Harold McGee, 55, is the author of On Food and Cooking, a reference book considered essential by professional and amateur cooks of all stripes. In it, McGee explains the physical and chemical properties of foods in order to help readers become better cooks. The book was first published in 1984; twenty years later, he released an extensively revised version that won countless awards and critical praise. McGee is a former Yale University literature instructor who now regularly lectures at culinary schools and conferences about cooking and food chemistry. He lives in Palo Alto, Calif.
Wine Spectator: In the last decade, we've seen an explosion in culinary school enrollments, classes for the casual cook and food in all forms of media. What is it about this moment in our culture that is making people return to the kitchen?
Harold McGee: The difference between when I first started writing about food—the late '70s early '80s—and now is huge. I think it's probably a bunch of different things. One is just a collective discovery, through travel, through books, through immigration—all kinds of different influences. There is this huge universe of possibilities, and all these different foods and flavors and ingredients that we just had not been aware of before. The world has become smaller, and it's become both easier to experience in one way or another.
WS: In your opinion, what is the best way for a person to learn to cook?
HM: Spending lots of hours in the kitchen, however you can manage that and in whatever way makes sense for the life you have. If you're lucky enough to have a family that loves food and celebrates it, then that's great. If you don't have that, then you find friends or you take a class or two from the local kitchenware shop, something like that. There are so many different ways these days to share the interest and to learn from other people, but I certainly think it comes down to what you're most comfortable with, and what's available where you are.
WS: Your book explores the molecular properties of foods that make them behave and interact the way they do. How important is that kind of knowledge to someone seeking a basic culinary education?
HM: It's secondary to the immediate experience of cooking, but that type of knowledge can help you gain a mastery of the craft, because the more you know your ingredients, the more you know how to manipulate what you're working with, get the results you want, diagnose problems, and come up with solutions. The most important thing for someone who's starting out is to cultivate the pleasure that you take in both the eating and the preparation of food. That means getting as much experience as possible. I answer a lot of questions from professional cooks all the time, and I love it, because I'm actually getting as much out of the interaction as they are. They're cooking eight to 14 hours a day, and I'm not. That primary experience counts for so much, because you begin to notice things and see things that you just don't if you're not putting in those hours.
WS: What's the best way for someone to learn about pairing wine with food as they begin to develop their cooking skills according to your approach?
HM: Combinations of food and wine and whether or not they go with each other is a very subjective thing. You can read books and articles about it and talk with friends about it, or see how things work at restaurants, especially when the sommelier suggests a pairing. But in the end, it's really up to you as the person who's tasting because we all live in different tasting universes. The best way to develop a sense for pairings is to try a lot of different things and keep track of how you react to them.
I love the fact that, in a way, the world of wine was ahead of the world of food when it comes to appreciating the importance of chemistry. It's wonderful to go to the wine literature and find detailed explanation of how things are made. And flavor does come down to chemistry.
WS: How did you first learn to cook?
HM: I started to cook in college, when I moved off-campus with a few other people. We each took turns making a meal for the rest of us. … For a long time I just cooked hamburgers. [Laughing.] Eventually I began to explore other possibilities for more exotic things. I had had artichokes once in my life before, and thought they were interesting, so I saw them in the store one day and bought them. I completely incinerated them the first time around, but it was a great way to learn.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions