Cooking up better learning with Jacques Pépin

Recently I dropped into an online discussion of Ten Steps to Complex Learning, about which I wrote a series of posts some years ago. Among the four components of its learning blueprint were:

  • Procedural information, which helps when you’re dealing with skills that you use pretty much the same way each time. You can think of these as the routine parts of larger tasks, like knowing how to navigate Excel and create formulas, as opposed to figuring out what you need to solve.
  • Supportive information that helps when you’re working on skills you apply differently to different problems. This includes things like mental models and cognitive strategies for whatever domain you’re working in.

In a learn-and-perform context, you can make use of procedural information while carrying out some task. Think of how-to demonstrations, cognitive feedback, and even job aids. The supportive information that van Merriënboer and Kirschner talk about, though, isn’t something you can rely on in mid-task; you work with it beforehand, or afterward. And you build it up in part through the practical application–you can’t practice theory.

Speaking of practice, as someone who likes to cook but is by no means a chef, I rely on recipes. And I often rely on what I’ve learned through  cookbooks and videos by Jacques Pépin. Renowned as a master chef but even more as a master teacher, Pépin combines “learning how to cook this dish” with a broader “learning how to cook.”

Here’s a video essay in which he talks about the paradox of recipes:

The recipe is a teaching tool, a guide, a point of departure. You have to follow it exactly the first time you make the dish. But as you make it again and again, you will change it, you will massage it to fit in your own taste, your own sense of esthetic.

I’ve had dinner many times at the home of friends who cook from one of my cookbooks, and I’ve often been amazed at how far away the dish has moved from the original recipe. But it is not necessarily a negative experience; in fact, it is sometimes better than the original, and I end up getting credit and thanks for a dish that had nothing to do with me anymore.

Learning how and when to massage the recipe is part of that bridge from the specific task to the larger construct of principles and relationships in cooking.

Even in his earliest cooking shows, Pépin would underscore that while he was a professional chef – and therefore his skills had been honed by years of practice – his viewers could follow a recipe and begin applying the specific steps to achieve a result.

Along the way, he’d point out variations and considerations. Those can come awfully quickly, but he’s not trying to get you to memorize them; they’re more like highlights you could turn to, or glimpses at the culinary cognitive map in his head.

See what you think. The video essay earlier was about the concept behind a certain dish. Here’s the recipe for braised pears in caramel sauce and (at the 11:00 mark in the embedded video) his own demonstration.

If my hunch is right, a couple of people reading this post will be buying pears next weekend.