Review: The 4-Hour Chef by Timothy Ferris

Review: The 4-Hour Chef by Timothy Ferris

Timothy Ferriss is an extremely successful writer and blogger who’s made his name with books such as The 4-Hour BodyThe 4-Hour Workweek  (note to self: get this book!) and now The 4-Hour Chef. He’s got hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter – he’s a phenomenon.

The first thing I thought when I picked up Tim’s book was that it would take me considerably more than four hours to read the 670 pages (and he says he had to jettison more than 250 pages), but maybe I’m being old-fashioned and literal (after a brief glance, I’m not actually sure what the 4-hour title tag relates to but it’s obviously working for the man, so if it ain’t broke…)

I apologise for the long review (it’s a 4-hour read!) but it’s a difficult book to get to grips with. From the outset, it’s obvious this is not a conventional cookery tome – it’s not a recipe book, it’s more like a training programme. It’s about changing and improving yourself – and not just in the sphere of cooking. Tim seems to be saying ‘If you set your mind to it, you can be who you want to be… as long as it’s a cross between Jason Bourne and Delia Smith’ (I got that from the cover, sort of). And you know what, there’s probably a lot of people who’d be very happy with that transformation.

The book starts with a key chapter – Meta-Learning. “Before you learn to cook, you must learn to learn”. Whoa, suddenly it’s like I’m back in the 1980s hearing the wise words of Mr Miyagi (Checkout The Karate Kid, if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Tim reckons it’s possible to become world class at almost anything in six months or less (hold on, where did the 4-hour element go?). There are tales of amazing feats: from the man who learned Icelandic in seven days to a guy who could deadlift 766lb, all interspersed with stories from Tim’s life when he used the training methods he’s about to share. Tim also does what all self-help books do: pepper the text with quotes from great luminaries as Martin Luther King, Bruce Lee, Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca and, er, US TV chef Bobby Flay.

There are a lot of theories around claiming we could be more efficient. The Pareto Principle – or 80/20 rule. I paraphrase: it takes 20 per cent of the effort to get 80 per cent of the results (say, 20 per cent of customers generate 80 per cent of sales). Tim takes it further, a lot further.

He explains it best when he says that the full OED lists more than 171,000 words in the English language. Yet 100 – a tiny fraction of the total – of the most used words make up 50 per cent of all written material. And the moral of the story? Choose what you learn wisely. (By the way, to speed things up he uses a lot of acronyms.) He shows there are two stages to this process. DSSS (Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing, Stakes) closely followed by CFE (Compression, Frequency and Encoding). These are the seven tools Tim says you need to master anything.
So far, so confusing. It’s not that I think this is an incorrect way to approach the world, it just seems that Tim complicates matters with examples from swimming to tango to dieting. Anyway, maybe I’ll return to this section later.

Next, we’re into the cooking section (at last!). The culinary world, according to Mr Ferris runs – 1. Domestic.
2. Wild. 3. Scientist. 4. Professional. These are coloured differently, like Judo belts – the highest being black

It’s all in the book including the kitchen sink

DOM, the domestic section has lots of good stuff such as osso “buko” (sic) and crab cakes. But among the recipes sits a table of around the world in 44 flavour combinations (over simplified), an über-geeky guide to the perfect cup of coffee, catering for a 4-person dinner party including a link to his suggested playlist (and advice on which wireless sound system to use), sous-vide cooking and how to do it using your bathroom sink. All interesting, but eclectic, or as some might say, a bit random.

Before I know it, I’m into the WILD chapter and looking at survivalist kit – knives, guns, traps, snares, how to dismember a deer (with bloody pics), venison burgers with bagna cauda, foraging, protein bars made of insects, street quail (urban pigeons) and how to catch them with your hands, as well as how to joint a chicken and kill a lobster. Some of these are useful, others less so.

Next comes SCI, the science. And Tim goes for molecular gastronomy. Tables of natural chemicals, a slightly dubious guide to bingeing without weight gain, then it’s gels, emulsions, foams and what-not, including aerating wine using a stick blender and, of course, liquid nitrogen for making cinnamon liqueur ice cream in 30 seconds. By now my brain is ready to explode. As you’ll guess from my Karate Kid reference, I’m not a young man any more. Over the years my head has been filled up with information – new information in means old information out. In the past three hours. I’ve probably lost half my childhood. I may not recognize my parents.

I take a coffee break and read on. PRO introduces us to Tim’s friend super-chef Grant Achatz, the man behind Alinea in Chicago, one of the top restaurants in the US. He talks about how to build flavour, make pea soup, roast chicken, fried plantain. Again, some of this is good stuff. Good recipes and techniques. There’s Peking duck, Kokkari prawns, oysters and kiwi. These look to be the real deal. Er, and there’s making a bowl out of paraffin wax, making bacon ‘roses’ and an Escoffier dish with 5 pages of ingredients and nearly 90 steps.

At the end there’s an Appendix with a mass of extra stuff – tables and tips ­– tucked in, as though in a hurry, all about applying your meta learning (remember that’s what we started with) to other things: tying knots, all about guns, making fire with a bow, shooting a 3-pointer at basketball, and for some reason I can’t fathom, how to (pretend to be) be a VIP.

Tim takes a pragmatic and geeky (dare I say it, quite male) approach to life, breaking each situation down into constituent parts and analyzing them. For example (and I paraphrase), the trouble with cooking is that recipes are too complicated, intimidating, use too much equipment, need too much effort. He’s tried to address all these issues and applied a margin of safety. And it makes sense, sort of.

Can we cook it? Yes we can

However, some recipes are a little strange. Jude’s Chuck Roast is: cans of beef broth, French onion soup and beef consommé poured over a 1 kg boneless chuck or rump roast and cooked in a crock pot or Dutch oven at 180°C for 2.5-3 hours. Some look to be the real deal – how to cook steak, an array of sauces, food writer Mark Bittman’s Chinese chicken and much more.

But for me it doesn’t work as a cookery book. It’s an interesting read mostly and everyone will be able to take something from it – provided they can keep going through the name dropping, the personal vignettes, the higgledy-piggeldy structure, the occasionally bizarre topics and self-promotion (all the food is compliant to his Slow Carb Diet – see the 4-Hour Body…).

To my mind, there’s just way too much material here. The chapters feel disjointed and jump around like the writer’s had quite a few too many espresso coffees… but I want to like it. I admire a scientific approach, I’m partial to a touch of geekery, I’m a believer in being autodidactic, I love self-improvement. And I really want to be like Jason Bourne. But I’m struggling in the chaos here.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, there is a 4-hour element. It just requires a great leap of faith and a bit of maths. Tim says, when it comes to learning language vocabulary (using specialized memory techniques), 0.000058 per cent of the work can give you 50 per cent of the facility. At that efficiency, your 4 hours of effort becomes nearly 7,000. Given that there’s a theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert (at piano, drawing, taekwondo…), this book can set you well on the way.

But I don’t think you can tabulate cooking skills in the same way as learning vocab. Although Tim has chatted to world-class athletes, sportsmen, musicians, entrepreneurs and mined them for information, then distilled the years of their effort down to a tiny element, which he kindly shares with us, there’s no instant memory tricks to actually perfecting such complicated physical routines.

In summary, The 4-Hour Chef is an interesting read, something interesting to dip into, but there’s just too much in it that’s off subject and it could have done with a great deal of rigorous editing – much more than the 4 hours’ worth it probably got…

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