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.