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 Haçienda.”And yet Mahasrabphaisal, also known as Chef May, has no formal culinary training, experience, or , initially at least, any kind of yearning. 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 chef, using YouTube alone? I decide to spend a week trying. If nothing else, I’ll get to watch a lot of videos.
Day 1For my first attempt, I need something straightforward. I have spent the entire day looking at tutorials, and it is now too late to produce a failed meal 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 point at which honest cooking tips 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 go 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 bowls, talks quickly. 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 eat this again.”
“That’s unlikely,” I say.
Day 2While 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?
Unfortunately, the video is only about making 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 pastry I’m using comes from a Jamie Oliver video – it is typically laid back, to the extent that his young son wanders 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 fridge to rest, and move on to a new video.
The next link in the chain is called “The ultimate how to blind bake pastry case 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 pastry hanging over the sides of the tin until the case is cooked. He uses dried beans in clingfilm to weigh down the bottom. And the case 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 required. 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 kind 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.
Day 3“What’s for supper?” my wife 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 rigidity of a tutorial by leaving something out. I’m worried the oversight will lead to unforeseen disaster, but the dish turns out fine, and more importantly, it looks right. You can’t tell from the photo that it hasn’t got dates in.
Day 4I have been noticing these cakes with elaborate, 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, possibly 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 bake 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 jacket that you soak in water before baking – that prevents the edges of the cake from cooking faster than the middle. A video from the Preppy Kitchen demonstrates how to make 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 considerable competence gap: if your cake doesn’t turn out like hers, it is only because she is amazing at this sort of thing.
The idea is to pipe a complex latticework of melted chocolate on to greaseproof paper, 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 pi to get the circumference. I’m horrified to learn I have 63cm of side to produce. 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 convince myself I prefer 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 set. 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 really, 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 10pm. 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 5We have people coming over for dinner, and I am out of ideas. I chase one video tutorial with another, settling 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 way. It turns out doing it faster is more or less a matter of being better at it.
For the bream, I watch half a dozen tutorials and improvise a blend of them all – keeping techniques they have in common, discarding 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 triumph, on condition of anonymity.
“Do you want some cake?” I say. “I have loads of cake.”