Order From Chaos


Order From Chaos

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While I’m working during the day or cooking, I have NPR on.

I don’t really actively listen to it, but I imagine that having it as background noise will make some of it slowly seep into my brain.

Occasionally though, there will be a Fresh Air interview or something that completely draws me in and I’ll start paying more attention to it.

That happened a few days ago with an interview from Stephen Sondheim.  I’m not really a huge musical fan, but he did say something that really resonated with me.

“Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order to chaos.”

Of course, I immediately applied this to cooking and realized that being a really great cook is simply being able to apply order to the chaos of the kitchen!

How hard could that be?!

The Chaos of Infinity

Let’s geek out for a second.

Try to visualize all the foods that are in your local grocery store.  Say maybe there is 500 different foods and products.

Now imagine all of the possible combinations on those foods including each food paired off with one other food, but also each food paired off with a variable number of other foods eventually leading to all 500 foods combined.

Now imagine that each food is in itself variable because you can change the amount of each food in the combination.

Now imagine that for each single combination you can apply different cooking techniques to it and get different results.

You can also add the combinations in various orders for a completely different set of results.

You can also vary the time that you apply each technique for an even further set of results.

It’s this last line about time that actually makes this whole set of possibilities actually endless – infinite.  All of the previous examples actually have a specific number of combinations and although it’s very very big, it’s not technically infinite.

But when you introduce time, it becomes infinite.  Why?  Well, while there is an actual set number of foods in the world and amounts of those foods and techniques, there is an infinite amount of time.  So you could bake a cake for 40 minutes, 40 days, 40 years, or 40 million years.

So what we have on our hands here is a set of variables that lead to literally an infinite amount of combinations.

Now that you are trying to envision infinity in your mind, here’s a question:

Out of all of these infinite combinations, what percentage of combinations are actually something you would want to eat?

Any calculus student will tell you that the technical answer is that as the total approaches infinity, the percentage of edible combinations approaches zero.

But to make it easier, we’ll just say that it’s very very very tiny.

When you start with chaos and infinity, it’s almost unbelievable that humans figured out how to cook anything worth eating.

Introducing Order

One thing humans are really exceptional at is ordering things.  Using just a few rules we have been able to quickly narrow down the chaos of food combinations to something at least somewhat manageable.

Just for starters:

– Anything that’s cooked for more than a few years probably won’t be good.  That might seem like a long time frame but there are plenty of cured items that aren’t ready to eat for years.

– Anything with more than 50 ingredients probably won’t be good.  There might be a few exceptions, but at some point adding stuff just doesn’t get you anywhere.

– There are set amounts that we should try to use when combining to standardize combinations (cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, etc.)

To be honest, even with some basic rules, it’s amazing to me that we ever find a combination that actually tastes good.

How Can This Help You?

Sometimes I think it helps to look at a problem like cooking with a very broad outlook like this.  It phrases the problem very simply:

Cooking well is just knowing how to apply order to the chaos.

Once you can do that, you can be a good cook.

Tips to Gain Some Order

Some people are messy by nature (I would raise my hand here), but the kitchen really isn’t the place for it.  The kitchen is the place for exacting order.  Here’s a few things I try to do to keep order in my kitchen and make my job of conquering chaos a bit easier.

Mise en Place – In French this means “Putting in place” and is super important if you every intend to beat chaos down.  Have all your individual ingredients washed, prepped, and measured before you even begin to start to combine them.  You’ll know that you have everything you need and in the right amounts.

This is more important in some recipes. But have no doubt, if you start varying amounts or ingredients wildly then you will have officially entered into the world of CHAOS where the chances of you making a good dish are basically zero.

Use the Right Tools – I don’t just mean the actual cooking tools, but also the measurement tools.  Make sure you have a good set of thermometers (for meats, frying, etc).  Make sure that you have a good way to time recipes.

Check out my SHOP for some good tools that I use every week.

Practice Practice – I think cooking is one of those art forms that you get better at simply by doing it every day.  Sure… you can read about it or watch other people do it, but if you’re not in the kitchen playing around you aren’t going to improve.

Can You Beat Chaos?

Leave a comment and share a tip or two about how you dominate the beast of chaos!

Photo by Sap Beast.

10 Responses to “Order From Chaos” Leave a comment

  1. I’m so geeked out right now…

    I think another tip is kind of like including all of your tips into one… have an organized kitchen! I get so frustrated when I can’t find tools in someone else’s kitchen or when things are out of place in my kitchen and I have to check four different drawers for a tool that I need. When everything is clean and in its proper place cooking is so much more fun!

    1. I actually need to do a thorough kitchen organizing… good tip Jessica.

      Last night I embarrassingly discovered I have three containers of the exact same paprika in my spice drawer….

  2. I have 3 teenagers and we’re in the middle of basketball and swim seasons. There’s no taming that chaos beast right now!!

    My geeky comment is that I often wonder who in the world was the first to think that a certain food (plant, animal) might be good to eat or the first to cook something a certain way,

    Can you imagine when someone first decided to eat oysters. “Hey Frank, let’s smash this shell and pick the slimy stuff out and eat it.” Or “Let’s hack up this cow and burn the flesh over an open fire.” Pretty sure that alcohol could have been involved.

  3. I myself am a mathematician, and – not to knock your musings upon the nature of infinity – it is actually not completely unfeasible to analyze this problem probabilistically.

    Let’s say we construct some random vector X the coordinates of which hold the food components (of which there is, naturally, a finite number), cooking techniques and so on. Now I completely agree that is not terribly nice to work with, but nonetheless possible.

    Now as for time: while it is certainly infinite, I would consider the problem not well posed if we let time approach infinity, because, let’s face it, what’s the longest you’ve ever cooked something? So I think we’ll agree that time t is bounded, that is there exists such an N that for any food the cooking time t is between 0 and N:

    0 < t infinity it wouldn’t be, but that’s another question).

    Anyways, love your blog, been reading for years, first time comment though. Keep up the good work!

  4. Being an older cook I have had many opportunities to muse on why humans (myself in particular) need to learn on their (my) own instead of learning from wise ones who came before us. I relish food prep, cleaning up as I go, and organizing tools and ingredients, research and menu planning now. As Lao Tsu wrote, “the easy way seems hard”. Thanks for the reminder what we do in the kitchen is a reflection of the essence of our human abilitity for coping and ordering chaos.

  5. This is a bit of a tangent (get it?) but for me, another important aspect of bringing order to cooking is groupings of flavors and seasonings. I think most good cooks have their own mental network or phylogeny of flavors. For example, tomatos play well with basil. To that you can add some garlic, or some balsamic, or oregano (or all 3) and you are playing around in the Italian”branch of the tomato-related flavors. But tomato also work with cilantro and jalapeno and lime, and that moves you over in the Mexican branch. I realized I became able to cook “on the fly” once I had clusters of flavors in my mind.

  6. “Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.” ~ Henry Miller

    To misquote Sir Galahad from Monty Python’s “Grail” – “Oh, let me have just a little bit of chaos?”

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