“Fear of cooking is a real thing,” says chef Todd Mohr from his home in North Carolina. “It’s called mageirocophobia.” He immediately starts to spell the word as if it’s something he’s often asked to do. Mohr may be the only chef-teacher in the world whose classes (at webcookingclasses.com) are designed to help phobic cooks. “The people I’ve seen in my cooking school and the thousands of people who take my classes online tell me basically the same four or five things.”
First off, says Mohr, “They fear undercooking things and making people sick.” Because “it’s a lot worse to serve a chicken breast that’s pink in the middle than it is to serve a rubbery one, people just keep cookin’ it and cookin’ it. Then of course the food is lousy.”
To solve the problem, Mohr tells students, “Buy a thermometer. No really,” he stresses. “This old wives’ tale: if the steak or chicken is as soft as your cheek, it’s rare. If it’s a little firmer like your lip, it’s cooked medium. If the item is as firm as your chin, it’s well done.” But everyone’s cheek, for instance, isn’t the same. “Does this mean that the steak I’m cooking is still rare on my cheek, but well done on yours? Well, you can quantify your cooking with a $5 digital thermometer. I have a steak number. It’s 128° F. I don’t have to gash it, poke it, do anything. I put a thermometer in it. When it reads 128°, I take it off. I say this about a hundred times in class.”
Another manifestation of cooking phobia is “fear of it not being perfect,” says Mohr. He describes a dinner he was once invited to at the home of a “Martha Stewart-type” woman. “You could see she didn’t really enjoy it.” At one point, Mohr told the host’s husband, “ ‘Boy, this is really wonderful.’ He turned to me and said, ‘You know she made it three times and threw out the first two.’ I thought, oh my, that does sound like a pathology worthy of a long Greek word.”
He tells perfectionists: “If you’re going to create a dinner for someone, start with the comfort foods from your childhood. Why try to do a six-course French meal with complicated instructions? If you know how to make macaroni and cheese, make lobster macaroni and cheese.”
Another lament is “fear of the process,” he says. “I had a woman come to the cooking class and tell me she’s a terrible cook. She began to tell me that when she was a child, her mother would shoo her from the kitchen. ‘Get out of here. You’re going to hurt yourself. You’re going to burn yourself.’ Well, I’m a chef, not a psychiatrist, but that seems perfectly obvious to me that would set you up for anxiety.”
For those in this situation, “knowledge is power—take a class,” says Mohr. “The people who come to my class who are afraid of the knife, when I teach them the tip-fulcrum method, they write me emails, saying that’s what they love doing now, they get carrots and chop them like crazy. It’s one of the great epiphanies for people when they get past the fear of the knife.”
Suddenly, he’s onto the next point. “But I haven’t told you the No. 1 reason why people fear cooking. It’s because of recipes. Written recipes are the biggest frustration for the home cook,” he says. “Recipes don’t teach you to cook any more than sheet music teaches you how to play piano. Things like, ‘one onion chopped.’ Well, I’ve seen onions the size of grapefruit and onions the size of cherries. How big is the onion?”
The worst part in recipes is “cooking by time,” he says. “Do this, do this, cook for 20 minutes. How can you possibly tell me to cook for 20 minutes? How do you know how thick my pan is? How do you know how thick the chicken breast is? Cooking is like an art form. It’s open to interpretation. So you would never tell a painter to use 1.7 ounces of green paint and paint for 22 minutes and you’ll have a landscape. In my cooking classes, there is not a single recipe.”
Everyone, he says, has a “starting point.” After that it’s “baby steps,” he adds. “You don’t go from fear of cooking to cooking like people on TV.” He tells students, “If you can make a grilled cheese sandwich, put tomatoes in the middle of it, and start to escalate. Gain more and more confidence, even if you only make a grilled cheese sandwich.”
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