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Cooking – the engineering way

In recent years, I have become somewhat competent at cooking. I never paid much attention to my culinary capabilities in the past, but a change in my life circumstances made me try my hand at cooking. And it has turned out quite well. I receive lots of compliments about my cooking. So what’s my secret? Simple. Treat cooking as an engineering problem. Apply simple engineering principles and you can become a pretty good cook. Here are some pointers:

1. Follow a Process: As in any engineering project, process is key to cooking. Don’t try to wing it. USE A RECIPE. I will either use one of my favorite cookbooks, or even better, I will look for a recipe on Google. When you are choosing among recipes, pay close attention to customer feedback – I won’t use a recipe that hasn’t been favorably reviewed by real people. And I read the comments people post to find innovative tweaks or variations of the recipe. Over time, you can build up your repertoire of tried and true recipes. And as you become a real pro, you can even improvise. But stick to the knitting at the start.

2. Source Quality Ingredients: As is true of any enterprise, you need to pay close attention to the supply chain in cooking! Don’t skimp in quality of inputs. I know that Whole Foods costs an arm and a leg, but if I’m going to make a special meat or fish dish, I will buy my meat from Whole Foods or a similar store. And will try to use the meat as soon as I have bought it. The same goes for spices. Grind them fresh for that added flavor. Remember – garbage in, garbage out. To make a good dish, you must have good ingredients.

3. Reenginer the Process: You can make your cooking a lot more efficient by reengineering the process of cooking. For instance, if you are cooking a meal with three or four dishes, look for standardization and modularity opportunities. Choose dishes that share some common ingredients, particularly veggies, onions and other things that you need to chop. Then, to save time in the preparation, prepare these ingredients for all your dishes at one time. Also, to “crash” the total process time, figure out the long-lead time preparation steps and sequence your cooking to start on those steps first. For instance, iif one of your dishes needs to simmer for 30 minutes, get that dish started first, and leverage the “dead time” to work on other dishes or to clean up. When I make a full meal, I think through the GANTT chart for my meal and plan the critical path to minimiz total processing time. The result – you can put a 4-course meal on the table in less than an hour, even though the total preparation time for all dishes may be 2 to 3 hours!

4. Simplify the Process: Look for creative substitutions that can lessen the labor and the preparation time. For instance, pre-prepared spice mixes work reasonably well as a subtitute for putting together all the individual spices. Boiled chick peas can substitute for boiling chick peas yourself. Chopped veggies for stir fry are more expensive than chopping them yourself, but they save time, give you the appropriate variety and quantity, and prevent wastage. Microwave your potatoes before you cook them. Remember to thaw your meat or fish ahead of time, so that you don’t have to spend time thawing when you need the meat. Find recipes that use less ingredients. And so on. If you can get 90% of the quality with 50% less time, go for it.

5. Remember “Attractive Quality”: The Kano model for quality talks about the importance of “attractive quality” – these are features that “surprise and delight” customers. Applying this to cooking, you should pay close attention to small “extras” in your recipes that can create surprise and delight. It might be a litte garnish of roasted nuts or a sprinke of fresh cilantro on top of your rice. It can be a special presentation touch. It can be an extra ingredient like saffron or an herb that people don’t expect. Little extras go a long way.

6. Escape the commodity trap: When you put effort into cooking, why produce “commodity” food? You might as well create “value-added” differentiated food! So I always try to do something different, something new, something unexpected, something gourmet. While you have to stop short of making over-complicated dishes (something I fall prey to at times!), you can often be creative and different with little extra effort. Of course, you do need an appreciative audience.

So, these are some tips and tricks for becoming a good cook, using your engineering and project management skills. Cooking isn’t rocket science. Its an engineering problem!

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