Makenna Held is not interested in recipes. “Most people live their lives to recipes,” they say in the first episode of La Pitchoune: Cooking in France. The show, now streaming on HBO Max, chronicles Held and their husband, who bought Julia Child’s former home in the south of France, and opened up a “recipe-free” cooking school on the property. “I always say that our cooking school isn’t really a cooking school, but it’s more of an approach on how to live. Life is just a little bit more delicious without recipes.” Held’s mission is to arm their students with the skills to trust their own sense of experimentation in the kitchen. And broadly, to rid the world of recipes. “I’m not a fan of recipes in any situation. Cooking, leadership, business, relationships,” they write on their business site. “Why? Because recipes erode sovereignty.” (Emphasis theirs, as if the statement needed to be any more striking).
Held notes that this aversion to rules is the major difference between them and Julia Child, which seems extreme — Child was famously a proponent of trying new things, learning from one’s mistakes, and having a sense of humor in the kitchen. “Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again,” she wrote in Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. But she also was extremely interested in recipes. Meticulously tested recipes were, after all, how she translated the knowledge she gleaned from culinary school to a broader audience, ensuring that any home cook could produce an omelet without ever having to fly to France, or even meet a French chef.
Child’s effort now seems almost old-fashioned. Over the past few years, the “no-recipe” recipe has flourished, assuring home cooks that there is no ghost of an exacting chef lurking behind them, forcing them to follow the rules. These instructions, and schools like Held’s, instead emphasize imprecise measurements, cooking things until they feel right, and trusting your own tastes. Which is great. But as I’ve cooked more of these not-recipes, I’ve realized they have left me feeling like I haven’t learned anything, and have started returning to more precise, researched recipes. I’ve found that it’s through recipes that I’ve become a better cook. And that rather than erode my sovereignty, they give me the power to improve my own.
I am in touch with my intuition in the kitchen, to a certain extent. Over the years, I have become comfortable throwing together a dal based on whatever spice profiles I’m craving that day, and incorporating any vegetables I have around. I know how to improvise a pretty good soup, or a pasta sauce, or a rice bowl of eggs and vegetables and other sauces.
According to some recent internet discourse, this is a matter of absolute privilege. Knowing how to cook, the argument went, meant you had the time and money and physical ability and spatial processing skills to procure ingredients and turn them into a meal. It’s a pretty weak argument: cooking is basically the first thing the human race figured out how to do. But I understand the sentiment. Knowing how to boil water is not a privilege, but also yes some people physically cannot do it, and our society has been set up so that access to the knowledge of anything more difficult is a matter of either inheritance or having a lot of time to experiment. Not everyone gets a parent who is at the stove every day, drilling techniques into your brain, and not everyone gets lazy afternoons where you try to make something, anything, with what you have around.
Recipes democratize this knowledge. When cookbook authors began writing recipes for a general audience — and not one assumed to already know the basics — it opened the doors to a world in which anyone who could buy or borrow a $20 cookbook and gather ingredients could cook a meal. And as the cookbooks published in America began to incorporate cuisines outside of the Western European tradition, that knowledge only expanded. This wasn’t about figuring out what should go together on your own, or guessing the right temperatures. It also wasn’t like — in the case of La Pitchoune — spending $8,000 (airfare not included) to go to a week-long no-recipe cooking school likely focused on one kind of cuisine. Instead, recipes are equal parts math equations and magic spells you can do in your own home. Add everything together in the right order, and you’ll get something you had no idea you could create.
Held actually is interested in recipes — they are writing a cookbook, and note that their problem is not really with recipes but how we’re all expected to teach ourselves. And of course, not all recipes are created equal. Many are poorly written and confusing, and aren’t tested the way, say, Child tested her recipes. Everyone’s had the experience of following a recipe to a T only to wonder what went wrong. However, this is usually the fault of the author and editor not knowing what makes a good recipe, or having insufficient money and resources to test them thoroughly. It’s not the fault of the concept of instructions themselves.
I have loved the moments when I’ve learned some new detail or technique from being in the kitchen with a pro. But the most transcendent cooking moments in my life have come from recipes. My now-intuitive understanding of many South Asian flavors came a bit from my family, but also by cooking through Classic Indian Cooking and eventually becoming so familiar with certain recipes that I knew where I could improvise. And for flavors to which I have no familial connection, recipes have allowed me to broaden my knowledge, and create things I love with no intuition at all.
Recently I made the Kung Pao shrimp in The Wok. I felt amazed that I could take this dish I’ve been ordering my whole life and make the best version I’ve ever tasted in my own apartment. Cooking through My Cocina, My Shanghai, and Cook Korean! has given me an understanding of how these cuisines are built, as well as the ability to successfully execute wonton soup without wondering if I’m doing it right. Is following exact instructions eroding my sovereignty? Maybe. I don’t care. What I care about is the resulting bowl of soup that I made on my own.
As Marian Bull notes, the best recipes meld instruction with intuition, showing you exactly what to do while opening a window through which you might see how you could change things in the future, adapt them more to your tastes, and experiment. I fantasize about the day I cook like that with every cuisine, knowing which spices and techniques match which parts of the world. But I also love the everyday magic of pulling a recipe off the shelf and creating something good, alone, knowing nothing except that I am no better at this than anyone else.