America’s Test Kitchen v. Au Pif

I recently thumbed through a copy of My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz and was transfixed by his discussion of the French ethos au pif or “by the nose” meaning that food is to be prepared by feel. A good cook can feel (and I would argue, decide) what needs to be added, adjusted and/or executed for optimal results. Lebovitz goes on to argue that many a modern home cook demand direct, thorough, details; every step outlined to a point where cooking is more Ikea assembly than creative pursuit.

Lebovitz doesn’t condemn or laud either approach but I’ve noticed in preparing a number of his ice cream recipes (which are are excellent I might add) that he is more comfortable with ambiguity than the average recipe writer. He’ll use language like “about” to describe a quantity. Jamie Oliver, whose recipes I use regularly, applies similarly vague descriptions such as “a glug of oil” or “a small bunch of cilantro.”

On the other end of the spectrum is America’s Test Kitchen – who analyzes the science of preparing particular dishes from the ingredients to the process to the tools. America’s Test Kitchen is the producer of many favorite recipes because as long as you follow everything exactly as prescribed, the results are spectacular. There is deep satisfaction in producing a product that comes out as advertised.

The push and pull between science and artistry in food is exceptionally interesting and recently I’ve been considering it in terms of failure. There is a movement in education towards “growth mindset.” The long and short of growth mindset is that how one thinks about their failures can impact their ability to learn. If you look at a failure and say “I messed that up and I’m a horrible person,” you are unlikely to be able to learn from the failure. If you look at the failure and say, “I can try this again and what changes might I make to be more successful?” you are likely to learn from the experience.

When we cook au pif  we introduce the possibility of failure. When we cook a la America’s Test Kitchen the possibility of failure is entirely removed. I can’t rattle off or reproduce America’s Test Kitchen recipes from memory, but Jamie Oliver recipes? His recipes require cooking au pif, and I’ve committed a whole slew of those to memory. The trial and error lead to more committed learning.

I’m not very comfortable with failure, in any form really, even in food. I often apologize for flaws in what I’ve produced (even though Julia Child directly instructs otherwise). But perhaps cooking a bit more au pif will help me to consider my food failures as valuable research and move the needle on my mindset. And if not, there is always tea to soothe me.


P.S. find David Lebovitz, America’s Test Kitchen & Jamie Oliver in my Amazon store.



I always performed well in school so the necessity for or desire to spend time revising work did not come naturally. I often felt a one and done approach worked for papers, but my Dad made it clear to me that writing is rewriting – and if one wanted to improve their writing, they needed to be rewriting in order to do so. The message was received and I managed to continue to improve my writing in college even without Dad’s copious edits and attentive draft review. My instructors in graduate and undergraduate school commented on the quality of my writing. One instructor told me”I think your thesis is terrible, but the paper is so well written I’m going to  give you an A.” My writing is strong because I learned the important lesson of revision and even though patience is not my native nature, I could see in writing how making changes and giving yourself time could lead to a stronger end product. (Though truth be told I’m still too impatient to do that with this blog. 🙂 But that is the blogging medium, no?)

Last October I learned I have an endocrine disorder that impacts a number of systems but most saliently how my body manages insulin. Meaning responsible monitoring involves close attention to what I eat and when and how it impacts my glycemic load. And people, I loves to eat (not a typo, plural is intentional), so adjusting my expectations about what I can eat and why and when is a necessary challenge.

It’s May now, so I’ve spent six months digesting this news and reality and it’s left me with an important observation. I cook and eat better with restrictions. I was devastated at first thinking I would never eat baked goods again – and that isn’t really the case. Adding firm parameters around what I eat and when and why increases the creativity I take with food – which you’d think I’d learn from years and years of watching Top Chef, but no. In the last six months I developed a mindful set of habits that help me to make consistently good food choices, and therefore allow for equally regular (and prudent) deviations. These changes are a process and will continue to be so – but I’m confident in my ability to revise. Even though revising my picture of myself and my dining landscape is challenging and truly against my impatient nature, it’s a worthy pursuit and likely to lead to a stronger end product.