An Introduction to Systematic Cooking

Published: Nov 23, 2020 / Updated: Nov 23, 2020 / Modified: Nov 25, 2020

Introduction

There’s a small handful of people who can come home after a long day at work and throw together delicious, nutritionally balanced meals from the things they picked up at the farmer’s market.

…and then there’s everyone else.

Making restaurant-quality food is easy if you have the spare time, energy, money, equipment and skills. If you don’t, what you eat is a harsh trade-off between what you’d prefer to eat and what you’re willing to sacrifice.

Here are some examples of how that plays out:

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these compromises, the sheer number of people making them should be food for thought.

Most people realize they can save money by cooking at home. Most people have more than an hour per day when they’re not working or sleeping. Most people have access to the internet, where they will find millions of free recipes and cooking videos.

And yet most people still don’t cook particularly often, or particularly well.

So what’s stopping them?

There are lots of reasons why people avoid cooking, but the most important ones are:

1. They don’t think it’s worthwhile

The idea that cooking at home saves money has been repeated so often that it’s become meaningless, but most people still know that it’s true. What they don’t realize is just how much money they’re wasting. It’s not just average people either. Plenty of smart people believe that because they’re paid double or triple the hourly wage of the person cooking their food, it’s cost effective for them to avoid cooking altogether. Of course the benefits of home cooking go beyond saving money. And granted, there is an hourly rate at which it no longer makes economic sense to prepare your own meals. The general point is that the vast vast majority of people haven’t tried to weigh up the pros and cons objectively.

2. They’ve developed an aversion to cooking

Many of us have a complicated relationship with cooking. We expect it to be easy, so when we find it hard for some mysterious reason, it’s natural to get discouraged. Becoming a competent home cook has a steep learning curve, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. When you don’t know what you’re doing, the food you make will turn out mediocre and take much longer than it should to prepare. This makes cooking unrewarding, which creates a vicious cycle where today’s results are mediocre because you’ve not practiced enough, and you don’t want to practice tomorrow because the results won’t be worth the effort in the short term.

And then there’s the other group. These are the people know how to cook well, but can only bring themselves to do it on special occasions. For them, the problem is one of effort. Sometimes it’s because their brain is too fried from work. Other times it’s because the act of cooking is death by a thousand papercuts. These people would be fine if the whole process took half an hour and was as thoughtless as folding laundry, but when they have to shop for missing ingredients, scrub off the burnt food someone left stuck to the pan they need to use, figure out when to start cooking each component so everything is ready at the same time, deal with leftovers, wash up and then make peace with the fact that it’s somehow 9pm, it’s easy to see why they don’t do it more often.

3. The typical instructions aren’t that helpful

While there is tons of information out there, it isn’t designed around the needs of the casual home cook. No matter whether it’s tv shows, online recipes, cookbooks or YouTube tutorials, the way that their creators get paid incentivises them to put entertainment first and information second. The most blatant example of this is 5 minute crafts, but they’re far from alone. Take this clip from one of Gordon Ramsey’s shows: Sorry Americans, you will need to use a VPN to watch this clip. I didn’t realize until the article was finished that this hugely popular video has geographic content restrictions.

This man owns a 3 Michelin star restaurant, yet he’s made a “feast for the whole family” that consists of 5 pieces of fried chicken and a jar of pickled celery. If your children had invited a schoolfriend over for dinner and you did that in the real world, you’d be a failure as a parent, let alone a chef. But when it happens on the astral plane of food television, you get 27 million views of ad revenue and a 97% like rate.

Cookbooks are a little better, but they’re still not adequate. The recipes inside are less like GPS directions and more like a hand-drawn map that only gives the scenic route from A to B. This is fine if you treat cooking as an adventure and don’t mind getting a little lost, but most people find it frustrating when they’ve been carefully following a recipe and the final instruction is “serve over rice” that they were not told start cooking 20 minutes ago.

Why is this so important?

Because we all have to eat multiple times per day

To state the obvious, we spend a lot of time and money on food. When tallied up over a year, it adds up to a lot.

Obligatory XKCD

Improving how we cook, whether it’s making it faster, cheaper or better will be worth it for basically anyone who isn’t rich enough to hire their own personal chef.

Because western society spends 12+ figures per year buying its way out of it

In the US, food is the third largest expense after shelter and transport https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cesan.nr0.htm . The average citizen spends $3276 per year on food, with 54.8% of it being spent on takeout and restaurants https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58364 . This would be fine on occasion, but when it constitutes the majority of the average budget, it indicates that they’re not just outsourcing food preparation, but paying people to do something they can’t do for themselves.

If we do some back of the envelope calculations and assume that half of that non-grocery food spending comes from situations where it can be justified (e.g. large gatherings), we get an economic misallocation of $897 per person. When you scale that up to the entire US population, you get $294 billion. I don’t know how well this generalizes to France or Italy, but the problem exists to a similar extent in the UK and other English speaking countries. After everything is tallied up, I wouldn’t be surprised if the worldwide misallocation exceeded a trillion dollars.

(Yes, if true that would make it larger than the economic impact of climate change, estimated at $390bn/year by the World Bank.)

Because the costs fall disproportionately on those who are least able to pay them

Middle class people have enough resources to tolerate the status quo. If they don’t want to deal with cooking, they can order $14 avocado toasts for lunch and delay home ownership until they’re 45. It’s far from ideal, but it’s still an option.

Poor people have less of these options. If they follow a recipe and the result is inedible, they can’t always say “oh well, we’ll just order pizza”. They’ll be able to do that sometimes, but a single mother with 3 children isn’t going to be able to do that regularly. Families who rely on government handouts need information they can trust, not cookbooks of expensive Instagram food that use them as a marketing prop.

Because small percentage improvements are worth billions

On a more positive note, the size of the problem means that small improvements can generate huge amounts of value if they can be applied on a large scale. The US alone throws away over 160 billion dollars worth of food each year, https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs so if you found a method which reduced individual food waste by 25% and just 5% of Americans used it, you’d have saved a collective $2 billion.

If you object to this kind of utilitarian multiplying-numbers-out-of-your-ass reasoning, consider it on the scale of a 4 person family. How much value would a system create for that family if it could reduce the amount of food thrown away by 25%, their takeout and restaurant use by 25%, their overall grocery bill by 10% and shave off an average of 15 minutes of food prep time per day for equal or better quality food?

That’s not a rhetorical question, I invite anyone to calculate it for themselves. The results you get will vary depending on the figures you start with, but here are my calculations for a typical 4 person family (50th percentile) and one that’s close to the poverty line (20th percentile):

Category % Saving 50th % Family $ Saved/year 20th % Family $ Saved/year
Food waste 25.00% $1,964 $491 $1,137 $284
Eating out 25.00% $4,693 $1,173 $2,221 $555
Grocery bill 10.00% $7,371 $737 $4,763 $476
Total $2,401 Total $1,316

If this problem is so important, why does it still exist?

This is an extremely valid question. While the world can’t be described as fair, markets rarely leave opportunities worth billions of dollars sitting around for decades. Therefore there must be reasons why–if what I’m claiming is true–so little effort has been put into solving it.

Because the food experts aren’t trying to solve it

That’s not to say people aren’t trying. No, lots of people with relevant expertise are trying very hard, but they’re putting effort into totally different problems. Gordon Ramsey works 90 hours a week on food TV programs, but he’s not doing it because he loves educating people. He’s doing it because he’s scared of losing mindshare to Jamie Oliver. Talented head chefs working 120 hour weeks are far more focused on pandering to a French tyre company than the the needs of the general public. PhD food scientists aren’t working for the public good, they get employed by NestlĂ© to increase their profit margins by finding ways to put a few more bubbles in an Aero bar.

YouTube’s algorithm changes mean that it’s undergoing a Cambrian explosion in food content. And while there’s never been a better time than now to find niche cooking videos, YouTube’s format and the way these creators get paid for what they do still discourages them from doing the kind of work needed to attack these problems directly.

Because there isn’t pent-up demand

It’s often claimed that Henry Ford said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. And while there is no proof he ever said this, the general principle rings true. When it comes to recipes, people have such low expectations that when they either don’t work or come out nothing like the photo, they shrug their shoulders and blame themselves. It never occurs to them that there could be a radically better way of doing things.

Because the problem can’t be solved by a lone wolf

If open source has taught us anything, it’s that any important problem that can be solved by 1 autistic programmer spending the next 10 years of their life fixing it will eventually get fixed.

Unfortunately, solving home cooking isn’t that kind of problem. Unlike a lot of programming, it requires dealing with the messy details of the physical world. It will also require hundreds of person-years to build a system that’s user friendly enough to work for people who don’t work with systems for a living.

Granted there are programmers who’ve attempted to work on this problem as a lone wolf, but they don’t get very far. Two example projects that come to mind are Cooking For Engineers and this analysis of Key lime pie. Both of them are a good step in the right direction, but neither of them are useful in their own right. Their incompleteness as systems means you can’t outsource your thinking to them, which ironically means that using them will require more cognitive effort than normal recipes since the information is organized in an unfamiliar way.

Because it’s not a startup-shaped problem

Typically when there’s a problem costing billions and a solution that costs millions, a handful of people in Silicon Valley will get together and raise enough venture capital to build a prototype. This works in a lot of cases, but without getting into the economics of venture capital, some problems just don’t make viable businesses.

Problems where the solution involves moving money from person A to person B and charging a percentage that’s less than the competition can support hugely profitable startups, but that approach is less appropriate when the solution looks more like Wikipedia or academic research. Solutions that fall into the latter category are notoriously difficult to monetize, especially when your target audience is people who don’t have very much of it.

Even if monetization is possible, it’s not always desirable. The act of doing so changes how you approach the problem in ways that can mean losing the opportunity to generate $100 of value for every dollar of revenue you capture. If your first priority is making money, you’d be far better off charging 1000 affluent tech workers $50/month for boutique recipe instructions than sharing them for free and helping millions. The latter is obviously not feasible if you’ve got investors who want a return on their money.

What would a better way of doing things look like?

Before anyone gets too excited, I should be clear that I’m not about to show you a finished system that will solve all of your food-related problems. I am just a lone individual that’s been hacking away at this for the past few years with sporadic help from others. This is a call to arms, not a product announcement. This is me saying “hey guys, I think I’ve found a way to do this!” and hoping that enough people contribute their time for it to become a reality.

Now that’s disclaimer is out of the way, here’s a rough overview of how I think this problem should be approached:

Focus on the core problem

I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but I do.

If you want home cooking to stop being the big pile of frustrations that it is, you have to attack the problem head-on. What you can’t do is decide that whatever food related thing that will make ad money on YouTube, gain the respect of your peers or look good on your resume is the best way to solve it.

The core problem (as I understand it) is that the cognitive burden of cooking is way out of most people’s budgets. Anything that can’t drastically reduce that overhead is not viable. Incremental advancements can’t be made with videos titled “15 awesome kitchen hacks” or smartphone apps that give you recipe ideas. What people need is a complete system that takes care of everything. Food preferences go in, shopping lists come out. Meals get scheduled, and every action needed to make them is described using turn-by-turn navigation. Inventory is managed by software. Cookware is specified in equipment lists. And when something inevitably goes wrong, the system must fail gracefully instead of leaving people stranded.

Remove bottlenecks to mass adoption

The first requirement is that the system must be free at the point of use. This is necessary for the same reason Wikipedia has to be free, but it will inevitably cause issues when unavoidable costs have to be paid. Monetization isn’t out of the question, but it would have to be approached with extreme caution. After all, it would be really damaging if the system’s continued development was dependant on ad revenue from pointless kitchen gadgets we want people to stop buying.

The second requirement is that people must be able to adopt the system incrementally. The whole should be far more than the sum of its parts, but we shouldn’t need users to fully commit from the outset. The typical onboarding experience should be someone trying out one of the beginner recipes and being surprised at how much better the experience was. Then as they observe the system working for them and start to trust it, they adopt more and more of its practices until it makes obvious sense for them to switch over completely.

Design the system to handle a wide range of users

Users have a wide range of skill levels, equipment, budgets and time available for cooking. Users will also be cooking for people with a wide range of dietary requirements and food preferences. The system needs to be able to manage this complexity without delegating it to the user.

Since you can’t develop a bespoke solution for every possible edge case, the system needs to be designed to handle edge cases more generally. Some problems have common factors that allow them to be solved as a category. Some “edge-cases” occur so frequently that it’s better to incorporate them into the system by default. Some problems can’t be solved completely, but the frequency they occur can be greatly reduced with user education.

Here are some principles that would help to achieve this:

Make the right trade-offs

All things equal, users will prefer:

…but things aren’t equal, and in many cases these preferences will be in direct conflict. This means you can’t optimize for a single metric, and will force you to develop a more nuanced philosophy of what’s valuable than “make line go up”.

The downside of this is that groups of people tend to conflate nuance with subjective nihilism. They see a list of complex requirements and decide that there’s no way to decide anything is better than anything else. To put it bluntly, this is nonsense. Any set of requirements will have an objectively correct way to satisfy them, the hard part is figuring out how.

Develop the system using strict epistemological rigour

The software development side is important, but the system will live or die by the quality of the research. The field of home cooking contains so much misinformation that we will need constant vigilance. When “official” sources can’t be trusted, when celebrity chefs like Alton Brown suggest techniques that contradict high school physics At 4:40 of this video Alton Brown is boiling rice, and uses a piece of foil between the pot rim and its matching lid to “ensure a really good seal”. The foil is redundant because the pot lid is already keeping a saturated pocket of air above the rice and any extra pressure generated by steam will just force its way out once it reaches a very slightly higher pressure. I have also tested this personally and can report that it makes no difference to the rice when you add the foil. , when academia gave up on home economics half a century ago, we have no choice but to repair the theoretical foundations if we want to stand on the shoulders of giants.

But what does this mean in practice?

It means you need to be explicit about everything and build a system that’s easy to repair. You need to write down every assumption you can think of. You need to have chains of evidence. You need to include the unflattering details that went into a decision. If the true source of a technique is a YouTube video from a channel that’s been reliable in the past, you need to put that in the paper trail. And if information in that video later turns out to be false, you need to have the ability to flag every part of the system that relied on it being true. That won’t be possible if you follow a development process which omits those details.

Concluding thoughts

The purpose of this document was to explain why people don’t cook, why it matters, what can be done about it and why it hasn’t been done already in a way that makes sense to the sort of people who read blogs in their free time. If you’re in that demographic and come away from this with a clear understanding of those things, I’ve succeeded. If you’re in that demographic and you still have a big list of unanswered questions, I’ve failed. If I have failed, please tell me about it in the comments section or by annotating the relevant parts of the text.

If you want to help me build this system, please get in touch. Contrary to what you might assume, you don’t need much cooking experience for your contributions to be useful. The only requirements at this stage are strong critical thinking skills, the ability to take feedback and a burning desire to solve this specific problem. If you have all of those things, I would like to work with you.