The Confidence Question

I always hear people say “If you can read, you can cook” or “As long as you are organized, you can get dinner together.” I believe both of these maxims to a certain point, but the older I get and the more I hear from parents struggling to get dinner on the table every night, the more I feel like we’re ignoring a bigger obstacle in the kitchen. And no, I’m not talking about the two-year-old pulling on our skirts as we attempt to boil water, though that’s certainly legit. Mostly, I’m talking about confidence — or, more to the point, the lack of confidence that holds so many of us back.

I know from lack-of-confidence. Wow, so many stories to choose from here to support that claim, but I think I’ll use this one:

When I was in college, I sat in on a political science class in the beginning of the semester to see if it was up my alley. It was during that first-week period when students are allowed to shop around before committing, and I found out pretty quickly that the course was exactly what I was looking for. It was an American Politics 101 type deal, so would fill my plentiful knowledge gaps, and the professor was a natural storyteller. I felt if anyone could find a way to make terms like “unitary executive theory” amusing, this was the guy. It was settled — I would officially enroll. But then, just as he was wrapping up class, he dropped the hammer. “Oh, one more thing. You won’t get away with not talking. Class participation is most of your grade.”

I signed up for an art history survey class instead.

Class participation — those two words scared the living daylights out of me. I had a crippling fear of public speaking that could be sourced to one feeling and one feeling alone: Why does anyone care about what I have to say?* I’d look at people talking in meetings or at conferences or giving toasts at weddings like they were superheroes who had cracked some mysterious code. How do they have the confidence to just get up there, offer their thoughts, and not turn fifty shades of magenta like me? How do they get up there and not allow the anticipatory dread of public speaking to upend their lives?

I thought about all this last month when I was speaking at a conference in Chicago. There were about 200 people in the room and I had typed up my notes on the flight only a few hours before I got up on stage. The topic was something I had spoken on before, but still, I don’t think there was a minute where I was thinking what I used to think in these scenarios: I just want this to be over so I can have my appetite back.

So what changed? How did I get over it? And what does the heck does this have to do with cooking and those crazy looking meatball sliders up there?

The short answer is, I had no choice but to get over it a few years ago when my first book came out. Much to my horror, I found out quickly that writing a book was not only about typing away on my laptop while sipping Americanos in the local cafe. (Actually writing a book isn’t at all like that.) Apparently, once the writing part is done, there are readings and conferences and, if you’re “lucky,” media appearances and parties where toasts and speeches are required. I am not complaining…except I am. The excitement of publishing Dinner: A Love Story was almost overshadowed by the anxiety I had about getting up to speak at these events. Almost.

I’m not going to shatter anyone’s world by revealing what cured me, but my solution was a) to prepare like mad and b) to do it. And screw up. And do it again. And screw up. And do it again. I learned something small every time I got up there (not a good idea to write complete sentences on your reference cards if you don’t want to sound like a robot; that there’s no shame in having a half glass of wine beforehand if at all possible) but I also took away something big: I was judging myself way more harshly than anyone else was.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading and cooking from Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen, a cookbook by Dana Cowin, the editor in chief of Food & Wine who writes on page one: “I’m going to be honest. I am not a great cook.” She then sets about learning how to become more confident in the kitchen with the help of a few friends named Thomas Keller, David Chang, April Bloomfield, Eric Ripert, and pretty much every other major luminary of the restaurant world. (To butcher Mel Brooks a bit: It’s good to be the queen.) Along the way, she chronicles her mistakes as well as the chef’s solutions to those mistakes, from the very basic (using acid in a cast iron pan is going to impart bitterness to whatever you’re cooking in that pan) to the very cheffy (curry pastes from Thailand or Malaysia are best) to the downright revelatory (don’t truss a whole chicken when roasting, more air will circulate and the chicken will cook more evenly). The tips are all great, as are the recipes, but what I love most about this book is that it’s addressing something else beneath the surface: The idea that we all feel like frauds on some level and that the quickest way out of this is to just put yourself out there. In her words: “I discovered a bigger lesson — something more important than the perfect friend chicken or no-fail souffle. And that is to be honest about what holds you back…and face it head-on.”

In this way, those of us who want to learn how to cook should feel grateful for the relentlessness of cooking for our kids, right? Think about it: They demand to be fed every single night. That’s a lot of nights to figure out when to recognize that the chicken should come out of the pan when it’s firm to the touch but not rock hard; to figure out that wow, smoked paprika is a lot more powerful than regular paprkia; to realize that replacing dried canellini beans with canned is generally going to be fine, but replacing fresh green beans with its canned counterpart generally is not; to learn that your kid will eat black bean burritos if you leave out the black beans; to learn that maybe next time you have four people over for dinner, you don’t cook one ginormous bunch of farm-fresh spinach that wilts down to approximately one cup of farm-fresh spinach; to get over feeling like a fraud.

It’s a lot of nights to screw up, and learn, and acquire an instinct, so you can do it right tomorrow.

*Yes, the blogger recognizes the irony of this statement.

Giveaway! Comment below to be eligible to win a free copy of Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen. Contest ends 11/11 at 8:00 ET. Must be a US resident to win. (But obviously anyone can comment!) Good luck! UPDATE: The winner has been chosen (bearsmama, #124). Thanks for playing everyone.

Pork Meatball Sliders
What did Cowin learn from The Meatball Shop‘s Daniel Holzman? That the higher the percentage of lean meat to filler, the denser the meatball. So adding bread, cooked rice, or another filler helps keep them light and tender. Active Time: 30 minutes Total Time: 1 hour Makes 15 sliders

FOR THE MEATBALLS

Three 1⁄2-inch-thick slices day-old white sandwich bread, crusts removed, bread chopped into small pieces (11⁄2 cups)
1⁄3 cup whole milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
2 tablespoons finely grated Pecorino cheese
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
1⁄2 pound ground pork
1⁄2 pound sweet Italian sausages, casings removed, sausage crumbled

FOR THE GIARDINIERA SPECIAL SAUCE

1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
1⁄2 cup finely chopped giardiniera (pickled vegetables, available jarred or at the olive bar at supermarkets and Italian markets)
11⁄2 tablespoons giardiniera pickling liquid
11⁄2 tablespoons ketchup

TO SERVE

15 soft slider buns
11⁄2 cups roughly chopped arugula

1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Put the bread in a large bowl, add the milk, and let the bread sit until it’s softened, about 2 minutes. Scrunch the bread with your hands so that it almost forms a paste. Add the egg, parsley, basil, Pecorino, salt and pepper and mix until uniformly combined. Add the ground pork and sausage and knead gently to combine.

3. Fry a little tester patty in a skillet and adjust the seasonings as necessary.

4. Use a small (2-tablespoon-size) ice cream scoop to form the pork mixture into 30 small meatballs. Gently roll each meatball in your hands until smooth. Line them up on the prepared baking sheet, leaving a little space between them.

5. Bake until the meatballs are just firm and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the middle of the meatball in the center of the baking sheet registers 150°F, about 15 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, put all the ingredients for the sauce in a small bowl and stir together.

7. Top the bottom of each slider bun with 2 meatballs and some arugula. Add on plenty of giardiniera sauce and the tops of the buns and serve.

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143 Comments

Natasha

The cover is beautiful, and I’d love to learn how to correct some of my many mistakes in the kitchen.

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Awads

I love this! I make a lot of mistakes, but found the key is never, ever own them in your own kitchen. My family should just be grateful!! ha!

Would love the book!

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Mary Beth

Wow. This is so touching and beautiful — I now can’t wait to purchase this book. I absolutely agree that confidence is essential to cooking well (and living well too!) For me, as a reluctant grocery shopper, it also requires a sense of adventure. I make a lot of substitutions and changes to recipes because you never know! Let’s find out what would happen if . . .

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Stephanie Cartwright

I love today’s post. I had trouble understanding why my partner thought cooking was difficult, but I too am mortified by public speaking. He is a lawyer and very comfortable with public speaking. Maybe he will read the book and it will be his night to cook more often. I think I’ll just leave all the public speaking up to him too

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Liesel

Beautifully written, as usual! I agree that the more you try and do, the more potential there is to screw up… but the more you will learn about yourself and your environment along the way.

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Emily

absolutely love the idea of this as it seems to constantly be my life in the kitchen forgetting the onion, burning garlic, etc etc…

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Melissa

We lived in a small town with no decent restaurants — Applebee’s was fine dining there. Because we enjoyed good food and nice wine, we learned to cook. I’m not saying that we’re good cooks but we cooked what we liked and enjoyed ourselves. And anything tastes pretty good when you’ve cooked it sharing a bottle of wine. I’d love to learn from Dana’s mistakes (and successes)!

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Jill

Leaving the house now to go coach Girls on the Run, a self confidence building program for young girls. I will come home to a meal of deconstructed burritos thanks to you! DALS rocks!

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Sally

Even though my kids are grown & gone I love reading your blogs. You are a natural born story teller like your would be professor. The F&W editor’s book sounds great too.

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Elizabeth

Love this! I currently do have a two year old pulling on my skirt (well, more like sweat pants) as well as a 2 week old baby. I could definitely use a shot of confidence where dinner is concerned!

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Vicki

I had a guy tell me once that nothing is sexier than confidence. Enough said. When in doubt, “fake it til you make it”

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Christine

I love to cook. I wish that every time I cooked for others that things would turn out better than they tend to. Here’s to practicing over and over again – with confidence!

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Susan

Love your comment about screwing up but ultimately learning to try it again tomorrow. I’ve had the thought for years that if I learn from a mistake then it wasn’t necessarily a mistake. Thank you for the opportunity to win Dana Corwin’s new book.

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Allison

I’ve definitely become a better (home) cook since having a small person. It’s forced me to produce a healthy meal at approximately the same time every day. I’ve certainly become much better at improvising and refining some of our favourites, just due to the amount of practice. Like most any other skill, doing it every single day is one of the easiest ways to improve. I’m definitely not making “gourmet” meals or learning fancy techniques, but for the basics, there is a sense of greater ease in the kitchen.
(not a US resident, so not eligible for the contest)

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Caitlin

This is great. I’m still in those learning stages where mistakes are common but it’s all part of the fun in my book!

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Annie

I’ve enjoyed reading dana’s column over the years I can’t wait to see what she is up to with this talent crew of chefs!

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angela

^^ @Melissa above , me too! we moved from a good size metropolitan area to a small town in Mississippi for a few years and that is when I learned to cook! otherwise it was 1.5 hr down the interstate to the nearest bigger city w good ethnic cooking etc. necessity is the mother of invention after all… i love Dana Cowin as well and her book looks great!

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Kate Nolan

So much truth right here! The scariest part is always taking that first step because you haven’t built up the faith in yourself to do the task at hand!

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Stephanie

I’m so glad to see a post about this book! I love the premise – and what an opportunity to learn from the best.

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Lori

I have cooked with confidence for my family for nearly thirty years, but still get nervous, if not downright panicked, when cooking for new guests (especially good cooks). Would love this book!

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Laura

As a newly wed, I’m getting lots of practice and making tons of mistakes right now! Here’s to hoping we’ve got a few meals down pat before babies come along.

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Sara

This definitely looks like a book I need to spend some time with! :) Thanks for letting me know about it.

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Mary

well said! what happens to that innate confidence we’re born with (that enables us to take our first steps and make words out of letters and sounds) as we grow older? too bad it takes so many years to win it back! this cookbook looks like a great way to win it back in the kitchen!

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Rhonda

There are so many things in the kitchen I have not attempted because I am scared of screwing it all up (like kneading bread dough and using a deep fryer). I should just get over it.

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dawn

Confidence is huge. I forget that I now have 20 years of experience and am trying to pass some of it along to my kids by having them help out in the kitchen as well. If for no other reason that to teach the picky eater that if you know how to cook, you can make what ever you want EXACLTY THE WAY YOU WANT IT. She’s 8, we’ll see how that plays out in the future…

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Lisa

heard Dana on radio cherry bombe and she was such a delight and great storyteller. Would love her book!

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Laura

it kills me when my friends complain about being bad cooks and then continue to not TRY anything! I totally agree that we need to be willing to try (and fail) at anything that intimidates us.

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Lisa

I think you’ve got it about kids and cooking…they are relentless in their desire to be fed. But, they are also forgiving. If I I screw up, my kids are always happy to just eat cheese, berries and a bowl full of hummus for dinner, too.

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Lyndsey

I’m so glad this book exists! In fact, it’s nice just to know that I’m not the only one that fears failure in the kitchen. It feels like there is so much at stake!

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Betsy

Great post! Hmm, maybe that explains why I’m putting off looking for a new job but I digress. Would love to read the book. And, copied what you wrote so it could stare me in the face on my laptop…
And that is to be honest about what holds you back…and face it head-on.”

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Karishma

This is so true! I always naturally loved cooking, but it’s not like every dish I make is perfect. A lot of my friends lack the confidence to try and practice.

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Laura

sounds like a fantastic book! i’m learning to cook through trial and error. it’s such a confidence boost to be able to put something together without a recipe.

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Amanda

Dude, her first mistake is wearing a cute sweater-set to cut plums. Black T-shirt, my friend, black T-shirt. That said, I love the concept of this book.

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Lauren

Totally agree! Public speaking terrifies me, but I love that I can (usually) pull together a meal for 6 from whatever random ingredients I find in the pantry and freezer. I would never be able to do that if I didn’t try it, make mistakes, do it all over again!

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rena

so true. since becoming more confident in the kitchen my whole family has benefitted! thanks for the chance to win!

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Grace

I would love this book because I can totally relate. I love the idea of being a good cook, but I am in my 20′s trying to navigate my way through cooking…normally I stick to the basics (stirfry, spaghetti, etc.), but when Im feeling confident I try other recipes (i made risotto for the first time last night)!! This book would be a great way to muster up some more courage and try new recipes.

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megan

we just made the pork ragu from your cookbook and it worked and we felt so happy. believe me, confidence is something that is a daily struggle in the kitchen, especially when we are so tired with two little ones (I have ruined more pots this year while cooking because my kids are 4 and 10 months and sleep is elusive in our house). but i know that 75% of the time, we cook well. and the other 25% might not be pretty, but it works. and i really need to stop making recipes for the first time when people come over :) . thanks for the post – looks like a great read!

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MemeGRL

Perfect example of a recipe that makes me jittery–I am a very anxious pork- or ground meat-cooker. This would be a real leap of faith recipe for me. The book sounds great.
But my real question is: what am I supposed to make the Greek-style shrimp and tomato dish in if cast iron will make the acidic tomatoes go bitter?

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Melissa Z

Can’t wait to read this book. Love that she is owning her mistakes, so that others can learn from her!

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Maya

What a wonderful lesson, and candid reminder about what (doesn’t have to) hold us back, even in the parts of our lives we love so much!

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s

Definitely confidence comes into play but also think trying to find something to make that will please the entire family as well as isn’t the same old, same old, in a reasonable amount of time with easy to find and not too expensive is my biggest obstacle!

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Lori

Cooking is a public performance of sorts, and the time and energy I put in raise the stakes for me. I need to be easier on myself. Would love to win the book! Thx for giveaway!

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Liz

The first time I had to get up and speak in public–in front of 300 or so parents of high school seniors–I thought I would die. My strategy was to tell them how nervous I was. That worked to relax me and I’ve been fine ever since.

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mm

This is why mums (and dads), and grandmothers are the BEST cooks. They put tasty comfort food on the table every night, have kitchen knowledge that would be the envy of many a pro chef, yet they do this quietly, without shouting from the rooftops.

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Jessica

Sounds like an interesting book. I still get annoyed when I screw up a recipe, but know it’s part of the learning process.

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Kerry

Love this post. It is so true that doing anything you are afraid of requires some level of confidence to just get started.
I have this book on my list- would love to win a copy!

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Joni

So interesting to hear that someone a immersed in the food scene as Dana Cowin didn’t feel like she could cook well.

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Sarah

I love Dana Cowin–she’s so approachable and warm, and is always such a happy presence on Top Chef. Despite being someone who cooks constantly and often takes on advanced recipes, I still beat myself up (for days even) when a dish doesn’t work out. I probably get this from my father, who taught me to cook. He feels that mistakes when he’s cooking mean that maybe he’s lost his edge as he’s gotten older. I like the message of this cookbook, and how you describe it here. Would love a copy to share with my dad.

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ASuburbanLife

I enrolled in, and dropped out of, public speaking class three times in college before I finally took it as a summer course. It’s still terrifying but I do it all the time for my job!

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Susan J

I’ve been cooking for a long time but I’m not a natural at it like my husband is – a lot of that is confidence/anxiety. I really enjoyed this post and would love to have the book.

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Louisa

I’ve been cooking for many years and I’m still learning from my mistakes! I don’t feel like I’m stretching my skills if I don’t have a failure now and then.

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Emily

I enjoy how your story ties into the theme of Cowin’s book, b/c everyone has something (often unexpected) that causes them anxiety. I’d love to read all the thing Cowin’s learned in the kitchen from her stellar cast of advisors!

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Susan

Oh, I’d love to have that book. I’m delighted to learn that my chicken trussing laziness – it never happens – has led to years of more rapidly cooked chickens!

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Holly

Both ‘Mastering my Mistakes’ and your dinner ‘playbook’ are on my holiday wish list.

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Shara

my version is embracing low standards – perfect is not the goal (but this is a far more empowering way to think about it)

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Simone

The more mistakes I make, the more I realize they are a part of life, and they don’t make me any less of a good cook. I’d love a copy of the book :)

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Amanda

Just like I tell my third graders – “Great – you made a mistake! Now you can learn from it.”

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Denise

Thank you for this. I’m presenting to a big group of colleagues next week and I’m having a hard time shaking off the nerves. This helps though.

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Jen

I would love to read this book! I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the kitchen – some of them edible and some of them sending us out for dinner. But like you said, there’s always tomorrow to try again. Even if you don’t have kids, you have to feed yourself every day!

(I own the Meatball Shop cookbook and have made several of the meatball recipes – they are all fantastic and VERY easy – really done in 45 minutes flat, including prep and cleanup. Also good for making extra and freezing. As easy as it is to make the meatballs fresh, even easier to thaw and microwave them.)

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Amy goddard

Would love to win the cookbook. Easier way to get confidence is to practice the dish over and over again ala Julia child

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Kate

Thanks for the giveaway! Can’t decide if I would keep this for myself or give it to a friend…

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Anne

To get better it takes practice – and i love to practice. It helps to have a couple solid recipes -

thanks DALS for all the solids!

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Brooke

This sounds wonderful! Even four years in to cooking for myself and my husband, I still have big FLOPS in the kitchen (Chicken piccata = EPIC fail. Baked goods that don’t set… you name it!) And that is such a bummer! It’s hard to pick yourself up and get back on the proverbial horse, so to speak. If Dana thought she could use some coaching, that’s something I’d like to read!

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Catherine

Wow! What a great article! It is so true, though. We all have moments of great triumph and heartache in our lives and in the kitchen. It’s the grit to just keep living and keep cooking that helps us grow!

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Linda S

It’s a good recipe for life, right? Learning from mistakes, I mean. (BTW, I’m asking for “dinner: the playbook” for hanukkah).

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Mei

It’s a feeling that never goes away, or at least rears it’s ugly head. I have been cooking professionally for just about five years and I’m STILL amazed that people pay money for what I make.

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Kate

I always love watching Dana Cowen when she’s a judge on Top Chef. Would love to have her book!

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Susan

Added to my Christmas list…and I love the concept as well. A few basic tips and a lot of courage put me on my way a few years ago…

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Bearsmama

Great post.:) I think so much in the kitchen comes down to confidence. In fact, when I hear people say that they “can’t” cook, I really believe that they don’t WANT to cook. And that’s completely FINE, but a completely different thing than fundamentally not knowing HOW to do something. As I age I realize that most of what I’ve learned about cooking has come from actually being in the kitchen. Crazy concept, I know. But just attempting it every day. Just doing it.
:)

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Kara

Ah, I have spent quite a bit of time waiting to be found out for the fraud I feel I am… It is best to keep things like attending culinary school out of polite conversation. Ahem.

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Katie Rose

YES, yes, yes!! I actually find myself giving my own mother pep talks to help her be more confident in the kitchen. She can read and follow a recipe, but she psyches herself out. I call her, walk her through the recipe, tell her the tricky parts to watch for and then she calls me back happy and excited after she’s successfully executed the dish! And the next time, she feels confident enough to make that recipe without my pep talk. (Can’t wait to read Dana’s book btw!)

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Robin

Wow, what a great idea. I have a handful of things that I am confident making, only because I screwed them up so many times!!!

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Alicia

Totally agree about just doing it. I am not a chef but I cook most nights and will bake almost anything. I hate making mistakes and sometimes I’ll think about a recipe for a long time before trying it. But I will tell anyone who claims to not know how to cook (ahem, like my husband) that you just have to get in the kitchen and do it. If you know what tastes good, then you can learn to cook!

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Jessica

something that helps my confidence is getting my boyfriend, who isn’t really a cook, in the kitchen with me. Somehow talking him through what I’m doing reminds me I do have some skills! That and a glass of wine doesn’t hurt :)

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Mittnay

This is so timely. Thank you. I am a former chef – who now lives/works in the software world as a Product Manager. (this means I design the things you use).

As a cook – I am fairly fearless … I know the basics – and if something doesn’t work out – I review for “lessons learned”. Almost always – I am the harshest critic of the meal/dish – while everyone else just eats.
Without much loss of confidence I just adjust for the next time (rapid iteration).

But in my professional life? *shudder*. Any failure/shortcoming is a LACK OF ME … not “Oh! What did I/we learn – let’s work with the team to come up with something better.”

What’s the difference in the two situations … and how do I come to grow and promote the lessons that I’m so willing to try and SHARE in my professional life?

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Bea

Love this post. Switching the perspective from the nightly drudgery of dinner to practice makes perfect is genius. Thanks for the inspiration. I will use this argument to explain to my family why I try to cook nightly. It is so that I can make better dinners for us.

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Kate

I think you are absolutely right–we learn how to do things well by doing them! Over and over again. It would be nice to get some shortcuts of Dana Cowin’s, though :-)

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Aryn

Wow! Beginning to feel much better about my own short-comings and lack of confidence in the kitchen. Beautiful book- I am thinking I could learn a ton from Dana Cowin!

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