Does anyone cook from memory anymore? Alex Guarnaschelli, executive chef at Midtown’s acclaimed American restaurant Butter, hopes that more of us will start to soon.
The Food Network star’s new book, “The Home Cook: Recipes To Know by Heart” (Clarkson Potter, out now) calls for the comeback of grandmotherly kitchen wisdom. “When something excites the appetite to [a certain] level,” she writes, “it has to be part of a collection of recipes to know by heart.”
Nana may never have never uttered the word “quinoa” or flipped paleo pancakes, but damn, could she roast a chicken — and she didn’t need a peppy YouTube tutorial to walk her through it.
Guarnaschelli’s memorized dishes include elaborate offerings such as Pavlova, a delicate baked-meringue dessert. “When I make it, I really feel a sense of accomplishment,” she tells The Post. No wonder: It contains no fewer than 13 ingredients.
Other off-the-top-of-her-head favorites include a three-hour brisket soup with “quickie” Parmigiano-Reggiano dumplings, as well as “a layer cake for your best friend’s birthday” that involves making a stove-top water bath for the frosting.
‘I believe we’d be much more likely to bypass the book and try to cook from memory if we didn’t have the Internet available to us all the time.’
Perhaps Guarnaschelli has an unusually good memory — or unusually good friends for whom she cooks. For me, a 26-year-old food writer whose iPhone serves as her culinary cerebral cortex, the idea of memorizing a recipe for anything more complex than an omelet is downright daunting.
I’m hardly exaggerating — and hardly alone. Google research from 2015 found that 59 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds cook with their smartphones or tablets on hand — and that was two years ago.
Apparently, millennial mise-en-place isn’t about ingredient prep, but about finding a no-splatter spot for mobile devices. From its countertop perch, a phone glows with reassuring information: the optimal onion-dicing technique, the definition of chiffonade, the precise boil time for al dente pappardelle. (“Siri, set timer for seven minutes.”) Even the most remedial dishes undergo digital background checks: “How to make the best baked potatoes” was one of 2015’s top recipe searches, Google’s analysis revealed.
Such tech-reliant meal-prep tendencies might actually be rewiring millennials’ brains, it turns out.
“[Cooking by heart] is definitely a dying art,” says Benjamin Storm, Ph.D., an associate psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Last year, the memory expert wrote a paper on a phenomenon called “cognitive offloading”: the tendency to rely on outside sources, such as Web-enabled smartphones, as memory aides. The more we lean on these handy helpers, his research suggests, the more dependent on them we become.
Memory isn’t the only quality that suffers, Storm says. Skills themselves stagnate, too. “Offloading robs you of the opportunity to develop the long-term knowledge structures that help you make creative connections, have novel insights and deepen your knowledge,” he says. The unappetizing result: rote, uninspired dishes that would make your granny scoff.
Not every culinary expert agrees that smartphones are corrupting our cooking cognition. Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, an organization devoted to the advancement of chefs and food culture, says recipe reliance isn’t a new trend.
“Americans have been strict recipe followers since the days of Fannie Farmer,” he tells The Post, referring to the late 1800s culinary pioneer.
Nevertheless, Storm says there’s a big difference between digital and book-bound recipes: convenience. Whereas a cookbook functions more like a set of training wheels, the Internet is like a souped-up motorcycle, fast and hard to resist.
“I believe we’d be much more likely to bypass the book and try to cook from memory if we didn’t have the Internet available to us all the time,” he says.
Genevieve Meli, a 30-year-old pastry chef who teaches “the younger generation of millennials” at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, tries to impart that lesson in her classes.
“I say to my students, ‘Technology breaks; your brain won’t. So you need to know how to do things without technology,’” she tells The Post.
In many NYC restaurant kitchens, you couldn’t Google how to render duck fat even if you wanted to, she adds.
“The kitchens are in basements here,” she says. “There’s no way you get service. So if you’re going to rely on your phone, that’s very silly.”
Having a cellular signal is no excuse for amateurs, either, I suppose. Time to start studying up on Guarnaschelli’s Pavlova.