No, it wasn't a four-hour talk
Interview: Tim Ferriss on Steak, Kitchen Tools and the Return of the Polymath
Pine pollen is a powder that contains the cellular material used to produce male sperm cells in coniferous plants. It’s available on Amazon.com as a supplement to increase testosterone, with some companies marketing it as a source of “perpetual youth”, claiming that it helps with everything from improving endurance to regulating prostate function. As part of the recipe testing for his new book, The 4-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss stirred a scoop of it into a glass of cold water and drank it down, paired with a fatty ribeye steak.
“I went to a friends house after having one of these pine pollen cocktails”, he says. “His female dog, who’s afraid of everyone, came out and humped my leg for about 45 minutes. It definitely has a strong effect on pheromones”.
It’s not your average cookbook, in other words. We caught up with Ferriss to talk about its contents — from tackling tango to flavor in high definition to using pine pollen to help you (and not just a dog) score. Catch it all after the break.
It’s experiments like this one that have earned Ferriss an audience of fans, readers and skeptics — but mostly, and increasingly, readers and fans. His two previous works, The 4-Hour Work Week and The 4-Hour Body, spent significant time on top of The New York Times list of best sellers.
For all his hyperbole and clever marketing — the book’s subtitle suggests it’s a “simple path to cooking like a pro, learning anything, and living the good life” — Ferriss is a guy with boundless curiosity, especially about the way we learn. This means that The 4-Hour Chef is much more than just a collection of recipes: it’s a guide to deconstruction as a way of breaking difficult skills into manageable pieces; it’s an instruction manual for using sequencing to improve learning; it’s a picture book for chef’s knife rookies; it’s a list of the top 10 U.S. hunting trips; and it is, after all, a recipe collection for everything from scrambled eggs to 30-second cocoa-Goldschläger ice cream made using liquid nitrogen.
GEAR PATROL: We just got our hands on a copy of this book. Have you, in fact, written a cookbook?
TIM FERRISS: It’s a book on learning disguised as a cookbook. The recipes in the book range from how to speak a language fluently in 12 weeks to how I tackled tango and got to the world championships in five months — all of which is replicable. Some people might have this image of me as having special abilities. It’s just not true. I failed at Spanish for the first few years I studied it in school and concluded that I was bad at languages. I just had the wrong process, the wrong recipe.
GP: Interesting. We reviewed a book recently called The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts, which is a equal parts handbook for life and collection of recipes. But that’s a restaurant, so food makes sense. Why did you choose cooking as a medium to talk about learning?
TF: Cooking had kicked my ass many times in the past. I found it overwhelming. I found it inconvenient. I think it’s true for many people who have cookbooks but ultimately put them down after one attempt because everything takes too much time. Ultimately, I realized after watching my girlfriend cook, who learned by watching her grandmother, that even if you never make a single dish, if you learn more about food you go from experiencing food in black and white — which was my experience: good, bad, hot, cold, spicy, not spicy — to really seeing it and experiencing it in high def with a million colors. You’re going to do that until you die, so you might as well enjoy it.
GP: Your books have a similar philosophical and practical bent, which seems to be that you’re looking for uncommon solutions to problems about which our culture has deeply entrenched beliefs — or habits, we should say. The work week, exercise, now cooking. What’s one lesson from this book that can change the way we think about cooking?
TF: There are certain things that pro chefs use that home chefs don’t — and you don’t need a seven pot kit to get started. I was visiting one of the top-rated restaurants in India and the executive chef had a Victorinox knife you can buy here at Wal-Mart, two stainless steel pans and a couple of hand towels. That’s it. In terms of gear, all you need is a cast iron skillet/Dutch oven combo, a Rada knife, a couple of surgical Huck towels — they’re intended for medicine, but a lot of chefs use them because they’re lint free — a thermometer, maybe a pair of tongs or a Peltex spatula, a cutting board would be nice, and you’re set. You’re good to go.
GP: What are some unusual things we’ll find in your kitchen?
TF: My stovetop is a complete piece of crap. Nothing fancy. In terms of tools, I have Wusthof Santoku — that means “three virtues” in Japanese — that’s my go-to, basically the Swiss Army Knife of the kitchen. I use grapefruit seed extract to disinfect cutting boards. It’s very effective: I travel with a little dropper of this stuff, and if I eat anything that might be off, I’ll put a couple drops in my water and take a swig. It kills just about everything including staph bacteria. I use a Rosle can opener, which instead of cutting on the top of the can cuts around the side, so that the top of the can functions like a cap. I’ve always hated dealing with garlic until I found the Kuhn Rikon Epicurion Garlic Press. It’s expensive as shit and it’s amazing. You don’t have to peel the garlic and it’s the easiest thing in the world to clean. And a pastry scraper. It’s extremely useful for picking up cuttings, cleaning off your cutting board — a lot of chefs will just have one in their back pocket.
GP: One thing we liked immediately about the 4-Hour Workweek was that you’re a big advocate of just jumping in and doing things, which can often be the biggest obstacle for people, i.e., starting something new.
TF: Whether it’s basketball, languages, cooking — to get people over the hump and get them in the habit of practice you need to get them early wins. If I want somebody to lose 150 pounds, I’m not going to have them do any exercise at the beginning; I’m going to have them change their breakfast and focus on that minimal effective dose.
TIM’S DATE NIGHT RIBEYE
Tim’s process is simple but fastidious, and like all good things, it ends with a dollop of clarified butter.
1 20-ounce ribeye
5-7 stems of rosemary
1 handful of salt
1 teaspoon of ghee
Dry brine the ribeye. What that means is you’re going to put in in your refrigerator and put a pile of salt on it. It’ll pull water out of the steak and reabsorb the salt back into the tissue. This takes 1-2 hours.
Rinse off the steak. Pat it dry. Put in the freezer for 45 minutes, which is not to freeze it but to evaporate all the surface moisture. You want it as dry as possible.
Preheat the oven to 200ºF. In a steel or cast iron skillet, sear the steak for 30-60 seconds per side in grapeseed oil.
Pick up the steak with tongs and lay down a bed of rosemary. Place the steak on top of the rosemary. This will flavor the meat and keep it from burning on the metal. Toss the pan into the stove. Stick in a probe thermometer and cook it to 135ºF. Generally, that’ll take 15-25 minutes.
You really don’t need to rest it because it was cooked at such a low temperature. You can put a dollop of ghee (clarified butter) on top, slice it up, put the pan juices over the top. You can also paint the juices onto the steak with the rosemary. It’s like the tea ceremony: there’s a little bit of performance art.
GP: You apply this formula to cleaning up after cooking in the book. Let’s use that as an example.
TF: At the beginning you can just elminiate cleanup all together. Use a Pan Saver in producing Osso Buco so you just pull up a bag at the end, and you have all your waste, and just toss it. I also encourage people to use Wasara disposable plates in the first week or two so you dont have to worry about cleanup at all. It’s recycled bamboo — and even if it’s paper, it doesn’t matter because you’re going to get through the first few weeks and then you’ll be able to add in the new behavior. Delivering early wins.
GP: Date night with Tim Ferriss. What’s on the menu?
TF: A nice fatty steak with a couple of surprises. One thing I’d have before date night is a pine pollen cocktail. Pine pollen, which you can buy as a powder from Amazon, is actually identical in a number of ways to testosterone. I went to a friend’s house after having one of these pine pollen cocktails and his female dog, who’s afraid of everyone, came out and humped my leg for about 45 minutes. It definitely has a strong effect on pheromones.
GP: We’ll need that recipe.
TF: Buy pine pollen and put it in water. The stuff is pretty disgusting. That’s for yourself. If the girl wants to try some you could offer it, certainly. Beyond that, something high in fat will offer saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, which is a precursor to testosterone, so you could also get that in the meal by using a ribeye.
GP: Ultimately this book is about being a sort of contemporary Renaissance man.
TF: I’ve always been a fan of polymaths like Da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin. I think we’re coming full circle. We got very hyper-specialized, but the power of the generalist is coming back. My attempt with this book, and I think it succeeded, is to provide people a blueprint for doubling or tripling their learning potential. The highest leverage point in a finite life is being able to increase your adaptability and skill acquisition. I firmly believe it’s possible to enter the top five percent of performers in almost any skill in six to 12 months, if not less. What that means is you can get to a point where you can be self-sufficent as a specialist in one or two things a year. What makes that especially powerful is, like Steve Jobs, you’re able to connect dots that as a specialist you wouldn’t be able to connect. It makes life and business much more interesting.