Where to begin?

Taking the first steps in the kitchen

Shakespeare penned that If music be the food of love, play on. The love of food can endure just as much as any ballad or anthem. The Let’s Cook Project is all about trying to get the nation cooking and feeling better in the process. The question is, when considering starting from scratch, where to begin?

When the late, great Andy Williams wasn’t making ‘music to watch girls by’ he was busy asking the very same question. In the opening lines of ‘Where do I begin’ Mr Williams wanted to know how to

“tell the story of how great a love can be, the sweet love story that is older than the sea”.

For me, being given the ability to cook was the beginning of a lifelong love story.  Just as with any great love affair there have been some high points, countered by many low ones too, but this is certainly a romance that endures.

For the novice or unconfident cook knowing where to begin can seem daunting and a Herculean task. It is here that I would rely on the sage advice of Maria von Trapp and starting at the very beginning for it really is a very good place to start. Be assured that at no point am I advising starting off with the preparation of female deer, noodles, schnitzel or strudels.

A lasting relationship with the kitchen needs to be entered into advisedly and by taking things slowly. All too often all that is achieved is heartbreak for the rookie chef who dives in with both feet and ends up with egg on their face, definitely figuratively, hopefully, not literally.

Just as a good marriage is based on firm foundations so is it important to master the culinary basics before attempting wizardry with a wok. Getting a few key knife skills under your belt, such as how to safely chop an onion, and basic, but time-honoured, cooking techniques like sweating off a mirepoix of vegetables at the start of a soup or sauce (that’s just diced onion, celery and carrot by the way) are the building blocks for fabulous flavours in a multitude of dishes. Knowing how to make a white sauce from scratch means you’ll never have to buy a jar again and your macaroni will forever have a vehicle for unctuous cheesiness as its bedfellow.

In a world of internet and app-based dating it is easy to be seduced by a clever filter or exaggerated profile. I refer, of course, to the plethora of recipe sites claiming to have the magic formula to solving your gastronomic conundrums. Do beware, an experienced cook can look at a recipe and know that the instructions contained within simply won’t work, for those taking their tentative first steps it will only lead to disappointment. This phenomenon can also apply to the TV tie in books of celebrity chefs who seem to be able to wheel out recipes at a rate of knots. A good recipe take time, it needs to be tested and double tested to ensure that the reader can achieve the best, and same, result as the writer. All too often a recipe, at best, makes assumptions about the reader’s knowledge or, at worst, gives blatantly wrong information.  For no nonsense, sage advice you’ll find Delia Smith hard to beat. The BBC Good Food Website is a mine of information but just be wary of reader submitted recipes. Of course, I’m not saying that these all don’t work but, occasionally, it may be that measurements are inconsistent or a simple, but vital, instruction can be overlooked.

At a time when, as a nation, we are increasingly aware of the challenges presented to our mental wellbeing it is important to take a breath and take stock. We can all be seduced by the idea of excitement, exhilaration and the allure of something new. In fact, it is thought that, for many, the rush that this brings is confused with the notion of happiness. A healthy relationship needs to be based on trust, honesty and love, virtues which can be applied to our approach to food and cooking.

Veenhoven believes that for wellbeing to exist the individual needs three key things –  feeling in control, feeling a sense of achievement and a feeling a sense of belonging. Take it steady, take it slowly, take pleasure in the process, acknowledge and learn from the mistakes and celebrate the successes but most of all share with family and friends. Baby steps may be wobbly steps but soon you’ll be up and running with a healthy relationship with food forming part of the soundtrack of your life.

James is co-founder and director of The Let’s Cook Project. Culinary highs include competing in Masterchef in 2007 & 2008, the lows may involve banana milkshake and a kettle but he was 8 at the time!