There are a lot of different ways to cook, just like there are lots of different ways to write, paint or sing. That each of these disciplines also requires a high degree of technical proficiency doesn't mean that individual expression isn't important.
Ask an impressionist to paint realism and you might not think they're any good. You might think the same if you ask an opera singer to rap, or a journalist to write a poem.
There's a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein that reads, "if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it's stupid". It's a myth – Einstein almost certainly never said it – but the sentiment has merit.
Like any creative pursuit, a big part of improving your cooking is finding your style.
My grandmother was the best cook I know. She turned out course after course of incredible food, night after night and decade after decade. Her knowledge of ingredients was encyclopaedic, a lifetime of cooking saw her weave culture, health and practicality together at every meal as second nature, and she could tell the age of a chicken in a butcher shop just with a press of one finger.
She would never have won a Michelin star, or executed a flawless Heston Blumenthal dessert on MasterChef. To her, those things were as unrelated to her concept of cooking as a tree-climbing fish.
Similarly, I doubt any of the feted chefs strutting on stage to triumphant applause at awards ceremonies could have done what she did, though her only accolade was seeing her children and grandchildren happy and well-fed.
Family comfort food: Adam Liaw's steamed chicken with shiitake mushrooms and Chinese sausage (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
What if getting "better" at cooking was less about trying to make things more difficult and complicated, and more about gaining a better understanding how you relate to a craft?
Finding your cooking style can be a lifelong journey. It can change over time, and really it should.
I cook very differently today to how I did 10 or 20 years ago. I think I cook a lot better now than I did then.
That change, however, hasn't been led by a dramatic improvement in knife skills or a buying a fancy new frying pan. I put it down to gaining a better understanding of what my own cooking style is – a focus on simplicity and practicality, and finding creativity in that rather than in high-concepts or trickery. My cooking is also better today than it was in decades past because it's more honest.
It's a style of cooking that works with my lifestyle – the way I shop, the hours I work and the number of hungry mouths to feed at the family dinner table.
Finding your style doesn't just make your cooking better. It also makes it easier. If the food you cook requires daily visits to specialty grocers out of your local area, or if it takes longer to prepare a meal than you have time for, then trying to fit that square peg into a round hole is going to be a constant source of frustration.
If you want help finding your own cooking style, here are a few tips that might help.
Find a food writer whose recipes click for you
That's because food writers will have their own style, and if somebody's style is one that gels for you then that is a great thing to know.
Try recipes from the writers you trust even if they might not immediately jump out at you
Often the style will still fit, and that will help you to find new avenues in your cooking rather than just staying in the same areas.
Think about why you like things, not just what you like
The things that excite us in food aren't just ingredients and processes. Finding out what makes you tick isn't as important as working out why it makes you tick.
If you love vibrant Italian trattorias that doesn't necessarily mean it's because you love pasta. It might be the energy, in which case you might be similarly drawn to Sichuan "fly" restaurants, Taiwanese night markets or casual Vietnamese places.
If you love the simplicity and light elegance of omakase sushi, that might lead you to French bistro food. But if it's the quality of sushi's well-sourced ingredients that you like, then you can find the same dedication to quality at a farmers' market.
If there's something you don't like in cooking, you have the power to fix it. That might sound trite, but it does take a certain amount of confidence to go your own way in the kitchen.
I get a lot of questions on my recipes asking "can I substitute X for Y?". Of course you can! You're the boss here. I can't promise you it will taste the same, but perhaps it will be more to your liking.
Your cooking style is something very personal, and it's something you have to discover for yourself. It will change as your lifestyle changes and as you understand more about how cooking fits into your life.
It's worth doing. The more you understand your style the easier cooking will become, and the better you will eat every day.
- Adam Liaw's recipes for Good Food (including lamb chops and cauliflower with garlic yoghurt, pictured)
- More Quarantine Cooking columns from Adam Liaw