As anyone who has ever cooked for more than one person knows, there are few things that are more infuriating than spending so much time prepping a meal, that you end up rushing to get it cooked, trash the kitchen, then hating your life when it takes more time to clean up than prepare.
Honestly, unless you model yourself after an executive chef and hire a few line cooks and a pot washer to do all the heavy work while you write menus and issue orders, cooking real food from scratch will always be more work than ordering take out. But there are several rules that will, with regular application, make the job a whole lot less stressful and may even improve your cooking.
The night or morning before you are going to cook, visualize the whole process up to the finished plate
This is a trick I picked up in my early 20’s after reading about a basketball coach who taught his players to close their eyes the night before a game and picture themselves getting ready for the game, walking onto the court and so on. He advised them to imagine it all down to the smallest detail and most importantly to imagine themselves as being happy and relaxed. At first I used the technique in college to help me with my running and studies and found that it worked brilliantly. Later, after I became a chef I used it to help me construct dishes and menus when I began to find that the pressure of working in a noisy kitchen was beginning to put a damper on my ability to create and cook efficiently.
Break up tasks into chunks and finish all of one chunk before you move onto another
I sometimes refer to this as the “Henry Ford” approach in recognition of his alleged invention of the production line. If you are preparing mushrooms, don’t wash one, pat it dry, cut off the stem and cut the cap. Wash all of the mushrooms, dry them all, cut off all the stems, then cut them all up. By doing all of one step before moving onto another, you limit the number of tools you need on hand at any given moment to one, reduce the number of hand positions required, and you minimize the distance that your body has to move while you are doing the job so that in the end, you can focus on working fast and deftly.
Make it simpler, not more complicated
It’s easier and arguably more beautiful to take a half of a chicken breast, flatten it gently with a mallet, dust it with flour, season it with salt and pepper and sauté it in clarified butter than it is to whack the thing up into strips, and stir-fry it in a wobbly wok. And if you take the trouble to find really high quality chicken like the kind that I get where I work, you won’t want to do anything that will obscure it’s identity or intrinsic flavor.
It is a useful intellectual and, I would argue, practical exercise to occasionally walk the path implied by the (usually negatively critical) term from classical philosophy and go reductio ad absurdum when planning a meal. Instead of thinking about what you can add to make it better, think about what you can leave out (heat or salt for example). The same applies to cooking tools. Try boning a raw chicken with your fingers (it’s easier than you think) or cook an entire meal using only one knife, or one pot.
And if all of that seems too daunting, well then, try visualizing someone else doing the cooking.