Novice cook grateful for advice

Joined Jan 11, 2010
Hello all,

I would be glad if you could help me out with some advice. I'm a novice cook and I am not looking to change careers to be a chef (yet) just looking to improve and be able to prepare meals that the average person would think gourmet.

I tried learning from cook books but found that it basically is all about memorizing recipes and not so much on actual techniques. For example, the recipe may say to chiffonade the herbs but not tell you how to actually chiffonade them.

So after searching and searching (my apologies if this has already been covered here - I tried searching but couldn't find anything) I figured I would post my idea for a home cooking lesson plan and see if I could get some feedback.

My approach is to look at different stations in brigade style kitchen and then learn to cook at each station. I figured that since stocks and sauces are kind of the foundation for cooking (totally guessing here) I would start there and make brown, white, fish and vegetable stock and then "graduate" into learning different sauces.

I figured that by making lots of stock, soups and sauces I would get a lot of practice cutting up vegetables which would help develop knife skills as well as work on organization (I think it's called mise en place?).

The problem is that I don't know where to go from there. My goal is to prepare and serve a five course meal at the end of the year and I am hoping that I can learn these various skills in that time frame.

Can anyone offer up some pointers, tips or thoughts on this? Am I crazy shooting for the five course dinner party? Should I start somewhere other than stocks, sauces and soups?

Thanks in advance :)
Joined Aug 15, 2004
Not knowing what your use of the word "novice" actually means, I mean, have you ever never cooked at all before, or have you fried hamburgers, make instant dinners, or what?

Other than that, I think stocks are a basic thing to make. Basis for almost every sauce (other than a simple pan sauce perhaps). But making a good stock isn't as easy as it might appear. Cutting vegetables and making your mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery) for a good brown stock, requires browning bones (Not burning them or underbrowning them, unless you want a very light brown sauce) takes some skill. Brown stocks are very time consuming. You have to know a lot of things, like how to keep the stock just slightly bubbling or breaking a few bubbles at the surface and not dropping below that or advancing to a heavier boil. Using an electric stovetop makes it even more difficult in my experience as compared to a gas cooktop which affords much more control.

You might want to try making salads, complex salads with many chopped up ingredients. THat will help with developing your knife skills and learning how not to chop off your finger tips. Having sharp knives is important. Tools of any trade can make or break an endeavor.

Thats all the time I have right now to respond.

Joined Jan 11, 2010
By novice I mean that I have some cooking experience - I can grill steaks, fry burgers, bake potatoes. I've never made stock or soup before, and when a recipe calls for chopped vegetables I just whack away at it until they get in somewhat smaller pieces. :)

I have an electric stove now but latter in the year will be moving into a new place with a gas stove. I firmly believe in sharp knives and try to sharpen my knives whenever I notice they are getting dull.

What I really want to do is to move up from following recipes and having the food come out as "ok" to being able to follow a recipe and make something that will make the people eating say "Wow". A sub goal to that is to be able to write my own recipes but that can take a back seat to learning the mechanics of good cooking.

I'm not really sure if what I am saying is making sense... I guess I should be doing some more self reflection to better define where I am going. I'll look up some complex salad recipes and give those a go. I'm also planning to try my hand at some bacon cheddar soup this weekend so it'll be interesting to see how that goes.
Joined Feb 13, 2008
It's a huge question. As far as I know no one's ever written a technique driven cookbook based on the brigade system. If it's of any interest to you, I'm working on one, off and on.

Your idea of starting off in the saute station, where the chef d'partie is the "saucier" might be a good idea, or not. It isn't the way it used to be done when restaurants ran big brigades organized in the Escoffier way though.

Back in the day, you started as an apprentice, and moved up to commis -- and in either position usually rotated between all the stations, helping out with the most basic work. Usually, your heaviest use came at garde manger (pantry), boucher (a sub station of "grill", cutting raw meat and poultry), and just all-round general prep work.

As you said, knife skills are a very basic part to high-end cooking. There are worse ways to learn them than cutting tons of mirepoix for stocks and sauces; but in the home environment, there are better ways as well. The best way is probably to take a class or buy a book or video that's all 'bout knives and knife skills -- and to focus on those skills everytime you pick up a knife as part of your normal cooking routine. Chad Ward's "A Knife in the Kitchen," is very good. (Don't forget to use Chef Talk's Amazon link.)

Oh, it's worth mentioning, that some very good cooks don't have great knife skills. While it's a thing I tend to dwell on, it's less important than many other skills.

Without a doubt, the most important of those are learning to taste and to season.

Even though you've recognized some of the limitations of cooking from recipes without laying a solid technique foundation, it's important to keep cooking and keep stretching yourself. In the couse of doing so, you'll start to recognize some of your own weaknesses and can ask what to do to correct them. This is an excellent place to do that. There are a lot of competent and supprotive people.

In the meantime, I wish you good luck, good health, and good food on your voyage.

Just a few thoughts,
Joined Jan 11, 2010
Thanks for the advice BDL... taking classes is difficult for me because of two things: cost and time. I work 12 hour days to make ends meet and the last thing I want to do when I get off of work is go sit in a culinary night class (although I will if my schedule ever lightens).

I do like the idea of a good book or video - I'll have to get the one that you mentioned. I'll also have to start gathering recipes and just keep cooking and keep a good journal that I can just down questions in to bring back here for help.

So I think the best thing to do now is to sit down, plan out the menu for the dinner party I want to through at the end of the year and then start "rehearsing" those recipes until I get pretty darn good at them.

Thanks again!
Joined Apr 3, 2008
cheese soup is harder then it looks, i would try a bean and bacon soup first. As far as what your saying, I am sure most of us get it. and it's a good plan.

I would plan out the five courses you want though and practice those as singles. sure, some of it might be a bit running before you walk kind of stuff, but hey, you're gonna make mistakes anyway right? get em out of the way before cooking for friends and family.

knife techniques can be a pain to learn what with all that french in there: chiffonade, julian, brunoise, mise en place, mirepoix. it can be enough to make you chuck a croissant at the nearest mime. Check the betty crocker or better homes and gardens cookbooks for pics and descriptions in plain ol english as we speak it here in the colonies. they are both great books for any novice to intermediate cook and really help in cutting down on stupid questions. (not that you've asked one, just saying:p)

and hey, best of luck, we'll be here to help too.
Joined Jan 11, 2010
Thanks Gunnar, I actually have the Betty Crocker cookbook but just got tired of reading recipes before getting to it. I'm going to go pull that off the shelf and take another look at it and maybe find a good bean soup recipe that I could garnish with bacon.

Thanks again to everyone who replied.
Joined Apr 3, 2008
I have the better homes and garden and on page 22 it gives pics and definitions of the various cuts, mince, dice, julienne etc..... check the pages in yours before it gets to the recipes or the back index.
Joined Oct 28, 2008
Hey there j.

If you're just looking to improve and build on your mad skillz I may have a couple of books that may be worth taking a look at: La Technique by Jacques Pepin, CIA or any cooking school text(if you're willing to drop the coin). They usually contain photographs demonstrating technique and the Pepin book would definitely be worth taking a peek at.
Joined Mar 22, 2008
I think starting off with stocks is absolute best thing you can do.

As for books for the purpose of learning, pick up "the professional chef" b y the CIA and "charcuterie" and "ratio" by thing to add to that is that both of the ruhlman books should be taken with a grain of salt, I found them to have great instruction and technique demonstration but some of the overrall recipes seemed off.
Joined Aug 15, 2004
Professional Chef and Professional Cooking are both great culinary school type books. The portions are larger, but it really isn't too hard to mathematically reduce them. Tasting along the way is always a smart thing to do.

Not to be a traitor or anything, but has an extensive set of technique courses on their website, some of which are video.

Joined Feb 26, 2007
If you are pretty computer user friendly, Try searching the net for various videos on the techniques you are trying to master. I agree, sometimes cookbooks skim over things, assuming the reader knows "how to" do this that and the other.

If you are looking for gourmet, your best bet is to keep it simple. That does not mean no flavour. Elegant food which tastes good does not have to be tarted up. One of my favourite cook books shows Russian cuisine at its best. Beautiful, simple, but delicious food. Plan something you believe is achievable, build the taste into every step.

For example, make a tomato soup, once done, serve in simple whitebowls placed on simple white dinner plates, with some cream swirled into the top of it to serve, some chiffonaded basil on top just before serving. Delicious, simple, but very tasty. Serve with some toasted ciabatta. That sort of thing :D

Good luck to you, and don't be afraid to ask here. Explore the photo gallery here too - you'll enjoy it I believe.

Joined Dec 2, 2009
Sharpen your knives before use every time. If you wait for it to "dull" you have already lopped off an appendage. the best equipment you can afford. Will keep you cooking for the long haul. OBTW...don't use ceramic or glass cutting boards. Yes they are cute, but death to your sharps collection.
Joined Nov 5, 2007
Learning how to make good stock is a skill that will carry you through years of cooking and countless recipes. Knife skills are also well worth learning. Oddly enough, one needs no knife skills to make stock. I usually just break down the celery and carrots in halves or thirds with my hands, crudely quarter onions, skin included, throw them in the pot. A well prepared stock can add a depth of flavor to soups and sauces you just can't get from store bought stuff. Be careful with the salt.

Regarding the five course dinner, timing is important. It can be difficult to have everything be ready at serving time. Chilled salads and such no problem, make in advance and keep cool. Having the gravy ready without overcooking the potatoes for the mash, or burning the rolls before the soup is ready - it is all about timing.

Practice. Cook a lot. Failures can teach you a lot more than success. Trust your taste buds. We here can offer all sorts of advice, but only you know the flavors you like. Play with your food.

Joined Dec 4, 2009
I can't post links yet (cause I'm new), but I highly recommend checking out "The Professional Chef" (a book that happens to be on sale at right now for only $45), which is the name of the CIA Textbook. That's the 8th edition. It will never replace the degree it comes with, but it's a damned good start that I didn't know about until I got into my own school's library and realized it existed (along with thousands of other things).

"On Cooking" is another common textbook in the industry but no where near as thorough imho. In fact it's my textbook (as well as my buddy's textbook back when he went to CCA in San Francisco 12 years ago), but I bought the CIA book because it has so many more illustrations and depth/reach on several topics. But you'll find those generally agree on most core concepts practices and language, and therefore would arm you with a lot of what serves as foundations for culinary programs all over, and at most levels.

There are also DVD video series out there from folks like CIA too if you really want to dig deep. I'm not saying CIA is the end all/beat all, but they do have superb texts that can be purchased even if you are not a student, etc.

I understand you are not trying to replace culinary school, but if you want to have straight up textbooks on the concepts behind fundamentals like what you do to make a decent stock, and what you are striving for at each step by using the various techniques you'll hear people tell you, then these books can be invaluable in lieu of learning the other available ways because they will explain in depth a lot of the "why" - and you seem smart enough to take that and run with it.

Just a thought.
Joined Apr 17, 2006
Not to quibble with Steelybob, but I have both books and feel Wayne Gilsson's Professional Cooking would be more user friendly for a novice cook than the CIA Professional Chef. Matter of opinion though.
Joined Sep 29, 2009
A book recommended to me that I think is the kind your looking for is "Complete Techniques" by Jacques Pepin. It has recipes, but the book is more about how you make it. Not too expensive either, starting around $14 new at amazon, and even at the bookstore price you aren't getting short-changed.
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