Can you learn to cook like a chef by watching YouTube?

Tim Dowling is a quasi-competent cook. Can a week of online tutorials help take his straightfoward cuisine to restaurant standard?

Chef Lallalin Mahasrabphaisal cooks in one of Manchester’s most acclaimed restaurants, Siam Smiles. Previously located inside a Thai supermarket she owned, the cafe has now moved to new premises. While it was, and still is, a modest place, this paper’s reviewer called it” the most exciting thing to happen to me in Manchester since the days of the Hacienda .

And yet Mahasrabphaisal, also known as Chef May, has no further formal culinary educate, experience, or, initially at least, any kind of yearn. She only took it up because the cafe’s chef quit and she wanted to keep the place going. She taught herself to cook by watching YouTube videos.

Most of us have had cause to turn to YouTube for some quick instruction. It is full of guitar lessons, car-repair tips and makeup tutorials.

I am a quasi-competent, if unadventurous cook. Could I teach myself to cook like a cook, utilizing YouTube alone? I decide to spend a week trying. If nothing else, I’ll get to watch a lot of videos.

Day 1

For my first endeavor, I need something straightforward. I have spent the entire day looking at tutorials, and it is now too late to produce a failed dinner before dinner. Whatever I make will have to be dinner.

I choose pappardelle with prosciutto and mushrooms, as demonstrated by Claire Saffitz of Bon Appetit magazine. More than 800,000 people have watched the video, which seems like a ringing endorsement. While the dish requires no particular skill, it is still a bit precious. The phase at which honest cooking tips-off over into fussy cheffery is probably different for everyone, but for me it starts as soon as a recipe calls for shallots instead of onions. I don’t have shallots.

Fortunately, they are not hard to source, although pappardelle is: I have to go to three places to find some.

The recipe is particular with regard to order: prosciutto is crisped and removed. In run the mushrooms, followed by shallots, thyme, pepper, salt and stock. Saffitz, who has the advantage of having all her ingredients chopped and pre-measured in little bowl, talks rapidly. The total cooking time is said to be 20 minutes, but the video is only four minutes long. I watch while I cook, pausing every few seconds.

It works, though- as long as you do exactly as she does, you can’t go far wrong. My version looks very much like the one in the video, even if it took me a lot longer than 20 minutes.

“It’s good,” my wife says.” I would feed this again .”

“That’s unlikely,” I say.

Tim Dowling’s take on Claire Saffitz’s pappardelle with prosciutto and mushrooms. Photograph: Tim Dowling

Day 2

While I am trawling through videos of people messing about with strands of melted sugar, a thumbnail of a raspberry tart catches my eye. How hard can it be?

Tim Dowling’s raspberry tart. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

Unfortunately, the video is merely about constructing the filling- creme patissiere or, as they say in the US, pastry cream. A common feature of YouTube cooking videos is their specificity: they often tackle a single technique, rather than a whole dish. You have to cobble together your own recipe from a number of separate tutorials.

The sweet shortcrust tart I’m utilizing comes from a Jamie Oliver video– it is typically laid back, to the extent that his young son strays in halfway through and becomes part of the demo. On one level I find this charming, but I also think:’ Hey kid, we’re in the middle of something here- do you mind ?’ I put my pastry dough in the refrigerator to remainder, and move on to a new video.

The next connection in the chain is called ” The ultimate how to blind bake tart occurrence crust from a Bake Off finalist”- by Luis Troyano from the Great British Bake Off’s fifth series- and it is characterised by a wholly counterintuitive perfectionism. He leaves the excess tart hanging over the sides of the tin until the case is cooks. He employs dried beans in clingfilm to weigh down the bottom. And the lawsuit comes out of the oven twice for fiddly adjustments. But the results are impressive. Mine looks like I bought it from a shop.

From there, I move on to ” Make No-Fuss Pastry Cream” with Thomas Joseph. There’s actually quite a bit of fuss, and in the blur of instruction, I measure out only half the amount of milk necessitated. He doesn’t actually specify the quantity of butter, which doesn’t matter because I forget to put any in. On the upside, I have invented a new, very strong various kinds of glue. On the downside, I have to go out and buy more of everything and start again. It is dark outside by the time I find myself sizing raspberries for the top. When it is finished, I am too tired to eat it.

Tim Dowling making creme patissiere for his hybrid raspberry tart. Photo: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

Day 3

” What’s for supper ?” my spouse says. I open the fridge and stare inside.

” Duck breast scallopini with bacon-infused lentils and dates ?” I say.

“Dates?” she says. “Ugh.”

“Don’t worry,” I say.” I forgot to buy the dates .”

Actually, it’s a relief to break with the inflexibility of a tutorial by leaving something out. I’m worried the oversight will be translated into unforeseen catastrophe, but the dish turns out penalty, and more importantly, it looks right. You can’t tell from the photo that it hasn’t got dates in.

Duck breast scallopini, without dates. Photo: Tim Dowling

Day 4

I have been noticing these cakes with elaborated, lacy fretwork sides made from chocolate. At first, I was just curious to see how it was done. After watching a few tutorials, however, I dared to dream of replicating it. But I wake to the warmest day of the year, maybe the century. I can’t stand the heat in my kitchen, and I haven’t turned on the oven yet.

I can manage a passable victoria sponge, but my cakes never come out looking like the ones on Bake Off. I discover a tutorial showing how to cook a cake with straight cylindrical sides and a perfectly flat top. It turns out there’s something called a cake strip- a fabric cake tin coat that you soak in water before baking- that avoids the edges of the cake from cooking faster than the middle. A video from the Preppy Kitchen demonstrates how to induce your own from foil and wet kitchen roll. I’m really not expecting this innovation to have any effect, but it does. My cake is flat.

After consulting several more videos, I ice it as smoothly as I can.

Finally, I cue up a tutorial by Julia Usher– a pastry chef with a background in mechanical engineering. Her tone- jolly, assured, a little brusque- implies a significant proficiency gap: if your cake doesn’t turn out like hers, it is only because she is amazing at this sort of thing.

Tim Dowling’s chocolate cake.’ I select the end is nigh. Because it is .’ Photograph: Tim Dowling

The idea is to pipe a complex latticework of melted chocolate on to greaseproof newspaper, and then to wrap the whole thing round the cake once it has firmed up. Step one is to measure the diameter of the cake, and multiply it by pu to get the circumference. I’m horrified to learn I have 63 cm of side to create. I painstakingly copy Usher’s design on to the paper and tape it to the table.

I follow as best I can, but Usher’s piping skills soon outstrip mine. Her parallel lines are perfect.” I’m just eyeballing these ,” she says. Yeah, me too, I say. Halfway through, I persuade myself I opt my freeform pattern.

In hot weather, chocolate more or less melts, but it doesn’t harden in a hurry. My design is so long I have to cut it in half to get it in the fridge. Still it won’t defined. Usher has nothing to say about any of this. She has moved on.

I transfer the lattice to the freezer, catching it on the edge of the door and smearing one corner. Within five minutes, the chocolate is too brittle to bend around the cake. I hold the whole thing over a gas ring until it sags in the middle. I tell myself I’m improvising, but actually, I’m panicking. I slap the lattice round the cake, shove the cake in the fridge and pour myself a drink. The clock says it’s 10 pm. I’ve been at this since lunchtime.

About 40 minutes later, I take out the cake and gingerly pull at the paper. It comes away easily, while the design- not all of it, but most of it- stays on the cake. In the circumstances, it seems like a miracle. And I still have enough chocolate in the bag to pipe some kind of sentiment on top. I choose” The End Is Nigh “. Because it is.

Day 5

We have people coming over for dinner, and I am out of ideas. I chase one video tutorial with another, resolving on nothing. Eventually I give up and head to the market, where I buy some bream and some prawns. I have no idea what to do with them, but I figure there will be plenty of videos. Back home, I watch several about peeling and deveining prawns, hoping for a faster route. It turns out doing it faster is more or less an issue of being better at it.

For the bream, I watch half a dozen tutorials and improvise a mix of them all- keeping techniques they have in common, disposing anything difficult or weird. I end up stuffing the fish with herbs pounded in a pestle and then barbecuing them, five minutes a side- no big deal. One of my guests pronounces the meal a victory, on condition of anonymity.

” Do you want some cake ?” I say.” I have loads of cake .”

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