5 Habits of a Well-Rounded Cook

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

As my daughter tips into toddlerhood, I have been thinking about the kind of cook I want to model for her. I return over and over to one thought: I want to be a well-rounded cook. Does that sound ho-hum? I don’t think so.

Here’s why I think the five lessons for creating a well-rounded cooking life are so important for long-term happiness in the kitchen (and out of it too).

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

As my daughter gets older, I’ve started to think seriously about my cooking legacy. My thoughts go like this: a) The phrase cooking legacy is truly terrifying, and I can’t believe I’ve even uttered it, and b) No, seriously. There has to be a better way to encapsulate that amorphous idea of how I’d like to be remembered in the kitchen — the habits I want to model, the lessons I want to teach, and of course, the food I want to cook and share.

I can’t deal with the legacy thoughts, so instead I’m dragging my brain out of the cloudy future and back into the present, and thinking about the kind of cook I want to be right now: a well-rounded cook.

Well-rounded does not mean mediocre.

Some people might take the thought of “well-rounded” to be a cop-out, a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none route that leads straight to mediocrity. Eh, that’s a bit too cynical for my taste. True, in some cases you need a laser focus to achieve true excellence — if you’re Chad Robertson of Tartine in pursuit of the world’s greatest loaf of bread, for example — but for most home cooks, being “well-rounded” is a good thing. It implies you’re balanced, skilled, knowledgable, and enthusiastic.

And isn’t that what we all want to be?

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

5 Lessons to Become a Well-Rounded Cook

1. Learn and master the basics.

It all starts with learning how to cook, which is an exciting and scary thing. The foundation of a wholesome, well-rounded cooking life is first learning, absorbing, and mastering the basic elements — what I need for my kitchen, for example; classic recipes to know by heart; the cooking habits that make all the difference; and how to use all five senses.

Even longtime cooks can use a check-in here. I’m still pruning old, bad habits and learning better, more efficient, more enjoyable ways to do things in the kitchen.

Where to Start





(Image credit: Lucy Hewett)

2. Keep learning new things.

If I learned the basics and just stopped there, I wouldn’t really have a cooking life. It’s important to me to keep challenging myself in the kitchen, to try new recipes and hone old favorites. I’m not always great at this — I like to stay in my comfort zone! — but I aspire to be more open and curious, to get better at just going for it and accepting the mistakes; to keep pursuing secrets and tips from people who know more about something than I do.

This may mean, like Emma, I bake my way through Tartine No. 3 or follow my savvy mom around Costco. It may mean, like Faith, I shop all day for ingredients to cook from Pok Pok. Or perhaps like Ariel, I venture into a 12-week culinary course. There will always be something to learn.

A Few Things We’ve Learned

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3. Share what you know, learn, and love with other people.

This is where the real joy comes in. There’s nothing wrong, of course — and actually, quite a few wonderful things! — about cooking just for yourself, but I think a well-rounded cooking life must include other people, in some capacity.

This means learning how to feed myself and my loved ones, even when it’s hard; it means having friends over for supper; it means throwing a dinner party in a small apartment; it means bringing food to friends who just had a baby; and teaching toddlers and teenagers how to cook.

It also means being gracious with people — not condescending to new cooks, for example, and learning how to be a lovely dinner guest.

How We Share What We Know

(Image credit: Adrienne Breaux)

4. Continue making your kitchen a place you love to be.

You may think the state of one’s kitchen has nothing to do with the longevity, health, and general well-roundedness of their cooking life, but I disagree. Having a well-rounded cooking life means addressing all aspects of cooking — and that by necessity includes the kitchen!

I know my environment plays a huge role in how I feel. I don’t want to feel frustrated or anxious when I walk into my kitchen, and I don’t want other people to feel that way, either. So if there are ways I can clean, declutter, organize, and otherwise make my kitchen beautiful and welcoming, I’m all for it.

How We Love Our Kitchens

Good Kitchen Habits

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

5. Remind yourself why you cook.

A little while ago I wrote a post about how there’s no such thing as a “real cook” because all cooks are real cooks. We’re all trying to do our best, and that in and of itself means we’re doing it right.

Remembering why we like to cook is the last, and perhaps most important, part of creating a satisfying, well-rounded cooking life. Cooking makes us happy. It can send us into little fits of joy (some of them quiet). It can be silly, but it can also help us work through our grief. It’s both a pleasure and a chore, which makes it worth doing. And any habit of remembering why you cook — whether that’s having your toddler with you in the kitchen, or having friends over to dinner, or packing meals away for later in the freezer, with the sense of accomplishment that brings — will continue to form you into a cook who feels confident, at home, and content. Well-rounded.

Updated from post originally published August 2015.