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November 21, 2012

Tim Ferriss, author of "The 4-Hour Chef," talks Yelp, favorite San Francisco restaurants and eating brains

On a never-ending quest to better our lives through minimal output and maximum return, New York Times bestselling author Timothy Ferriss, of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, has released a new book this week on cooking, The 4-Hour Chef, and really about living the good life and learning anything. When Tim was just starting research for this book, he got in touch with Yelp to identify top restaurants in the US. We supplied a list of the top 25 restaurants in Yelp’s four price ranges and Tim got to work tasting and studying chefs from these spots and across the world. The Yelp Top 100 US Restaurants list is included in Tim’s new book, out this week. I sat down with him to pick his brain on cooking tips and crazy experiences (see below for a story on eating sheep's brains and bull penis) he picked up over the last year and a half.

4HourChef
Mike Ghaffary: Why did you choose cooking as the avenue to “learn anything” and “live the good life” in your new book? Is there a reason you feel cooking will resonate with your readers?
Tim Ferriss: That’s the book that my readers have asked for over the last five years - a book on rapid learning and creativity when tackling complex skills. I’m taking a skill that had beaten me many times in the past, which is cooking, and using adventures in the culinary world to teach you how to tackle anything.

MG: What role did Yelp’s Top 100 Restaurants list play in your research?
TF: The research began with trying to find anomalies - anyone who is extremely good at what they do who perhaps shouldn’t be. Excellent despite a late start or no schooling, for instance. Then, I tried to determine what "recipe" or process they used to repeatedly get amazing results. But to track them down was extremely hard. To identify the best restaurants in the US with any kind of scientific method or statistical reliability is practically impossible. When I reached out to you, Mike, I simply thought “Yelp’s all about local, but what if we took the data and looked at the entire country? Split the top 100 best-reviewed restaurants into four lists, separated by price point? The top 25 in four price categories?” I could then use that list as a hit list, and that’s exactly what I did. It was my restaurant to-visit list. My map for finding the freakishly good chefs with odd tricks up their sleeves.

MG: That’s awesome. So we’ve seen that the list is included in your book. Why did you choose to share this list with your readers, and what significance does its placement in the “Living the Good Life” section hold?
TF: The subtitle of The 4-Hour Chef is “The simple path to cooking like a pro, learning anything and living the good life.” As it relates to the good life, which is ultimately the goal of all this stuff, I looked at marriage and divorce research and one of the main predictors of happiness and healthy relationships was long dinners together. If you want to move faster, it pays to slow down in a few tactical places, and one of them is eating, and that’s why it is located in that section. If you rely on the wisdom of this carefully crafted collective intelligence, then you don’t have to have hit or miss experiences. You can just go and hit the mark every time, which is pretty sweet.

MG: So let me ask you this, I’m sure all the Yelpers out there are going to be very curious as to why and how you chose Yelp as a source. What made Yelp different from other sources of restaurant information?
TF: It’s very hard to get an unbiased view of food and restaurants. Of course it is subjective, and I looked at the stuff from the high priests, like the San Pellegrino rankings. However, I developed a relationship with you guys and I respected the intelligence of the engineers and the scientific method behind it. I appreciated the fact that there is strength in numbers. I was most interested in the Gestalt picture of a restaurant as opposed to the opinion of one person or five people. That’s why Yelp in the end shone very brightly for me and I wanted to include it in the book.

MG: So how many of the Top 100 Restaurants have you tried? Do you have any plans to complete the list?
TF: I’ve tried a good number. I didn’t have a chance to try all of them because I wanted to have a chance to try some restaurants that are certainly not on these lists; a couple of hidden gems here and there. There are some that I really want to try that I haven’t yet, like Girl and the Goat in Chicago, Nick’s on Main and Manresa in Los Gatos. I’ve tried maybe 20 percent of the list.

MG: You’re making me want to go on a food tour, thinking how I haven’t been to some of these places! And I too have been neglecting Los Gatos even though I grew up two miles away from there in Cupertino. So, back to the book, in the “Pro” section of The 4-Hour Chef, you consult some of the “best in the world” to gain insight on their success. How did you choose what professional chefs to consult and meet with?
TF: There are several different ways. I wanted to talk to people on the streets and experts and ask “who are the most unconventional chefs and what’s your opinion of them?” And also to find people who are good at this but do not have the credentials or didn’t go to culinary school. For example Mario Batali opted for sort of street training instead of going to culinary school. And then you have someone like Grant Achatz at Alinea who is just a phenom, and Marco Canora of Hearth, which is an incredible Italian place in NYC, who is not a showman, but his technique and consistency is so impeccable.

MG: At Yelp our focus is all about local neighborhoods and communities, so what’s your local neighborhood and some of your favorite places to eat and shop for ingredients for your newfound cooking hobby?
TF: I live around Noe Valley in San Francisco and there are a couple places I like. Le P’tit Laurent - everything I’ve had there is extremely well done. Another tiny place - I love the tiny places - is called La Ciccia. It’s a husband and wife team. I remember I actually wrote part of the book in there and the chef came out at one point and I wanted to try something so he brought out the ingredients and said “good luck!”

In terms of getting items, you can go fancy, but you can also go to Safeway and get perfectly good ingredients. You don’t have to buy everything organic to avoid pesticides and toxins. Look at the “clean 15” list, which are fruits and vegetables that even when grown conventionally have the lowest levels of pesticides and toxin residue, and the “dirty dozen,” which have the highest toxin content and pesticides that you almost always want to get organic. Another easy way to tell if you’re being ripped off when buying organic stuff is to look at the sticker. Almost always the sticker should start with the number nine if it’s organic.

MG: The one restaurant in Noe Valley that you didn’t mention that I took a liking to recently is Contigo. It reminds me of being back in Barcelona.
TF: Yeah, Contigo is great. I actually love Contigo. In San Francisco you’re really spoiled. I’ve been in the Bay Area for 12 years and I have not even scratched the surface of food in San Francisco.

MG: Starting out as a self-proclaimed “non-cook,” how did your personal appreciation of food evolve over the course of researching and writing this book?
TF: This is the cookbook for people who don’t buy cookbooks. To this day I really enjoy cooking, but I love eating, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. Even if you never cook past a week of experimentation, if you experiment with food for a week in a very playful but logical progression, by the end of that week you’ll have collected all of these new flavors and sensations so that every meal you have after that point will go from black and white TV to a million colors in HD.

MG: That’s really cool. It’s almost like learning how to taste wine, except this is learning how to taste food all over again and really appreciate it.
TF: Exactly, and what I want to do, for those of you who have seen the movie Limitless, is get people as close to taking a pill of NZT as possible without the side effects.

MG: What was the craziest thing you ate when you were doing the global tour or here in the US? Anything with spikes on it, or just dangerous or crazy?
TF: Yes, I tried a lot of weird things. [Sigh] A lot of weird things. I did have sheep's brains.

MG: I was going to ask about brains!
TF: Yeah, sheep's brains in Istanbul, Turkey. I’ve also had bull penis in China. I’d also not recommend it. If you get something like Pad Thai with chicken it comes out and looks like a delicious meal, it doesn’t look like a chicken. The downside of the two that I mentioned, was that it was just a brain on a plate and you ate it with a spoon. For the bull penis, I was with someone and we decided to order the other person’s meal. I found a birds nest held together by real bird spit for her to eat, and then she flipped a couple pages and found the bull penis. It came out and - I don’t want to get too graphic - was just a big bull penis on a plate cut into sections. It was horrible, and it tastes exactly how you’d imagine it would. Not very good.

MG: Do you at least feel smarter after eating the brain?
TF: [Laughs] No, I didn’t find it to be a cognitive enhancement, although I do talk about smart drugs in the book, like Desmopressin.

MG: You specialize in “radically counterintuitive” advice and have visited professional chefs around the world to learn from them. Can you share one bit of counterintuitive wisdom gleaned?
TF: Sure, I’ll tell you how to cook the perfect steak. There are easier 10-minute ways, but this is if you really want to try the perfect steak. This takes a long time to explain, but it’s really fast to do.
- Get a ribeye steak, ideally 1 ½ inches thick.
- Pat it dry, put it in the refrigerator on a plate uncovered and coat the top with salt, up to an inch thick to dry brine it; leave it for at least a couple hours.
- Rinse off the excess salt and pat it dry again.
- Place it on a cake stand or something elevated inside the freezer uncovered for 45 minutes. Not to freeze it, but because the freezer is the driest environment in your whole house. You’re evaporating all of the surface moisture to get the best sear possible.
- Use a skillet at very high heat to sear the steak.
- Place it on a bed of rosemary so that the bottom of the steak doesn’t continue to cook when you place it in the oven, and put ghee on top of the steak to melt.
- Get a probe thermometer, set it to 135 degrees and stick it in the middle of the steak. Throw the steak in the oven at 200 degrees and wait for the thermometer alarm to go off.
- When you take the steak out, you don’t have to let it rest since you cooked it at a low temperature.

MG: What’s your favorite meal to cook, your favorite meal to order at a restaurant, and your favorite meal to have someone else cook you at home?
TF: One of my current favorites that I like to play around with because I like things that are really fast and really healthy, especially if I’m traveling, is a “healthy Butterfinger.” Microwave a sweet potato for six minutes to get it all mushy and scrape out the insides into a bowl. Add a scoop of chocolate whey protein, and one or two tablespoons of really good peanut butter or almond butter, mix it up with a spoon and it takes just like a Butterfinger. It’s so good and you have tons of healthy fats and a nice awesome dose of protein.

As far a my favorite meal to order at a restaurant, I like to minimize my decisions. I make a lot of decisions in my life, so when I go out I really like tasting menus or omakase. Go to a Japanese place and say “omakase” and it means “I’ll leave it to you.”

For someone else to cook for me, it’d be my girlfriend’s meatloaf. She’s a great cook and has inspired me in many ways to tackle this book because I saw how relaxing and joyful she found cooking.