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For Serena Poon, a celebrity chef and nutritionist in Hollywood, food has always been at the heart of many wonderful memories. When she thinks back to her childhood, she sees her family huddled around the stove, creating concoctions from a variety of ingredients. She always knew she loved food, but it wasn’t until her 40s, when both her parents were diagnosed with cancer, that she got inspired to learn how to use food as medicine, and today, she’s also the founder of Just Add Water, Inc, a superfood snack company. Through her uber-popular Instagram account, she shares her recipes, adventures and perspective, offering her fanbase an inside look into the life of a chef. If, like Poon, you’ve always been fascinated by food, follow her tips to jumpstart your cooking career — along with some great recipes to try out.
Start with your intuition
When people ask Poon how she built her empire, they always assume she was a naturally gifted cook, since she was lucky to study at one of the most prestigious culinary programs in the world at Le Cordon Bleu. But she had to work to develop her skills like anyone else, but what set her apart was her fearless confidence in following her gut. And that’s the first piece of advice she shares: Intuition can’t be discounted. “If you love food, if you love creating, if you love to show your love through food — you will be a great cook,” she shares.
If you think certain ingredients go together, run with it, since many masterpieces are created via trial and error. “It may surprise some people, but I often cook an entire meal or event without tasting some of the dishes because I know how the flavors will come together,” she continues. “Some of it has to do with practice, but much of it has to do with the ability to pair the flavors in my mind. And if it doesn’t work out, it becomes a fun experiment to test out new flavors.”
Learn the basics — and then become an expert at them
What’s intimidating for most novices is merely looking around a kitchen. A handful of pots and pans of various sizes, knives of different lengths and shapes and the list goes on. Like with anything that is scary, gaining information can calm your nerves. As Poon puts it, cooking is not as complicated as it may seem once you have your foundation built. “Every recipe and every menu is built upon layers of the most fundamental skills in the kitchen,” she continues. “Know how to create your base sauces, basic doughs, understand cooking temperatures and learn how to prep ingredients.” A strategic way to dip your big spoon in is via a cooking program at a nearby culinary school since many offer recreational series that instruct everything from knife skills to common recipes.
Don’t be afraid to get hands on
And Poon means this literally. Though there are plenty of videos and instructional articles on how to cook, Poon says nothing can replace using all of your senses to understand the layers of cooking. “Really touch, smell, taste every single ingredient that you work with. This will become your internal library and encyclopedia,” she continues. “Having sensory acuity about your ingredients will make you a master in your kitchen because you will be able to create recipes in your mind, even before you put that apron on and fire up the stove.” Plus, for most chefs, it’s not only about the end product that’s plated and served, but the whole experience leading up to it.
Books to Get You Started
Another way to find inspiration to nurture your passion for cooking is via the words of others. That’s why Poon says these have to be part of every aspiring chef’s bookshelf.