The first thing I note when talking to best-selling author and self-help guru Timothy Ferriss is that he speaks in the most amazing sound bites, condensing slightly heady concepts like accelerated learning (cramming six months of of culinary school into 48 hours, for example) and “leveraging past experiences” (finding out what you are good at to complete a task in the future). I next find out that the author of The 4-Hour Body and an accomplished kickboxer, tango dancer, endurance runner and interview giver never set out to write a cookbook. It just sort of happened by request.
“I am very qualified to write a book on teaching, but I have zero background in cooking, which in many ways makes me the perfect person to write a book for novices,” he says from his home in San Francisco. “When I pick up a cookbook and it says, ‘first, blanch this…’ I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Neither do most people, truth be told, which is why The 4-Hour Chef is such a different kind of read. There are lessons on the basics like knife skills, searing steaks and boiling eggs — all designed with some of the over 1,000 photos, charts and illustrations sprinkled within the 672-page behemoth. It all has a very dot.com feel to it, as if Mark Bittman suddenly wrote for Buzzfeed instead of The New York Times.
But it’s not all catering to Simple Sam. There are more abstract concepts detailed, like progressing the flavor profiles of scramble eggs from Nepalese to Mexican to Chinese. There’s a guide to making edible dirt, inspired by Sirs Redzepi and Dufresne, and a chapter about home sous-vide. It’s the kind of book that you keep picking and paging through. Over and over. I just thumbed to the section where he details his NYC Food Marathon, where he consumes 26.2 dishes in 24 hours. “We ended up eating 20+ New York Times stars from 9 a.m. to 3:23 a.m.,” he writes of the experience that plays to the author’s frequent pangs to join the Jackass crew.
Ferriss, 35, likens the experience of reading the book to a “choose your own adventure” — which is an adventure that will certainly get your house smelling like suckling pig or a pot of perfectly brewed coffee soon. Yes, Ferriss is a would-be barista champion too.
What did you make in your kitchen this morning?
I got up for a 6:30 a.m. interview, so I just had a protein shake and some raw almonds and got to it. I’ve been gone for a few weeks, so I don’t have all too much in the fridge at the moment.
Are you going food shopping today?
Yeah, I’ll go later tonight and stock up for the week.
What will you be buying?
I’ll be buying local eggs, kale, onions and garlic, and probably a few sweet potatoes. Otherwise, I have legumes here – dried lentils for instance – and I have all the protein I need, like caribou and deer. I’m not going to be buying any animals [laughs].
Did you kill those animals youself?
I did. I harvested those myself, which never happened prior to the book. I had been an anti-hunter all my life. The deer is from South Carolina and the caribou is from Alaska. From stalking to butchering to field dressing to storing and shipping – I did everything myself, so I am particularly attached to that. I also have lamb in a floor freezer that I have now to store all this stuff.
How long have you been interested in writing a cookbook?
I was never interested in writing a cookbook. I was never interested in cooking. I had a handful of cookbooks that my mom had given to me when I graduated from college and had never used them, just like the knife block that my mom had given me with a couple of knives. The cookbooks and the knife block were furniture for my kitchen. The only time that I was ever even remotely well known for anything related to food was a few years ago when I was on YouTube cooking liquid egg whites in plastic containers in the microwave [laughs].
OK, so why the hell the cookbook then?
My readers have been asking me pretty much nonstop for a book on accelerated learning, because of my dissection of learning languages and things like tango and archery. I was missing a context, though, and wanted to tell a story – learning is really dry unless it has a story. I decided that I should take the skill that I had quit so many times and avoided for so long – cooking – and really try to tackle it and show my readers how I apply principles from the world’s fastest learners to the process of cooking. I didn’t want people to just see the highlight reel – I wanted to show them the good, the bad and the ugly – all the challenges that I had.
What’s the biggest problem with all cookbooks right now?
The general problems are that cookbooks are written to be easy for the writer to write and not easy for the reader to read. That takes a couple of common forms: it will be a repository of recipes. For the novice cook, though, there is no logical progression. So it’s a collection like: here are 12 chicken recipes, here are 12 beef recipes, here are 12 vegetarian recipes.
To the intrepid cook who is intimidated by the kitchen, there is no logical progression, and it’s often prefaced with, “Here are the seven pots and pans you need,” or “here are the three or four knives you will want to buy” and “buy the most expensive you can afford.” Before people even get started, they need to decide whether they’re willing to spend $500 on gear. For a lot of those reasons, most cookbooks fail if they are addressed to novice or beginner cooks. People have asked me what qualifies me to write a cookbook and I reply, “nothing.”
Can you give me some other “bells and whistles” of the book that you feel will set it above from the millions of books being released during the holiday season?
The first thing is that I really don’t think there has been a mainstream book that teaches accelerated learning and really teaches it all. There are books on how to remember numbers and names, but there is no book that shows people a comprehensive blueprint for accelerated learning that they can apply to everything from languages in basketball to searing a steak.
So how do you translate the concept of meta-learning to the kitchen?
When people say, “I want to learn how to cook,” they are actually usually trying to acquire four or five new habits at once: grocery shopping, prep, cooking, clean up – it’s too much, and that’s why people fail. You have to break it down. For instance, using disposable plates for the first two weeks so that you don’t have any clean up. People might call that wasteful, but I would point out that eating takeout for the rest of your life is wasteful. If I can teach you how to cook and you use paper plates for two weeks, who cares? It’s actually, from a carbon imprint standpoint, hugely a net positive once I get that habit solidified.
Explain the 80/20 rule that you write about?
It is Pareto’s Law, which states that 20% of your activities or inputs will create 80% or more of the results you want. In the kitchen, it’s choosing the tools or recipes that give you the most bang for your buck. Instead of buying the most expensive knife you can find, getting something like a Rada Cutlery knife, which looks like a cleaver and is really easy to learn knife skills with – it’s something like $9 to $12. Surgical Huck towels — which is something that Tom Colicchio uses — are these lint-free hospital towels. They work really well for 100 different things and are $1 apiece.
Let me throw out some basic questions you try to answer in the book. How do you make the perfect cup of coffee? I just interviewed James Freeman from Blue Bottle. He wrote a book on the topic. You wrote a couple pages…
I’m actually an investor in Blue Bottle now. He’s a great guy. I spent time with a guy named Stephen Morrissey, who works at Intelligentsia Coffee and is a former World Barista Champion. We did “cuppings,” which is like a wine tasting for coffee, and tried every brewing method possible. I was not looking for the best method for a full-scale restaurant operation, but instead for the best method for waking up in the morning fucking tired, not wanting a lot of hassle, and wanting to know the easiest way to get the best cup of coffee. The answer that I arrived at is that for one person, for one or two cups of coffee, the AeroPress is hands-down the easiest to clean, easiest to master tool.
What about how to receive VIP treatment at a restaurant, another section of the book?
Number one is that it has more to do with your behavior and frequency than over-tipping. You want to tip well, but tipping 30% once every few weeks is not going to make you a [VIP] at a restaurant. Tuesday to Thursday tend to be days that restaurants will experiment with their menus. Ask what the most popular dishes are, but also ask what dishes the chef is most proud of and that he/she wishes more people would order.
Sit at either the bar or at the pass when you eat. Don’t harass people, but definitely feel free to ask questions about preparation. Ultimately, if you want to become part of the family at a restaurant, go to lunch! Go to lunch on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday of a week – the density is really important. You will make a better impression. If you’re there for three days, ask on the third day if you can say thanks to the GM.
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