Gystilyn O’Brien – 02/02/2019 – unpublished

“Towards the end of the semester students started trickling in before dinner to watch me cook, curious on the who and hows. As it turned out almost none of them knew how to cook anything more than top-ramen. Turns out, none of the knew how to cook a taco.”

The Taco

I once worked as a chef at an international house in Berkeley. The building was a form of student housing for international students studying, to the best of my understanding, a particular subject. Or maybe they had similar visa constraints? Something. There was some particular reason they were all in this house, and this house wasn’t a frat. Curiously though, the building itself looked very much like a stone castle, and in the past certainly had housed a frat, as was evident by the framed pictures in the dining hall. So is life at UC Berkeley. Any-who, the student body was mixed gendered, and I doubt that ages crept past 22 years old.

To be honest, this was a sweet gig. I was hired to come in five days a week to make dinner. I was given a stipend to go grocery shopping, and was paid a contract wage to boot, plus whatever I didn’t spend on groceries. The kitchen was huge, and I was feeding around 40 people, with a vegan and a meat option. What I cooked was up to me. I loved this. It was an eight week contract for the summer term, and I had free range over an enormous well equipped kitchen.

I opted for a ‘Trip Around the World’. Each week would focus on a cuisine style from a different culture. French, Italian, Latin, Caribbean, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Russian. Each week I would set up an order that would serve five different meals representing the cultural style. For example, Latin week included regional foods from Mexico (tacos), Costa Rica (fried plantains with black bean sauce and casado), Brazil (feijoada), Portugal (bistec), and Spain (paella). I also left little informative guides on what people were eating, where it came from, and nutritional facts. I had time and was being paid well. It was fun.

Towards the end of the semester students started trickling in before dinner to watch me cook, curious on the who and hows. As it turned out almost none of them knew how to cook anything more than Top-Ramen. Turns out, none of the knew how to cook a taco.


I had waited to do Latin week until the end because there’s so much Latin food in the bay. I lived off taco trucks in college. Makes sense that they would be familiar with the flavors, located in California, and all. I was blown out of the water that these kids couldn’t make a taco.

Particle Physics? Cool.
Taco? What?

I can understand… sort of… that you have never cooked ground beef in your life. It’s hard for me, but sure. I can grasp focusing on studies instead of on cooking. But these kids, they didn’t understand the definition of a taco, let alone the mechanics of how to make a taco. I honestly suspect they’d never thought about tacos… not really.

A taco is literally throwing any food stuffs in a tortilla. ANYTHING. The taco is a style of food delivery to the mouth. It requires a tortilla. Everything else is optional. Basic. To me this is basic. To them, well… if you never think on a subject then the subject is hard to grasp. They’d spent so much of their lives focused on school that considering what a taco is never made it to the docket.

Basics on how to cook:

First, understand that some foods need to be cooked to eat. Many foods do not.

Second, if there is a ‘rule’ in cooking, then there is an exception. Most ‘rules’ are relative about 80% of the time (words for life!). Don’t worry so much. If ya mess it up then you eat the weird or toss it, and then you try again. Sometimes weird screw ups in the kitchen are delicious. Nothing about food is set in stone or final. Food is ever evolving.

Raw meat, chicken, eggs, and fish need to be cooked to eat. We all know about sushi, so obviously there are exceptions, but you want to be careful about those ingredients. Sushi fish and normal grocery store fish are not the same. Don’t defrost frozen fish and try and eat it raw. Bad.

Most vegetables do not need to be cooked – but they taste a lot better if they are. Onion, garlic, broccoli, beans… all generally taste better cooked.

Smell and taste everything. Seriously. Smell your herbs, seasonings, veggies, meats. Taste everything raw (okay, not meats). A friend asked me once how I knew if a tomato had gone bad. I told her to smell it, and taste it. If it smells bad, and tastes bad, then its bad. Pretty simple. A lot of cooking is smell. I got to a place where I could smell a dish and knew it was right without tasting it before serving. Pay attention with your nose. If you can’t smell, then ask a friend, but taste anyway. You need to know what a leek tastes like.

My brother (also a chef) used to say you should taste a thing twice. The first time is a shock, the second time you taste the thing for what it is. You have to try the bad stuff too… or how else will you know what bad tastes like? Burn something? Taste a little. Yea, it sucks, but maybe you burned the celery, and not the bell pepper, verse next time you do the opposite. The flavor of burn changes. Sometimes burnt is not bad. Burnt bell pepper can add a nice smokiness to a dish. It’s all relative. Be flexible. (Again, words for life!)

Grains, like rice, pasta, breads, etc: Most of those need to be cooked. All of those have basic-to-follow recipes. Follow the recipes. It does not matter how much water you add to pasta (unless it’s too little). It does matter how much water you add to rice. Side note: You can not burn water. Water will evaporate. If your water is ‘burning’ then your pot wasn’t clean and something else is burning. Try again.

Everything in life is a recipe. The way you learn math, that’s a recipe. There are rules, and instructions, and combinations. Same with cooking food. It’s just another recipe, with a relatively finite amount of options.

Tools: There are a few main ones. Pan, pot, wooden spoon, spatula, kitchen knife, and cutting board. You can cook pretty much anything with these items. Obviously you can have a million more things, there are literally a million more kitchen tools out there. Try not to get overwhelmed, focus on the basics. Start with the basics. If you are buying for the first time, then get a pan whose bottom is bigger than your hand stretched out. Non-stick is fine. Just remember, you have to use a soft sponge on it. Nothing abrasive. No metal tools while cooking. Non-stick is great until the film gets punctured. Once you put a scratch into a non-stock pan you’re basically adding poison to your food. Weird and freaky, right? Stainless steel is a winner, but more expensive. Cast Iron is great, but very much like having a puppy. You have to take care of it. Get one with a lid. Get a pot that is deeper than your hand is long, also with a lid. Wood spoon, knife and cutting board are pretty straight forward. Spatula, get one that is heat resistant, i.e. made to cook with. Many aren’t. You don’t want to melt that thing.
I know, cooking sounds dangerous. It’s about as dangerous as using the bathroom, which is either comforting or frightening, depending.

Okay! You are all set! Go find recipes. Go shopping for new foods.

Here’s some practical ‘order of operations’ tips on cooking:

Oil, butter, or ghee. Most of the time ya need a little something in the bottom of the pan. Personally, I’m all about that unsalted butter (I add salt later). I think oil is an American lie made to make us fat. Personal opinion. A tablespoon is usually enough, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan.

Ingredient order for cooking: That means heat the butter (or whatever) over medium/ heat, add stuff, one by one, as the pan gets warm. Stir with wooden spoon. Minutes are cook times.

Onion – 2-4 minutes

Garlic – 1 minute

Hard veggies like bell peppers, carrots, celery, potato, leek – 10 minutes

Meat – 4-10 minutes

Softer veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, mushroom – 2-4 minutes

Leafy stuff – kale (remember to add lemon juice or vinegar while cooking or else this veggie is useless), char – 1-2 minutes

Salt and pepper to taste.

*Pro-tip: if ya add too much salt add a bit of sugar to balance it out. If ya make it too spicy, add vinegar to neutralize the heat.

How much is a bit? Add a pinch, stir, and taste. Repeat until it tastes good.

If you are going to add meat you can either add to the veggies, or cook separately. Different recipes call for different things. Typically meat will go in after the hard veggies, and before the soft veggies. Soft veggies and leafy stuff only take about two-four minutes to cook. It’s quick. Everything before that will take longer.

Based on your recipe, add sauces or combine ingredients. If you are looking to be healthy there’s simply a ton of information on what to cook, how to create a balanced diet, dietary restrictions, etc. If you want to know more about the science of cooking there is a ton about that too. What chemically happens when you cook food? Cooks Illustrated has got a lot of great information.

Long story short, it’s perfectly okay if you don’t know how to cook, and are afraid to try. It happens to more people than you think. The truth is that you’re missing out on an awesome and fun part of life. Things like Insta-pot and crockpots have made cooking really really simple. Many grocery stores even sell pre-cut foods so all ya have to do is grab em, throw them together, press cook and viola! A homemade meal! I believe in you! Go out there and eat some nom!