10 questions with Jeff Potter of Cooking for Geeks


Working at O’Reilly Media headquarters, I’d been hearing the buzz about the new book Cooking for Geeks for quite some time, so I was thrilled when I saw author Jeff Potter filming a video in the Make: Labs on how to hack your slow cooker into a sous vide rig. Anyone interested in the science behind food and cooking needs to grab a copy of this unique and fascinating book. Check out the video Jeff was filming for a taste, and then hear what he has to say to 10 questions we asked.

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1. What inspired you to write Cooking for Geeks?
I so want to answer “I was hungry!” and leave it at that. I’m lucky to have parents that took time to cook with me as a kid growing up — food and cooking was just something that was part of my background. When I got to college, I was surprised to learn that this really wasn’t a very common thing; most of my classmates didn’t know how to cook. And I also discovered that I didn’t really know how to cook dinner — just breakfast and dessert, since that’s what my interests had been as a kid. (Who me, sweet tooth? *Never.*) I spent the better part of a decade learning to turn out a good meal, pretty much by trial and error. In many ways, Cooking for Geeks is the book I wish I’d had ten years ago, so that my trial-and-error stage would have been much, much shorter.

2. Tell us how Cooking for Geeks differs from conventional cookbooks.
Most cookbooks are just collections of recipes. They’re really notes from one cook to another, reminders of quantity and steps. But it’s rare for a cookbook to actually step back and look at the bigger picture. Being a geek — somebody who’s curious how things work — I wanted more than just “do this, do that” type of instructions. When it comes to cooking, having some basic food science actually ends up being incredibly important.

3. What’s your background? What kind of geek are you?
Let’s see, part German, part English, part Norwegian, part Irish. I studied both computer science and visual art at Brown, so I guess you could say that my “geek cred” comes from the CS degree, although really I think anyone who applies any sort of scientific approach would auto-qualify as a geek.

4. When did you start making cookbooks?
My mom dug up one from I think it was 1984? It’d been a class project where each student was assigned to bring one recipe to contribute. I liked pancakes a lot as a kid, so my page was pancakes.

5. You write, “Cooking is about community, and sharing knowledge and food is one of the best ways to build community.” Explain.
We all eat, and we all rely on others to some degree or another for food. Whether you’re talking about the farmer that supplies the grocery store or the cook who’s put together the meal in front of you, food is a social thing. And if you look at community, so much of it is built up around taking care of each other, and cooking and eating food is one of the most important things that we do together. Regardless of your spiritual and political beliefs, sitting down together and breaking bread has the ability to bring people closer together.

6. What’s your favorite food hack to wow the masses?
Sous vide, hands down. If someone only has time to try one thing, I’d recommend sous vide. It’s probably one of the most important culinary techniques to have come around in the past few decades, but hasn’t yet really made it big on the consumer scene.

7. How do you celebrate/embrace failure?
With a bottle of either champagne or whisky? Just joking, although isn’t it funny how certain drinks have moods attached to them? There’s short-term failure — whoops, I burnt the dinner — which I generally don’t care too much about, besides trying to pick out the obvious lesson and improve my understanding of how things work. Then there’s long-term failure – whoops, I just spent 2 months on research that is going straight into the trashcan for no reason other than “it just didn’t work out.” I don’t really look back long enough though to be bothered by what I’ve done. It’s generally “On to the next thing!” with me.

8. What new idea has excited you most recently?
Well, there’s generic stuff, like “the internet” which is really code for “disruption of traditional models,” such as things like TV over the web. (If you think what happened to the music industry was tough, wait until you see what happens in the next 5 to 10 years with TV — decoupling content creation from content distribution is going to radically change the way we consume, and fund, media.) Then there’s specific stuff, such as understanding smell and flavors, and thinking about how new combinations of ingredients can be algorithmically deduced. Bernard Lahousse has done some great work in this area, and has a neat online tool for doing just that (see foodpairing.com).

“Exciting” generally means up-beat, but I think Douglas Coupland’s “Pessimist’s Guide to the Next 10 Years” will turn out to be incredibly prescient.

9. Who are your inspirations?
This is going to sound cheesy, but my parents. They worked hard; and sometimes that work paid off, and sometimes it didn’t. I think it’s too easy to see public figures — sport players, actors, politicians — and idealize them, but the danger with that is you never really see just how hard these people have to work to get to where they’re at, whereas when you know someone beyond their public image, you get a real sense of who they are and what makes them tick. Not to say that public figures shouldn’t serve as role models, but I think too many people look at their achievements and desire the payoff without the work, and without understanding what the odds are really like.

10. What advice would you give to apprehensive chefs just getting started?
As one of the interviewees told me: “Just get in there and try it.” It might not come out the way you expected, but that’s OK. And learn to see where things are going, and adjust accordingly. Regardless of the profession, every example of a great creative outcome I’ve seen has been the result of a tight feedback loop: do something, see how it comes out, adjust, repeat. I can’t think of many examples or people I’ve interviewed where they just sat down and knocked out the perfect whatever on their first attempt.

10 thoughts on “10 questions with Jeff Potter of Cooking for Geeks

  1. El Zombre says:

    Sous vide is great, but there’s a better way to do sous vide cooking – more scalable – than with a slow cooker or rice cooker as recommended by Jeff.

    I recently described our home set up for sous vide cooking here:

    Briefly, instead of using a slow cooker, use an immersion heater, an aquarium pump, and any size water container you want, including bath tub. Presto! A scalable circulating water bath for precision cookery.

  2. Michael Vilain says:

    Like Jeff, I learned to cook breakfast and desserts as a kid (EVERYONE STEP AWAY FROM THE CHOCOLATE AND NO ONE GETS HURT). Unlike Jeff, I went through a cooking class in junior high school and asked my mom to buy me a bottle of wine to try a recipe for Coq Au Vin in a cookbook. Besides being a queen in training, I also had a grandmother who loved to cook. She was very happy to have a grandchild to cook with. So I learned how to make dinner. In grad school (in chemistry!), I ate very well cooking for myself and friends.

    The trend of exploring _why_ we’re doing things to produce the results in a recipe is sorta new. Although Julia Child went through this when she wrote MTAOFC I and II, the process was mostly hidden from the reader. Magazines like COOKS ILLUSTRATED and TV shows like GOOD EATS and AMERICAS TEST KITCHEN changed all that. Jeff’s book fills that gap exceptionally well.

    I rate it 5 Themapens (more is better).

  3. Rahere says:

    The purist geek uses the vent hole in the lid for the thermocouple. The Maker geek feeds an Arduino with it and uses that to switch on/off a remote power socket so the cooker remains useable as a cooker. The advanced geek blends his own wine from chemical stocks to go with it.

  4. Doctorclark says:

    “whoops, I just spent 2 months on research that is going straight into the trashcan for no reason other than ‘it just didn’t work out.'”

    Every scientist reading this is smiling and nodding. This is one of the aspects of science that is almost incomprehensible to people unfamiliar with scientific experimentation, but accepted as a fact of life for everyone in science.

    I’m looking forward to getting a copy of Cooking for Geeks, and trialing and erroring my way through it happily.

  5. Michael Vilain says:

    I’ve come to realize that in order to get a complex dish “just right”, there usually is an alpha and beta test phase. Before I made boeuf bourguignon for my mom, I made several batches which I and my friends ate.

    Jeff’s book had given me courage to try stuff that’s “off recipe” where previously, such experiments have ended up going down the disposal. Not as bad as this, but close:


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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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