I think Tim Ferris is a bit of a nut. But he’s an entertaining nut.
Having read The Four-Hour Workweek and The Four-Hour Body, I find that, alas, I have become neither rich nor superhuman; however, I enjoyed both books and took away a few useful tidbits, so I was happy to preorder The Four-Hour Chef as soon as it was available on Amazon’s site. I’ve been wanting to learn to cook for years, but cookbooks tend to drive me crazy. (Season to taste? Cook until done? I’m a computer programmer – give me precision!)
As with Tim’s other books, this one is all over the place; while it’s nominally about cooking, it’s really about ways to learn with cooking as the thing you happen to be learning. Lots of other things get thrown in: how to memorize a deck of cards, using a gun to make sure your luggage arrives safely, the best generator to have on hand for emergencies – pretty much whatever catches Tim’s interest. I find these sidebars amusing and think they improve the book, but I can see them being pretty annoying to someone who just wants to know about cooking.
The book is divided into five sections, plus an appendix. Section one discusses Tim’s ideas about learning, with stories about how he worked them out and used them (this includes losing weight – with an excerpt from The Four-Hour Body – and learning languages. Section two is the actual “learn to cook” part of the book; there are 17 “lessons”,to be completed over two months (cooking twice a week). In theory, cooking all the different dishes in this section will take about four hours total to fit the theme of the book. I’ll update the review once I’ve tried them all out to see how well that works, but from my read-through it’s looking good; Tim chose the recipes to be very difficult to screw up, which is exactly what I want. (The first night’s dinner, for example, contains eight ingredients if you count salt and pepper as separate ingredients, and requires a knife, cutting board, and dutch oven (plus maybe a can opener). Total hands-on time is listed at five minutes. In other words: exactly what you want to see when you don’t have a lot of confidence in your cooking skills!
Section three is the outdoors part of the book: it starts with the more or less conventional topics (choosing a gun, cooking venison) and then goes on to more unusual topics that I’m pretty sure I won’t be actually putting into practice (how to catch, kill, and cook a pigeon or squirrel). I’ve never killed my own food, so the parts about how to kill chickens and lobster could come in handy, and there’s a lesson on how to butcher a chicken. For the most part, though, I read this section for entertainment only rather than any desire to actually follow the recipes!
Section four is science. This section gives you a brief description of various terms (gels, emulsification, foams, etc) along with recipes demonstrating each thing. Unfortunately, some of them are a bit impractical for the home cook (I would love to try the 30-second ice cream recipe, for example, but I have no idea where I would even get liquid nitrogen!) I liked that the descriptions were informative without being overly technical (I have a background in science, I don’t have a degree in chemistry!) and while some of the equipment IS more elaborate in this section, most of it isn’t particularly esoteric; I have a reasonably stocked kitchen and I think buying an immersion blender and vacuum sealer would let me do most of them.
Section five is for cooking at a professional level. Here you have many “classic” recipes (french omelet, roast chicken) that any chef should know, followed by more unusual dishes meant to teach you various advanced principles such as form mimicking, texture manipulation, and themes. (I think my favorite recipe in this section, prior to trying any, is the edible dirt centerpiece – it really does look like flowers in dirt!) The section ends with the most ridiculous dish I’ve ever seen: the ingredient list spans give pages, and the total hands-on time is listed at 10-20 hours. That bit of absurdity seems the perfect way to finish out the book.
Except, of course, there’s more. The appendix seems to be whatever random stuff relating to food and learning Tim decided to throw in at the end: a recipe from every country in 140 characters or less, instructions on making free shots in basketball and tying knots, maps of where to eat in NYC and San Francisco. There are also additional materials online.
Overall impression? While I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, the instructions make them look like things I can actually do; I’ll come back and update the review once I’ve worked through section two in the kitchen. I would have preferred to drop section three (or move it to its own book) in favor of an extended section two; I’m more interesting in the step-by-step introduction than in things I’m unlikely to ever use like acorn pancakes and illegal fishing equipment. That’s my only real complaint, though, and the book is certainly big enough (over 600 pages) to squeeze everything in. Until I get a chance to actually try out the recipes, I rate the book 4.5 stars based on sheer entertainment value.