I've long admired those cooks who can look into a sparse pantry or refrigerator, pull together the right ingredients, and make an amazing meal out of just what's there. I'm not one of them. Somehow, the years I spent fine-tuning recipes as a food editor at a magazine resulted in an embarrassing dependence on instructions when it comes to my cooking. In the world of editing—especially grammar—there is generally one best way to do it; that idea had seeped into my approach to cooking. I'd become afraid to step into the unknown.
So what does it take to cook intuitively, without recipes? I talked with top chefs around the country about their own approaches to creating in the kitchen, and found that most of what I needed to know about cooking intuitively I could draw from my yoga practice.
Like yoga, cooking with an open mind is about letting go of fear and expectations. Trusting one's own experience and inner wisdom. Acceptance. Mindfulness. Practice. I soon realized that I could bring these lessons from my mat into my kitchen, that I could experience true freedom in my cooking and let the food I prepare nourish me on levels beyond the mere physical.
Culturally, we Americans have lost the main ingredient of cooking intuitively: a connection to our food. We lack the fundamental knowledge of where and how food is grown and when it is in season, which has led to a widespread lack of confidence when it comes to creative exploration in the kitchen. Perhaps the best way to gain confidence in cooking is to reconnect with food at its source. Plant an organic garden, shop at a farmers' market, or even join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm; the weekly seasonal produce you'd receive as a member could determine what's for dinner. As you become familiar with the seasons of food, you can begin to unlock the recipe for success in putting ingredients together.
"One of the things that is problematic for most people is that everything is in season all the time in the supermarket," says Deborah Madison, founding chef of Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. "But in fact, it's not that way. If you shop at a farmers' market, or a farm stand, or some other place where the food is grown locally, you can be confident that what's in season together tastes good together, and then you can be very relaxed, intuitive, and creative."
Jesse Ziff Cool, chef and owner of Cool Café at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, agrees with that sentiment. Perhaps that's why she dedicated her cookbook Your Organic Kitchen not to the famous chefs who've mentored her during the course of her career, but to her local farmers. "The best way to succeed," she declares, "is to start with the most delicious ingredients—fresh, local, and organic whenever possible."
Where to get these ingredients? "The very best place to go is the farmers' market," Cool says. "If you don't have one, go to the grocery store and find a produce guy, and hope he has a clue. Ask him, 'So, what is the best? Which pears are good right now? Do you know which squashes are the sweetest?' More than ever, we have to ask questions about our food: Where did it come from? What does it taste like? How is it grown?"
Fear of the unknown sneaks up on us in many areas of our lives. Whether it happens on our yoga mat or in front of the stove, we have a choice to face our fear and move through it or let it stop us dead in our tracks. Just as we work to find the right teachers to guide us along our spiritual paths, we must seek the support we need to claim cooking as part of our practice. Our kitchens are the best place to nourish body and spirit.
So what happens when you are back home from the market with the season's colorful bounty spread across your kitchen countertop? Start with what you know. If you're used to flipping open a cookbook or perusing a food magazine for ideas, that's OK. But try to see those resources as merely guides; there's no need to rely on them for step-by-step instructions that keep your eyes and heart focused on someone else's creation instead of your own.
Rebecca Wood, health and wellness coach and author of The Splendid Grain and The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia, believes that cookbooks provide a jumping-off point for free-form cooking. "Go ahead and use that cookbook if you need to, to feel really comfortable about making the roast chicken or the pot of rice, and get that down, so it's like brushing your teeth," she says. "And then explore how you can change that depending on what's in season, what's in the garden, and what's in your fridge."
As your experience grows, so will your confidence. Intuition in the kitchen requires trusting in yourself and in the process, no matter what ends up on the plate. Letting go of perfection in a dish is like letting go of perfection in a pose. You might strive to reach a goal, but you're aware of your limits, so you explore your edge and find the beauty in your abilities, accepting your experience for what it is.
Trusting our experience means looking at "mistakes" in the kitchen in a new light. Unexpected outcomes can open our eyes to where we might be holding on instead of letting go. A misstep in the kitchen, after all, doesn't have to mean failure. "I learned a lot from watching other chefs who came through my kitchens, seeing how they fixed things," says Cool. "A cake doesn't rise? Hmmm, let's slice it here and add some cream and do something different with it. It's the ability to take something and realize what to do next."
Like many self-taught chefs, Madison learned her craft by working with other cooks and reading cookbooks, and eventually developed her own style. Although she believes that some expectations are helpful in the kitchen, what's more important—just as in your yoga practice—is knowing your limits and how to best work around them.
"If you want to make a cheese soufflé and you've never done it before," says Madison, "it can be like facing a difficult arm balance in yoga for the first time. You watch the instructor and see how it's done. You just try to understand the basics and follow along as best you can. And maybe the next time, you can push yourself a bit further."
Although she has written best-selling cookbooks, including Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets, Madison confesses that for years, she thought people were just being polite when they complimented her food. "I've finally learned to be more nonchalant and less critical of my own food," she says.
When you bring mindfulness to your alignment in a particular yoga pose or to your breath during meditation practice, the experience deepens. Being mindful in that same way while cooking can transform what might seem like a daunting task into a very satisfying experience.
"Cooking is a totally sensual experience," says Cool. "You see the food, you feel it, you smell it, and to a point you even hear it, because you listen to food cooking. Your whole being is right there with the food."
Mindfulness in shopping for ingredients often spawns creative ideas in the kitchen. Don't be afraid to handle the merchandise before you buy it. Ask what something should feel like when ripe. Hold it in your hand. Notice its texture. How does it smell? Is it soft, smooth, hard, rough? Then try to imagine how it might taste and what flavors could enhance it. Cooking is a blank canvas. Your ingredients are your paints; you are the artist.
Zen priest Edward Espe Brown, author of five vegetarian cookbooks, including The Tassajara Bread Book and Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings, incorporates mindfulness throughout the entire cooking process.
Paying attention to flavors as they come together in a dish, he says, usually leads to tastier results. "I tell people to add one ingredient at a time and taste what's being cooked before you add it and after you add it. And then you'll start to know what that ingredient is doing in there," he explains. "How does the flavor change, and how much do you want to add? If you appreciate and honor the ingredients you're working with, you can study how to bring out the best in them—just like you'd study how to bring out the best in yourself."
Just as yoga practice can unveil a deeper opening and increase your mastery with every session on the mat, so too that practice is revelatory in the kitchen. It allows us to master the subtleties of enhancing ingredients with complementary tastes.
Though many thrive on trial and error as the path to confidence in the kitchen, Joanne Saltzman, author of Romancing the Bean and founder of the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado, teaches her students a structured range of techniques and ingredients that she says opens the door to countless possibilities. "Really good chefs can create because they understand their own tools," she says. "It's overwhelmingly freeing. You can have only two things in your refrigerator and make dinner and not have to run to the store. It's about understanding how ingredients go together without measuring or having to follow a recipe. It's how our grandmothers used to cook."
At her Be Nourished cooking school in Ashland, Oregon, Rebecca Wood also looks to her grandparents—whose pantries were stocked with organized jars of basic grains, condiments, herbs, and spices—for pure culinary inspiration. She coaches clients on how a little organization in the kitchen can encourage their creativity, freeing their minds to focus on the food. "If you're fumbling, looking through a drawer for a hot pad or measuring cup, you're frustrated—and frustrated energy is going into your food," Wood says. "If you're dancing in the kitchen, you're creating, you're renewed. Cooking then is not drudgery; it's a creative act, and you can do it more mindfully."
Practice doesn't have to mean following a dull routine. Sources of inspiration are endless when it comes to cooking off-the-cuff, and it can be exciting to uncover your own creative catalysts. Go into a garden or plan an outing to a local farm to see what's growing. Visit an art museum for visual stimulation that might translate into color or texture on the plate. Smell fresh-cut herbs and flowers. When you wake up your senses, the possibilities are infinite.
Knowing how to have fun in the kitchen is part of letting go and experiencing the true enjoyment of creating really good food. "I'm truly watching my hands and smelling the food and tasting it," says Cool, "and I'm not afraid of what's going to happen. I'm just having a party all by myself with the food—it's me and the ingredients."
And the fun doesn't have to stop when the cooking ends. There's always the reward of sitting down to eat.