Anthony Bourdain’s Cooking Commandments

Anthony Bourdain is something of a conundrum in the world of celebrity foodstuff. He readily admits he’s not much of a chef and at best he was a decent cook (so why do we trust his opinions when it comes to food/cooking?); but, he’s brutally honest about the people he hates, the food that intoxicates his soul, his loathing of the food network, his admiration for the grunts on the line, how screwed up and out of control the industry has become … and yet, he’s more than willing to be a part of it all.

Perhaps his honesty about chasing the money from books, his tv show, guest appearances, etc. is commendable. Or perhaps he’s insufferable, like, when waxing about the political aspect of food culture, it’s hard to read him as anything more than a puffed up blowhard.  Plus, it’s hard to tell when the punk rock schtick ends and the real Tony Bourdain begins.

All of that is to say, that I like him.  He’s a welcome antidote.  He’s like Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes — taking the piss out of an industry and people who think they’re more important than they truly are.

In his latest book, Medium Raw, his love for cooking and food shines through.  In one chapter, he argues that every person should be forced to learn to cook because it is so essential to our survival. Not knowing how to cook a meal or be marginally sufficient in the kitchen should be reason enough for cultural shame.

He lays out some basic concepts of what every person should know how to do to be a self-sufficient home cook.  I’ve adapted them into what shall now be referred to as “Anthony Bourdain’s Cooking Commandments.” This is as good a place as any if you want to become a better cook at home. 

1. Know How to Chop an Onion

Learning to chop an onion is the first place everyone should start when learning to cook. You learn how to hold a knife, you learn various chopping techniques and onions are cheap enough that you can practice over and over again until it becomes second nature.

“Basic knife skills should be a must.  Without that, we are nothing, castaways with a can — but no can-opener.  Useless,” Bourdain says.  “Everything begins with some baseline ability with a sharp-bladed object, enough familiarity with such a thing to get the job done without injury. So, basic knife handling, sharpening and maintenance, along with rudimentary but effective dicing, mincing and slicing.”

2. Know How to Make an Omelet

I’ve know a lot of great chefs in my day — the yeoman line cooks churning out meal after meal. If you ask any of them, the majority would admit that cooking an egg is one of the most difficult tasks you can do in the kitchen. And yet, the humble egg is the cornerstone ingredient for everything.

Breakfast is one of the first meals I learned to cook from my father. He would churn out hashbrowns, omelets, all manner of breakfast concoctions. To this day, I can still not cook an omelet where it is perfectly yellow on the outside and fully cooked on the inside.

“Egg cookery is as good a beginning as any, as it’s the first meal of the day, and because the process of learning to make an omelet is, I believe, not just a technique but a builder of character,” Bourdain says. “I have long believed that it is only right and appropriate that before one sleeps with someone, one should be able — if called upon to do so — to make them a proper omelet in the morning.”

And what exactly constitutes a proper omelet? Luckily Jacques Pepin will show you.

3. Know How to Roast a Chicken (or a piece of meat)

This one is self-explanatory, but often difficult to do.  You should be able to roast a chicken and know when it is done without cutting into the breast or using a meat thermometer.

You can roast a chicken whole, or you can cut out the chicken’s backbone and butterfly it. Personally, I prefer the butterfly method, however there are days when I’m too lazy and just want to tie up the legs and throw the chicken in the oven.

A simple meal of roasted chicken, bread with goat cheese and tossed greens is perfect on a spring day. It’s not too intensive and gives you plenty of time to enjoy a gin and tonic or a glass of pinot gris.

4. Know How to Grill a Steak

“Given the current woeful state of backyard grilling, a priority should be assigned to instructing people on the correct way to grill and rest a steak,” Bourdain says.

It’s basic cooking. Open flame, piece of meat, olive oil, etc. I’m not a big fan of dressing up my steaks when grilling — a pinch salt and freshly cracked pepper after it’s been cooked and sliced will do — and nothing hurts me more than seeing a good steak overcooked into a piece of leather. Rare or medium rare, let it rest for ten minutes to redistribute the juices and finish cooking. Enjoy.

5. Know How to Cook Vegetables

This changes based on personal taste and seasonality, but roasted, steamed, grilled, in a stir fry are essential. The key with vegetables is to understand by the time you think they are done cooking, they’ve already been cooked too long.

6. Know How to Make a Standard Vinaigrette

A reliable vinaigrette for me isn’t even technically a vinaigrette. But the beauty of salad dressing, is that you have an infinite combination of oils, vinegars, herbs, spices and condiments at your disposal. For me, I like a little olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, salt and pepper to taste. If I’m feeling particularly crazy, I might go with a honey mustard version of this.

Experiment, find on that you like and works well, and then refine that recipe over and over again until its perfect and second nature to prepare.

7. Know How and Where to Shop for Fresh Produce

“Have at least some sense of what’s in season [and], tell whether or not something is ripe or rotten,” he advises. Learning when produce is ripe or rotten comes with time, and figuring out what’s locally in season can be done by shopping at farmer’s markets or joining a CSA.

8. Know How to Recognize Fresh Fish

“How to clean and fillet it would seem a no-brainer as a basic survival skill in an ever more uncertain world,” Bourdain says. To that, I say fuck it. Filleting a fish sucks. Better yet, find a good fish monger, purchase an entire fish and have them fillet it for you. Frequent the same place to the point they know you; they’ll treat you right as a result. You’ll get the best quality fish, the newest catch, etc.

9. Know How to Steam a Lobster or Crab

“Or a pot of mussels or clams. [This] is something a fairly bright chimp could do without difficulty, so there’s no reason we all can’t.” Well sure. I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a commandment, because you’re basically boiling shell fish and yeah, a bright chimp could do that. Plus? Lobster in the summer? Fuck. Yes.

However, even though steaming shellfish is simple to do, the pay-off is immeasurable. Grab a large pot, add white wine, a stick of butter, smashed garlic, salt and pepper to taste, a few sprigs of fresh thyme and a pound or two of mussels. Steam on medium heat until the mussels open. Buy a loaf of french bread to sop up the juices and you will have nothing but smiling faces around you.

10. Know How to Roast and Mash Potatoes

And to that I would add make rice — steamed or the more difficult pilaf method. Or buy a box and be done with it. Microwave rice too. Sometimes, when cooking, in this modern life of ours you have to know where and when you can take shortcuts. Rice, potatoes, etc. is definitely one of them. Unless those potatoes come in a box and are all flaky.

11. Know The Fundamentals of Braising

“Simply learning how to make a beef bourguignon opens the door to countless other preparations.” Sure, but who has the time to do this? Not me. Have you ever tried making the famed French staple? It takes like seven hours and deep down inside when you’re eating it you know that’s probably not how it’s supposed to taste.  But braising meats is a good skill to have.

12. Know What to do With Bones, i.e. Learn How to Make Stock

“[Knowing] how to make a few soups — as a means of making efficient use of leftovers — is a lesson in frugality many will very possibly have to learn at some point in their lives. It would seem wise to learn earlier rather than later.” Luckily for me, Lady Oyster has the soup thing down. She’s a stock wiz and can make soups in her sleep. Delicious soup that warms your guts on a blustery day. If you can’t be bothered to learn how to make soup, then marry someone who can be.

13. Develop Your Own Modest Yet Unique Repertoire

If we were placing an importance on these commandments by numbering them, this would be one of the top five, and certainly one that would never be deleted. More than anything, learning a handful of dishes you can make without needing a recipe, ones you’ve refined over and over and over again, ones that you can pull out in a desperate situation, will help you become a better cook than anything else on this list.

“Find a few dishes [you] can make and practice at preparing them until [you] are proud of the result,” Bourdain says.  Eventually, everything just clicks and the skills and techniques needed for one dish, gives you the confidence to attempt something new. It’s taken me ten years to perfect six or seven dishes, but they are the dishes I turn to time and time again when company comes over or when I need a special dinner.

Everything tastes better when you’ve cooked it. I would also add to this last one an addendum: learn a few essential cocktail recipes. But that’s another post for another day.

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