Bennett Haselton writes "Recently I wrote an article about what I considered to be the sorry state of cooking instructions on the web (and how-to instructions in general), using as a jumping-off point a passage from Evgeny Morozov's new book To Save Everything, Click Here. My point was that most "newbie" instructions never seemed to get judged by the basic criteria by which all instructions should be judged: If you give these instructions to a group of beginners, and have them attempt to follow the instructions without any additional help from the author, what kind of results do they get? The original title of my article was "Better Cooking Through Algorithms," but due to some confusion in the submission process the title got changed to "Book Review: To Save Everything, Click Here" even though, as multiple commenters pointed out, it didn't make much sense as a "book review" since it only mentioned a short passage from the actual book. This article, on the other hand, really is intended as a review of The 4-Hour Chef, even though the article only covers a similarly tiny fraction of the book's 671-page length. That's because even before buying the book, I was determined to review it according to a simple process: Try three recipes from the book. Follow the directions step by step. (If any direction is ambiguous, then follow what could be a plausible interpretation of the directions.) My estimation of the quality of the book, as an instructional cooking guide for beginners, is then determined by the quality of the food produced by my attempt to follow the directions. (I've done this so many times for so many "beginner cookbooks," that I've probably lost my true "beginner" cook status in the process — which means that the results obtained by a real beginner using The 4-Hour Chef, would probably be a little worse than what I achieved.)" Read on for the rest of Bennett's Thoughts
I bought the book with tempered high hopes. Watching Tim Ferriss in his TV interviews and reading the enthusiasm that leaps off of every page (each recipe even comes with a "song pairing," music to jam out to while making the dish), it's hard not to take a quick liking to him. He comes across as a man who who really does want to share his passion and not just sell books. He's goofily handsome in that way that women and some men often confuse with "confidence", although he does seem to possess a lot of actual confidence. But enthusiasm is the enemy of objectivity, and I was determined to review the book according to the criterion of how well the directions actually work, not based on how much fun it would be to hang out with Tim. Even though it would probably be fun.
In his interview on Jimmy Fallon, for example, they looked like they were having a great time, but Jimmy told Tim that he read the book and tried following the directions for making bacon-infused bourbon, then proceeded to show some "action shots" of the result that he achieved: a jar of what looked like solid bacon fat, which Jimmy said he did not drink. OK, I thought, that means that whatever comes next, in that case the directions failed. Tim proceeded to explain that you have to be careful not to overblend it, and to leave it in the freezer long enough to be able to scrape more of the fat off, so that if you get a result that looks like Fallon's jar of goo, then that's probably what you did wrong. Great advice, but, not in the book. "Bacon-infused bourbon" sounds like precisely the kind of recipe that will sell a lot of books (not surprisingly, it's listed on the back cover of the book jacket), but which is hard to write good directions for.
In the same interview, Ferriss showed how he cooked sea bass sous vide in a hotel kitchen sink and then finished it by searing it with the hotel's travel iron, which he cheerfully admitted the hotel was not too happy about. I'm all for re-purposing common household items to find a new way to achieve something, but only if it's an improvement over the more mundane way of doing things; otherwise, it's just doing things inefficiently for the sake of being weird as an end in itself. (When I posted a photo of my bookshelf with a hollow-core wooden plank C-clamped to it at one end, with the other end used as an anchor for my XOOM tablet so I could watch movies while lying flat in bed, it was because that was the easiest way I could find to do that.) To be fair, Tim's suggestion of searing fish with a travel iron was probably intended to get the reader into the adventurous spirit, not as literal advice -- but then, my mission remains to evaluate the actual cooking advice, according to the results it produces.
The short answer: Of the three recipes I tried, one came out barely edible, and the other two were palatable mostly to the degree that the raw ingredients themselves were tasty, so I might as well have just snacked on the ingredients separately instead of combining them. All recipes definitely showed signs that they could have been greatly improved by being worked over by the process I described in my last article — i.e., show the recipes to a group of genuine newbies, listen to their feedback about all the points where they get stuck, then keep revising according to that feedback until you reach the point where the latest round of newbie testers is able to get through the directions with no problem. (You may notice that this sounds like a very obvious idea, but most how-to directions show very little sign of having been put through this kind of scrutiny.)
The first recipe in the book was for "Osso Buko", Ferriss's "knock-off" version of ossobuco, using lamb shanks instead of veal shanks. With $60 for a new porcelain Dutch oven, $20 for the lamb shanks, and other miscellaneous expenses, it cost me about $100 just to try the recipe to see if it worked (although Fred Meyer let me return the Dutch oven after I realized I was never going to try this again, and yes, I know you can find cheaper ones). A few times in the recipe, the directions used an unfamiliar term that I would have expected to be defined in a text for true beginners (for example, I didn't know what a "dry wine" was, and even the Wikipedia article wasn't much help, but the grocery store stockboy helped me out). The bigger problem was that at multiple points in the recipe, the instructions were too ambiguous to know if I was following them correctly, or I was unable to follow them exactly and didn't know how big of an adjustment I needed to make (e.g. what to do if the smallest shanks I could find were bigger than the recommended size). I still have no idea if the mediocre results were caused by one big screwup at one particular step, or the accumulation of many small deviations from what a real chef would have done.
Specifically: (1) The recipe calls for a Dutch oven. Ferriss has a brand he recommends, but can I use one from the local Fred Meyer? How big? The recipe doesn't say. I picked a five-quart since it was big enough to hold the lamb shanks. (2) The recipe calls for "lamb shanks." Fore shanks or hind shanks? Does it matter? My grocery store only has "lamb foreshanks" anyway. (3) The recipe says each shank should be 12 oz, but the smallest ones I could find were all 16 oz. What adjustments do I make? I have no idea. (4) The recipe called for "1/3 of a bottle" of wine, but later said to pour in enough "to cover 1/2-3/4 of the meat," and I couldn't do that without pouring in the whole bottle. I assumed the "cover 1/2 of the meat" direction took precedence over the "use 1/3 of the bottle" direction, but at that point I was sure that I'd deviated so far from the intent of the directions that the dish wasn't going to work. I put the whole thing into the oven at 350 degrees for two hours, which is about the only part of the recipe that I was sure that I followed correctly.
The results came out barely edible (I said "barely" — I still ate them, but I would never serve them or bring them to a party). Mostly it was a lot of work to cut through the tendons and small bones to get to the meat; if the Dutch oven was supposed to soften the meat so that everything fell off the bone, it didn't work.
The second recipe I tried was for crab cakes with harissa sauce. Right away I ran into a problem, since even in my fairly cosmopolitan city with multiple ethnic and specialty grocery stores, none of the ones I visited had ever heard of "harissa sauce." Now for directions that have been thoroughly beta-tested, this is where they would typically say, "Harissa sauce can be difficult to find, so here's where to look; otherwise, you can use this as a substitute." I found some forums saying you could use hot sauce, so I went with that. The crab cakes came out fine, but probably mostly due to the expensive crab ingredient, and I didn't like them enough to make them again.
The third recipe that I tried was for coconut cauliflower curry mash. The directions called for "crushed cashews," and said "If they're uncrushed, you can then crush them in your hands directly into the bowl. This is how Chuck Norris does it." By this time I was getting a little tired of the book being cute at the expense of being helpful — roasted cashews are physically impossible for most people to crush in their hands — but I flattened some under a rolling pin and followed the rest of the recipe. The result tasted OK, but probably only about as good as if I'd just mixed up the nuts and cauliflower and other ingredients and cooked them in a pot.
And that was the end of the ride for me. Three recipes and three results that I never thought about making again (one that was barely edible, and two that tasted only slightly better than the component ingredients mixed together, neither one all that good). Based on those sample results, my estimation is that for a true beginner going through the recipes in the book, the "success rate" would not be high enough to justify the time and money that they'd spend.
Full disclosure compels me to report that I did successfully prepare and "serve" one recipe in the book: bacon roses, which turned out about as well in my own kitchen as the ones he showed off on Jimmy Fallon. Most artificial roses have removable heads, and if you bake a couple of rolled-up slices of raw bacon, they come out resembling roses that can be threaded on the artificial-rose stems. But even then, the instructions in the book were overkill, requiring the reader to take a cupcake baking pan and drill holes in the bottom of each cupcake holder, so that you can cook the bacon in the cupcake holders while draining the fat out (but which also ruins the cupcake pan for the purpose of making actual cupcakes). For one thing, you can use silicone cupcake molds and just poke a hole in the bottom rather than drilling through aluminum; these can also be stacked when you're done, so that they take up much less storage space than a 12-muffin baking pan. But in any case I found that you could get perfectly good results just by rolling up the pieces of bacon and baking them sideways on a broiler rack; they hold their shape just as well as if you had baked them in the cupcake holders, since the rolled-up bacon hardly expands anyway. (This is the kind of thing that you also find if you have people beta-testing your recipes.)
To be fair, I'm only narrowly reviewing the book as an instructional guide to cooking. The book claims that the principles taught in its pages can be used to transform your life in a wide range of ways, including becoming world-class in "any skill" in about six months, which Ferriss says he has used to learn kickboxing, Spanish, shooting basketball 3-pointers, and Japanese horseback archery. Next on his list: writing cooking directions!
But now I'm being a smartass, and the truth is that there is potential for the recipes in these book to be transformed into something that could produce fantastic results in the hands of a beginner. Normally when I try out a "beginner's cookbook" — usually by using Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to sample a few recipes from the cookbook and print them out for free — if the first three recipes produce inedible results, I throw them out and never give the cookbook a second thought. But I'm more optimistic about re-working Ferriss's recipes in accordance with the beta-testing process above, for two reasons. First, he really does seem to have a passion for helping people and not just selling books (that's important, because it's hardly going to drive book sales to take recipes from the book and beta-test them and improve them as a free web-based project). Second, he has legions of fans who would probably volunteer as beta testers. I myself would be happy to volunteer, since the commitment of a beta tester is minimal, by design, because you're supposed to simulate the experience of a real user without overthinking it: go through the instructions one time, and record the quality of the result you get at the end. (Optionally, make a note of any ambiguous directions you encountered along the way, which might affect the quality of the end result.)
As they're written now, I don't think the recipes in the book would pass the definitional test of good directions: Give them to beginners, have them try to follow the steps, and record the results. I had essentially the same thought about the business-launching advice in Tim Ferriss's first book, The 4-Hour Workweek, which I only bought as a companion to the new book. Now I think The 4-Hour Workweek does contain a lot of useful self-help advice — for example, to get over your fear of the worst-case outcome by visualizing it entirely and realizing that it's not that bad. (Although I cracked up at the part about "outsourcing your work," thinking of a certain Verizon employee who took the advice too literally.) But for a book whose key premise is that you can liberate yourself from a 40-hour workweek, the advice about how to start a successful business to do this, occupies a surprisingly small portion of the book (pp. 150-200, if you leave out the subsequent chapter about how to automate your business once it's successful). Well, I've been a part of various entrepreneur communities since before I graduated college, and over the years I've seen many people follow some variation of the steps in those chapters, and the reality is that even if the founder does everything right, most new businesses still fizzle out just like my mediocre "osso buko."
The key difference, I think, is that any formula on how to start your own wildly successful business and shrink your workweek down to 4 hours, cannot work without a lot of luck — if it could, angel investors would just start hiring "entrepreneurs" to follow the formula exactly, if every one of those entrepreneurs (or even 25% of them) hit it out of the park with their new business venture, the investors would make out like gangbusters. Most methodical research suggests that actually only about 5% of VC-backed businesses hit their projected break-even on cash flow -- suggesting that even the best VCs can't find any combination of personal attributes, or action steps, that leads to entrepreneurial success without a big dose of luck. (Ferriss himself says that The 4-Hour Workweek was turned down by 28 out of 29 publishers, which sounds like a testament to the importance of persistence; but most authors whose work is turned down by the first 28 publishers, will usually get turned down by the 29th one too, and there was obviously a certain amount of luck in the fact that that didn't happen to him.)
On the other hand, following a recipe and producing a delicious dish, ought to be possible without luck. What you need, though, are precise directions that have been picked apart by beginner beta testers to remove any ambiguities, until you reach the point where the latest wave of beta testers was able to get through the directions with no confusion, and produce great results in nearly every case. The recipes in The 4-Hour Chef aren't at that point, but Tim Ferriss has the fan-based manpower at his disposal to test and transform those recipes into truly idiot-proof directions for delicious food, if he wants to.