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The Four Hour Chef by Timothy Ferriss (a review)

You might be wondering why I’m reviewing a cookery book, but if you’re interested in learning, this has considerably more to offer than a recipe for ‘Cauliflower Crème brûlée’.

The title is a hang over from Tim Ferriss’s first book ‘The Four Hour Work Week’. ‘Four hour’ has become his brand, so he’s stuck with it. In this case he tries to justify it by aiming to teach the reader the fundamentals of a culinary course in four hours of cooking time and, in doing so, demonstrate effective learning techniques.

When he uses the term ‘chef’, he means this in the sense of being able to cook without recipes and create your own dishes but that’s still overselling the structured cookery lessons. What they deliver is more basic but the sequence of recipes is certainly ingenious. The dishes have few ingredients and require minimal equipment, but introduce new skills in a sound, logical progression.

The whole book is painstakingly well produced and engagingly written. The hardback is vastly superior to the kindle version, simply because the work involved in its creation is so readily apparent. I’ve cooked and enjoyed a bunch of the recipes multiple times, which is a good measure of any cook book. However, it’s received some harsh reviews for a reason.

The book is wildly self-indulgent. It’s packed full of tangentially related stuff such as how to tie rope knots and make bacon infused alcohol. If you look at the index of the book, guns turn up more often than onions, which is bonkers by any standard. There are also some peculiar editing decisions such as the inclusion of suggested musical tracks to play whilst cooking but no vegetarian or allergy sensitive alternatives for the key recipes.

I find lunacy endearing and some of the stories are hilarious, but the superfluous material does distract from the core information. The sheer size of the book means that reading it from cover to cover is a mighty task and the more outlandish topics scattered throughout encourage you to dip into it, which works against the idea of it as a linear course.

Naturally, my real interest is in the meta learning content which is Ferriss’s strong suit. Some of it has appeared in his blog posts and earlier works in one form or another. I’ve seen this cited as a criticism, but the information isn’t any less valuable because he’s been generous with it before and it’s good to see it collected together. The depth he goes into here is also far greater than I’ve seen online and insights are plentiful and sometimes unexpected – his reflections on what makes a recipe good or bad are spot on and often relate to tutorials in a broader sense, but these are tucked away in the ‘how to use this book’ section.

His method centres around two acronyms: DiSSS (deconstruction, selection, sequencing and stakes) and CaFE (compression, frequency and encoding). He does a good job of explaining their importance and gives detailed examples of how they’re used along with a lot of anecdotes. I expected to see how he applied the whole process himself as he began learning to cook, but the book isn’t structured that way, instead there are occasional glimpses of his own journey.

I didn’t leave the book with a clear idea of how I should approach a learning project, but there is a lifetime of hard won advice in there and I’m not even including the instructions for ‘skewering multiple squirrels’*. The book’s flaws make it easy to be critical, but I’m struggling to find another book on my shelves with such lofty aims and so much effort put into it’s creation.

I’ll have to take notes in order to pull together what I consider to be the key meta-learning insights, but if you’re passionate about learning, it’s absolutely worth your time.

*Imagine that conversation with his editor: “but we can’t just have instructions for skewering one squirrel, we have to anticipate second helpings”.

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