure. Speed it up.” So yeah, I got a cool nickname that day. “Good morning, Failure”. “Got a huge list today, Failure”. “Something spilled in the walk-in, Failure”.
At one point, I thought I had just gained everyone’s respect. And then I baked crème brulee for 45 minutes without turning the oven on. Yay! We had fun…
All things considered, I probably should have quit. There were plenty of restaurants out there. I was still pretty sensitive about quitting college though, so I swallowed my pride and dealt with it. Things got better, especially after I graduated. There is a bit of a weed-out process in the restaurant industry. Working on the line is hard, and if you can’t handle a little bit of good-natured ribbing, then you definitely can’t handle a busy Friday night on the sauté station. Eventually, the guys started calling me Shankman, and we actually became really close friends. The chef who hired me left. The chef who replaced him hired me as his sous chef. That chef turned out to be kind of terrible and was fired. Guess who was next in line? All of a sudden, after starting there less than 2 years earlier as a dishwasher, I was now the Executive Chef. I was 21.
I was making 10X more than I’d ever made, and it came with 10X more pressure than I had ever been under. It was a successful time though. Also, I was now in charge of the schedules of the guys who gave me that rad nickname…so that was cool. I became a confident leader and a more confident chef. As the business increased, so did the responsibilities. I remember one summer day when we had a full dining room for dinner, a 200 person wedding on the lawn, and a standing order for HURRY MORE BURGERS AND HOT DOGS at our enormous pool facility. I found myself running my kitchen with a walkie-talkie, and I didn’t like it.
At 80 hours per week, it didn’t really matter how much money I was making. There was no time to spend it. My relationship suffered as well. It was destined to fail anyways, but the industry doesn’t make it easier. There aren’t a whole lot of chefs out there who have been married and who also haven’t been divorced at least once. I was now part of that club. Another tough time had come, but at least I was in a new relationship now. I married her too. She is my soul-mate though, so as long as I continue to take care of my laundry, this one should last. Jade helped me realize that I needed to take some risks if I wasn’t happy. I left the country club, and I started working as a line cook and eventually as a sous chef of a small, new, chef-owned restaurant. I learned a great deal there, but more importantly, I got to cook every day. I would have stayed there for much longer, if not for one thing. New restaurants are a risky venture. More fail than succeed, and this one turned out to be another statistic. I was given a month’s notice that we would be closing, so I scrambled to find something else. Feeling a bit disenchanted with the whole thing, I thought that if I were to ever be a successful restaurant owner, I would have to be more than just a good chef. I needed to understand business. I needed to understand sales and how to get butts in seats. I diverted my efforts from restaurants to sales jobs. It’s pretty easy to find a job in sales if you don’t have a problem with commission. In reality, most people do though. I just didn’t have the luxury of being choosy.
I began working in an Atlanta-area sales firm, selling office supplies. It was business-to-business, which is code for cold call, no appointment. Most people quit. As hard as feeding 500 country club members at a time was, this was still the hardest thing I had ever done. People didn’t just tell you No. They wished death upon you and all of your descendents. “It’s just paper”, I would say. “Cool, we’re just calling security”, they would say. At this point, my life story could be illustrated by drawing a diagram of a really scary new rollercoaster. Universal Studios, are you listening???
Still refusing to quit again, I didn’t. I became really good at it, in fact. I was so good that I was eventually given my own office in Greenville, South Carolina. It was a whirlwind. There I was, sitting in my office, wearing my suit and freshly polished dress shoes, forgetting why I started that journey in the first place. I was doing well, but I missed my son. I missed food. So dammit, I finally quit.
I came back to Atlanta, and I returned to food. After less than a year, I was an Executive Chef again. Shortly thereafter, I was given an opportunity to teach.
Teaching gave me the opportunity to not hear ticket printers anymore. From a professional growth standpoint, it forced me to have a better understanding of the techniques and whys within the recipe. It also led to me learning about cuisines that I would have never even thought to tackle (you're gonna see a lot of Asian stuff on the blog). I did that for almost 5 years. I wasn't actually cooking though, and the recipes I was teaching weren't my own. I finally felt ready and confident enough to stand on my own as a personal chef (and writer now, I guess.)
That’s where I am now. It is the best job I have ever had, and it couldn’t have happened without everything that came before it. I have applied the same lessons that lead to a happy work life to my life life. Over the past couple of years, I have placed a renewed focus on my health and am in the best shape I’ve ever been in. If the craziness of my 20s taught me anything, it’s that complacency leads nowhere. Hard work and chance-taking, on the other hand, will never let you down.
This isn’t necessarily intended to be some motivational opus. I tell you my life story before we start to help you understand one thing: There is no recipe for success. Recipes are dumb.