The culinary arts — compressed
Tim Ferriss speaks on his new book, which brings accelerated learning to the kitchen
Many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs speak fluent Tim Ferriss. They'll swiftly tell you the difference between being "busy" and "productive"; cite precedent for Parkinson's Law; and apply the 80/20 Principle to any topic you throw at them.
Ferriss is known as a business innovator and lifestyle designer. That Aeron office chair may be comfy, but the old business model of sitting in it eight hours a day is sagging, he argues. He's all about experimenting to increase productivity in less time, whether that means outsourcing tasks, cutting off the least-profitable customers, or crafting new work schedules and locations. Laptops, after all, do work away from desks.
The goal is not productivity for income's sake, but for the sake of a fulfilling life. If you can do your 9-to-5 job by 3, why would you sit around shuffling papers for two hours every afternoon? (Parkinson's Law: "A task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.")
Lots of folks in the valley have used Ferriss' book "The 4-Hour Workweek" as business inspiration. People who have praised it in print include local venture capitalist Tim Draper, who wrote, "With this kind of time management and focus on the important things in life, people should be able to get 15 times as much done in a normal workweek."
Now it will be interesting to see if that experimental spirit extends to cooking sea bass in hotel sinks and making tequila-infused hot chocolate.
Ferriss, a 35-year-old Princeton graduate, lecturer and angel investor in Facebook and Twitter, among others, published "The 4-Hour Workweek" in 2007. Follow-up "The 4-Hour Body" was also a New York Times best-seller.
With the second book, Ferriss explored ways that people can transform their bodies. After years of experimentation, Ferriss — often described as a human guinea pig — wrote about how "to hack the human body" in such ways as sleeping less and still being productive, tripling testosterone, and losing weight on the "Slow-Carb Diet."
Now he's focusing even more keenly on the kitchen. Ferriss' new book is "The 4-Hour Chef," which he'll speak about in Palo Alto on Nov. 29. He describes it as partly a cookbook for people who hate cookbooks, partly a collection of recipes, and partly a handbook on quickly mastering new skills including steak-searing and language-learning.
As is his wont, the author traveled widely for his research, meeting and observing chefs and other foodies all over the world. (It helps that he speaks five languages.)
"My readers have been asking me for a book on accelerated learning for four or five years now," Ferriss said last weekend in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "I thought of possible titles: 'The 4-Hour Mind, The 4-Hour Expert." Those might be accurate for this obsessive learner, but they weren't very snappy. "Learning really only comes to life when you have exciting or unusual examples," he said.
Then, about two years ago, Ferriss found himself weighed down with a "digital malaise" of always working in his head and on his computer. It bothered him that he didn't create actual things with his hands. He thought about learning to weld, or woodwork, but what really struck him was watching his girlfriend create beautiful meals in the kitchen. Beautiful — and daunting. Ferriss had always loathed cooking.
"It just hit me that I could use food as my sort of sculpture," he said. In addition, "I realized that perhaps the most interesting way to present all these learning techniques was to take something that had intimidated me my whole life, cooking, and to show my readers the process from start to finish. ... What were the steps? How did I course-correct?"
In "The 4-Hour Chef," Ferriss took what he had absorbed over the years about what he calls "meta-learning" and applied it to cooking. This type of accelerated learning, he says, is a blueprint that can work for a multitude of skills. To start, simplify, with the help of Ferriss' beloved 80/20 Principle, which was devised by the economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923).
"The 80/20 Principle, the idea that 20 percent of your activities or choices will produce 80 percent of your result, applies everywhere," Ferriss said. "If you want to compress culinary school, you have to choose the most powerful and versatile techniques to focus on, which we did."
New cooks should also use 80/20 when shopping and choosing ingredients, Ferriss added: Pick the fewest ingredients that are the most versatile and can be used in the most types of dishes and cuisines. Choose a few versatile tools, such as quality kitchen knives, as well.
"As it applies to cooking, so it applies to learning," Ferriss added. "If you want to speak Spanish in eight to 12 weeks, one of the most important steps is doing an 80/20 analysis of vocabulary and grammar, so you can choose what are the 1,200 to 1,500 words that will allow you to sound fluent.
"You choose auxiliary verbs that allow you to unlock all of the other verbs so you don't have to memorize a hundred conjugation tables. You're looking for the Archimedes lever."
In business, the 80/20 Principle can be seen in many situations. One example Ferriss has written about is: If only a handful of clients are bringing in most of your income, focus on them. Think about cutting loose some — or all — of the others.
In researching his new book, Ferriss said he gained not only technical abilities in cooking, but a new appreciation for its aesthetics.
"Because cooking, unlike almost anything else, engages all of your senses, your experience of life in general goes into HD," he said. "I smell things that I never could have smelled before. I hear things that I never could have heard before."
Chefs like Marco Canora, whom Ferriss observed at his New York City restaurant Hearth, have heightened senses, Ferriss said.
"If a duck breast is being overcooked, and there's a particular crackle to the skin, they will hear that from 20 feet away," he said. "Some of these men and women are like spider-men to me."
And yet Canora himself is quoted in Ferriss' book as saying repeatedly, "Cooking is not hard." It's apparently all in how you approach the art.
One of Ferriss' favorite cooking experiences he had while researching his book happened in Chicago in 2011. After feasting on sea bass in a restaurant, the author was convinced he could replicate the dish in a minimalist way, as long as he had the right ingredients. And he did. He bought the bass, ham, watercress, butter and olive oil and brought them back to his hotel room, then cooked the dish with scalding tap water, Ziploc bags and a thermometer.
"As a finishing touch, I took my iron out of the closet and gave it a nice crust," Ferriss said, laughing. "Then I grabbed some wine out of the minibar."
That kind of research for his books is the fun part, Ferriss said. The writing is tougher. "I cut 250 pages from this book and still it's 672 pages," he said. "Taking all of those notes and then converting them into something that is simple yet appears sophisticated is really challenging."
Ferriss said he's looking forward to speaking in Palo Alto later this month. He's long felt a kinship with the Bay Area. Based in San Francisco, he lived in Mountain View for four years and has also spent a lot of time in Palo Alto.
"I've been to 30-plus countries and I'm asked all the time what my favorite city is. I say San Francisco, and more precisely the Bay Area. There's a culture of experimentation and innovation and a habit of looking at things differently," he said. "I could not think of a more perfect audience."
Info: Tim Ferriss is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 29 at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. The event is presented by the Commonwealth Club; tickets are $20 general, $12 for club members and $7 for students. An 8 p.m. book signing is planned. Go to commonwealthclub.org .