Helping A High School Senior Learn How to Cook
A few weeks ago, my next door neighbor, Nat, asked me to mentor him throughout his 14-day high school senior project. Students could pick any project they wanted, and Nat decided to teach himself how to cook. Nat chose a different meal to cook each night for his family, pulling recipes from Reluctant Gourmet as well as a variety of other online sites.
Nat and I discussed what he was going to prepare and I shared some basic tips on cooking techniques with him, but the rest he did on his own. Here’s what Nat had to say about his project. Read on, he might help you quell some of your own fears and reluctances about cooking!
Interview with Nat – A High School Senior Novice Home Cook
Tell us about your high school senior project. What did each student have to do?
Each student had to carry out a specific project, whether it be interning for a senator, doing research on a particular subject, practicing pottery, or in my case, teaching myself how to cook. Every student was attempting to answer an essential question that the project was designed around. For me, my essential question was simply, “how can I teach myself how to cook?” Other students, such as my friend and class valedictorian, set out to answer his essential question of, “What does a typical day for a senator look like?” Each student then carried out their project over a 14-day period.
Why did you decide to teach yourself how to cook for the senior project? How much cooking experience or skills did you have before you started this project?
I decided to teach myself how to cook for a few reasons. First, I knew I needed to learn how to cook at some point in my life and I thought, why not now? The second reason is that I thought it would make for a very cool and unique senior project. Thirdly, I knew that the skills I could teach myself would show my parents that I am capable of helping out with dinner anytime they are too busy to do so. As far as prior experience goes, I didn’t have too much. I have made noodles, mac and cheese, and eggs for myself before I completed my project, and I was always very dependent on my parents for meals. Now, I don’t really worry about if I have lunch/dinner made for me because I can simply just make it for myself now.
Most novice cooks that I’ve met tell me that they have their own fears and apprehensions when they start learning how to cook. What were some of the things you were worried about before you began the project? During your 14-days of cooking, how did you overcome your apprehensions?
My biggest fear was that I was going to make something completely inedible and my parents would have to order take-out. At the beginning of this project, my younger brother put the Chinese take-out place on speed dial, thinking my first dinner would be terrible. Other than that, I didn’t have any other real fears besides burning myself or setting the smoke alarm off. The best way I thought to overcome my apprehensions would be to face them head on. The way I did this was by making a semi-complex dinner on the first night and just going for it— not letting fear get the best of me. The best part of it was that the dinner came out very well!
How did you decide on the different recipes you were going to cook?
I decided since I only had 14 days to do this project, I should try to diversify the recipes as much as possible. I decided to cook dishes from different countries and ethnicities, trying different techniques and flavors each night. By doing so, I felt like I really got to try lots of different foods that my family and I wouldn’t normally eat.
What reference guides (internet/cookbooks) did you use to cook each meal?
Most of the recipes I either got from the Reluctant Gourmet site, Food Network, or other websites with recipes that looked delicious and were highly rated. I would only consider making a dish if it was tremendously liked or recommended because I was cooking for 4 other people and if they were not happy with the meal, I would feel like I failed for that night.
A lot of times beginner cooks stick very closely to the prescribed recipe when they are first starting out. But how did you attempt to make each recipe your own?
At first that is exactly what I did: I adhered exactly to the recipe and acted as if cooking was like baking— very precise. However, towards the end of the project, I would start to change recipes around if I didn’t like a particular aspect of it or wanted to add a unique touch of my own. After my senior project officially ended, I cooked dinner for my family a few times where I didn’t even use a recipe; I just saw what I had in the fridge and would just make anything I liked, using the flavor principles and ideas from past recipes to create something semi-original.
What did you find most challenging about cooking each recipe? What parts of the cooking process did you have the most trouble with?
The most challenging thing for me was properly pan-frying meat. It was tough to get a nice brown sear on the meat without either burning it or cooking it too thoroughly. Another thing I found difficult was cooking shrimp in pasta.
From the 14 different dishes you cooked, did any of the meals not turn out as good as you hoped they would? What do you think went wrong?
The shrimp dish was probably the one that turned out a little off. I put the shrimp in way too early and they turned out extremely overcooked. But the only way to learn is from your mistakes. So, in a sense, I’m happy I messed up during this project so I can get it right the next time I cook for friends or relatives.
What did your family and friends think of your cooking?
My family loved the luxury of having dinner ready every night and the dishes done. My friends loved having my dinners and bbq’s. Now, we are thinking of doing them every month or so!
Do you think you will continue to cook and help out in the kitchen?
I made a deal with my parents to help out this summer with the shopping and cooking because I don’t have too much going on this summer. Along with that, I truly enjoy cooking after doing this project and would like to continue to cook for the enjoyment of making a good meal for those I care about.
What did you take away from doing this project?
I learned so much from this project: techniques, flavor principles, knife skills, and much more. All of which has been very beneficial. I learned how hard it is to cook something as well as professional chefs do and how it must take years to perfect a dish as well as some cooks have. I want to continue my cooking and see how much I can improve from here, and I am sure I will now that I’m not afraid to try different things.
Thank you Nat for asking me to be your mentor and doing this interview. Good luck next year in college.