Food and Learning Strategies: ‘The 4-Hour Chef’

Timothy Ferriss is a force to be reckoned with. A Silicon Valley lifestyle and self-improvement guru who has made a name for himself as a prophet of ultra-efficiency in all aspects of life, he’s a non-stop self-promoting idea machine with more than 300,000 Twitter followers, most of whom probably found him through his first book, the optimistically named 4-Hour Workweek.

4-hour chef book coverTo follow up on that tome and its fitness-related sequel — The 4-Hour Body — Ferriss has come up with The 4-Hour Chef, a 3.8-pound, 672-page cookbook that’s best described as obsessive-compulsive to the max. (He has stated in interviews that this is the last of the “4-hour” series.)

Despite the inclusion of hundreds of recipes, The 4-Hour Chef isn’t like any cookbook you’ve ever seen. It’s actually more of a proof of concept of Ferriss’s maniacal deep-learning process, an example of what you can achieve when you dig deep, hard and fast into any subject at all, do some digestion and then spit it all back out. The trick is to harness the Pareto Principle, aka the “80-20 rule”: determine which 20 percent of a task will give you 80 percent of the desired results.

In fact, it’s the first 100 pages of the book, the part that doesn’t deal with cooking, that will be of most use to anyone who wants to learn anything, from a new programming language to a better swimming stroke. The key to Ferriss’s quick-learning process is what he calls DiSSS: Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing, and Stakes. “What are the minimal learnable units I should be starting with? Which 20 percent should I focus on for 80 percent or more of the outcome I want? In what order should I learn? How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?”

In his own life, Ferriss has applied this technique to learning to speak Japanese and dance the tango, among many other endeavors. For cooking, it’s the same. He starts with the basics and expands outward, presenting harder concepts and more difficult techniques as the book progresses. Why he takes detours into survival skills and descriptions and illustrations of guns is a bit of a mystery, although he does offer the unique suggestion that if you buy a gun, pack it in your checked bag and declare it to the ticket agent, the airline will never lose your luggage. Remember, this is a cookbook.

Truth be told, there are some great recipes in the book — such as the roast chicken on page 488 — as long as you can find them. Ferriss claims that most cookbooks aren’t arranged logically, but is it really logical to follow the chicken recipe with 10 pages about a night at Grant Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago and a lesson on making bowls out of wax?

Better to focus on Ferriss’s self-improvement advice in the front of the book and see how you might apply it to a new skill you need in your career or life. He even includes Web links to 24 skills you can acquire in 48 hours, everything from how to peel a banana like a monkey to how to design a million-dollar business in a weekend. One suspects that cooking dinner with Ferriss would be a lot of fun … and completely exhausting.

The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, by Timothy Ferriss. Hardcover, 672 pages; also Kindle edition. Published by New Harvest, an imprint of Amazon Publishing (Amazon.com).

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