The Myth of the 30-Minute Meal

Gordon Ramsay says he can make you a more efficient cook. Don’t believe him.

By day, he’s a famously rambunctious and foul-mouthed restaurant chef; by night, he’s pretty much the same. But somehow Gordon Ramsay finds the time to do quick, healthful, delicious home cooking for his family. Just check out the photographs in his new book, Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food, which is dedicated to making dinner in 30 minutes or less. Here he is, a scruffy Brit in a T-shirt, intently focused on chopping pretty strips of something red and yellow. A few pages later, he’s scruffy in a different T-shirt but again completely absorbed, this time going hard at an apple with a corer. Now he’s wielding a big pepper grinder, now he’s pounding away with a mortar and pestle, and now he’s fussing with something we can’t quite see, standing at the stove over a big pot. But how does he fit all this into his life? The guy runs high-end, award-winning restaurants around the world like Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London and Gordon Ramsay au Trianon at Versailles, he stars in TV cooking shows, he writes books, he consults with food companies, he’s got a line of Royal Doulton dishes and ovenware—and he still whips out beef fajitas, crab spring rolls, tandoori spiced halibut, and poached figs for his wife, Tana, and their four kids. “Don’t skip meals or resort to junk food, however busy you are,” he pleads earnestly. In other words, if he manages to cook every night, so can you; and right here in Fast Food are all his secrets.

Well, maybe not all his secrets. I’m thinking of one that popped out inadvertently in his recent memoir, Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen. There he explains that his huge house in Wandsworth, a neighborhood in southwest London, has one kitchen in the basement for his wife and another on the floor above for him. Her kitchen has standard equipment. His kitchen cost half a million pounds and is used for photographing his books and shooting his TV shows. As for family fajita night, with Dad at the stove—”You won’t find me faffing about in the kitchen,” he snaps. (To faff is a Britishism meaning to dither or waste time.) “At home, Tana cooks in the downstairs kitchen or we get takeaway, or we grill something simple.”

To his British fans, of course, any blips in the imagery surrounding their favorite chef are irrelevant. The moment Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food was published in the United Kingdom last spring, it became a best-seller, praised for its fresh, accessible recipes. But while Ramsay has a devoted following on this side of the Atlantic, too, it’s a bit unclear whether the recipes will get a similar welcome here. I’m perfectly willing to believe that the folks who invented toad-in-the-hole are now serving their kids poached duck eggs with anchovy fingers, but it’s hard to picture an American family breaking into glad cries at the sight of the same meal. Ditto the supper featuring warm blood sausage, though I’d like to be there when Mom offers it to the field hockey team. Other recipes call for Charlotte potatoes, pata negra ham, and fresh gooseberries, all of which your staff can easily  round up for you—that’s how Ramsay gets them—but if you don’t live near one of the six remaining butchers in the United States, good luck with the lamb rumps and the oven-ready quails. “Recipes give both standard American measures and metric measures,” says a helpful note. Not quite. Many ingredients are listed only by weight—9 ounces of sliced mushrooms—as if Americans kept scales in the kitchen the way Europeans do.

My guess is that Ramsay and his publisher made no effort to translate this book into Americanese because they assumed his fans here wouldn’t dream of trying to make these recipes. And they’re probably right. Armchair cooks in this country will turn the pages slowly, admiring the full-color tomato tart, the chunks of charred tuna nestled on glowing lettuce leaves, and the linguini that falls on the plate in attractive tangles. Perhaps they’ll  warm to Ramsay’s heartfelt declaration, “For me, cooking and eating seasonally is a joy,” though they may wonder briefly how he’s sourcing his mangoes and lychees. Never mind, this is a very forgiving crowd. Ramsay’s achievement in this genre is that he’s come up with a kind of hologram. Tilt the book one way and you get beat-the-clock cooking for the British; tilt it another way and you find a sumptuous fantasy for Americans.

Fantasy has always played a big part in beat-the-clock cookbooks; in fact, the category relies on it, as Ramsay’s book makes clear. Despite the shopping lists, the step-by-step directions, the time-saving tips, and the authors who insist that this is exactly how they cook at home, there’s little that reflects the real world in such books. Like those gigantic, glossy tomes with titles like My Kitchen in the Wine Country or Tuscany at Table, the quick-cook books are wish books. They’re cheaper, friendlier, and far more portable than their $75 siblings, but they’re wish books all the same. Open a quick-cook book and you’re transported—not to some Provencal dreamscape but to your own kitchen. Why, that’s you at the counter, cheerfully putting together a charming meal for the family while your children set the table. You can practically see them storing up those all-important food memories that will accompany them through life like a St. Christopher medal.

If you’re an ordinary, sometimes bumbling home cook, it’s hard to resist a book that promises to impose factorylike precision on a chore that is by nature messy and unpredictable. Hence the popularity of stopwatch cuisine, which used to be known as “practical” or “simple” cookery and is now designated by sheer speed: The 60-Minute Gourmet, 30-Minute Meals, 29-Minute Meals, 20-Minute Menus, Fresh 15-Minute Meals, 10-Minute Cuisine, Rocco’s 5-Minute Flavor, The Last-Minute Cookbook.  How do they do it? Look a little more closely at the advice they’re offering. Mary Ann Esposito, author of Ciao Italia Pronto! 30-Minute Recipes From an Italian Kitchen, notes that she cleans four or five days’ worth of lettuce at once, makes two lasagnas at a time and freezes one, and fixes tomorrow’s vegetables while she’s preparing today’s.  Pierre Franey, who launched the “60-Minute Gourmet” column in the New York Times in 1976, says it’s awfully helpful to do a few things the night before, including mince the garlic, chop the onions, chop the parsley, clean and cube the potatoes, peel the carrots, core the peppers, set the table, uncork the wine, and put the cream in a pitcher. “Five minutes means 5 minutes,” declares Rocco DiSpirito in Rocco’s 5 Minute Flavor, adding, “Prep time is not included in the 5 minutes, but I was careful to choose ingredients that require virtually no preparation.” True—he uses plenty of cans and jars—but what about the three red onions to be cut into rings exactly 1/5 an inch thick? Rummage around too long for a ruler, and you’re already 90 seconds into the recipe with nothing to show for it.

Take note: Cookbook writers are different from you and me, even the ones who look oh so domestic on their book covers. They’re professionals, which means they’re in the habit of working efficiently. Speed is part of their batterie de cuisine, just like sharp knives. And while they’re constantly telling you the best way to chop an onion, or why you should always keep canned tomatoes around, the ones who write 15-minute recipes are never going to tell you the single most crucial thing about quick cooking, which is that 15-minute recipes are irrelevant. The only really useful shortcut in the kitchen is knowing how to cook. The others you’ll invent while you’re cooking.