Are you near your cookbooks right now? Sorry, I forgot we’re on the internet—a better question might be: do you even own cookbooks? If you do, chances are good that Mastering the Art of French Cooking has a place on your shelf. For many beginning cooks like myself, it’s probably the only book you own about French cuisine.
The book, written by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, turns fifty-five this year. Of its many vaunted passages, though, one in particular always stands out: the eleven pages that Child and her co-authors devote to making an omelette.
In the proper French style, an omelette is elegantly simple, daringly minimalist. It trades on the alchemical promise of classic French cooking, whereby a chef transforms one or two standard ingredients into something transcendent. The egg is light, airy, velvety. The fillings are sparse but perfectly paired. Or maybe there are no fillings at all—just herbs whisked into the batter. It’s the type of food Steve Jobs would have made, if he were a chef.
Child and her co-authors don’t wax as poetic about the omelette as I do in their eleven pages. Instead, they devote the space to technique: pan movement, whisking, how to get the omelette on the plate. Still, it’s unusually in-depth for such a simple dish. Omelettes have four ingredients in their purest form (butter, eggs, salt and pepper), and take five minutes to make. They would seem to be a natural avenue for a beginning cook. But I haven’t made a good one yet.
I’ve made probably thirty to fifty omelettes in the past year-and-a-half, and none are quite right. I have cooked them for too long, I haven’t cooked them for long enough. I’ve cooked them too hot, and cooked them too cold. I could write a Doctor Seuss book about all the ways I’ve screwed up an omelette.
There are shortcuts, of course. I recently read an article in Cook’s Illustrated that spent about six pages “hacking” the French omelette. Rather than Child’s straightforward, if difficult, approach, Cook’s Illustrated included pages of alterations to achieve a more perfect omelette. These extra steps involved embedding chunks of frozen butter into the egg mixture and rolling the omelette into proper shape with a paper towel before serving. Following these steps should, in theory, result in a picture-perfect omelette every time.
To me, that’s totally missing the point. The beauty of the omelette is that it remains unconquerable. Even eleven pages of description can’t prepare you for the lightning-fast decisions that need to be made when the eggs hit the pan.
If The Karate Kid took place in France, Mr. Myagi would have had Daniel-san cook a bunch of omelettes instead of waxing cars. Just like with Daniel-san’s waxing duties, cooking omelettes teaches a valuable lesson. After repeatedly doing something imperfectly, you learn to accept that not everything you do in your kitchen is going to be a three-star Michelin meal. When my fifteenth omelette came out of the pan only slightly better than my first, I finally became comfortable with a certain amount of failure in the kitchen.
That can be a good thing, because failing repeatedly helped me understand how to reach a (more) successful outcome next time: maybe slightly less heat, or quicker spatula movements. Your best omelette is always your next one, something Child understood. “Learning to make a good omelette is a matter of practice,” she wrote.
Because of those failures, I began to view my kitchen less as a stage and more as a laboratory. In order to perfect the omelette, I stripped things down to basics, minimizing fillings so that I could focus on the texture of the eggs and thinking about what size pan to use for optimum cooking. Trying to unlock the omelette forced me to learn a lot about basic cooking technique in one dish.
My omelette standards are probably unattainable, and I’m fine with that. My zealous devotion to a relatively humble goal is all part of what I’ve come to think of as the Zen of the Omelette. Producing a plate of perfectly-cooked eggs would be great, but it’s the process of getting there that is instructive. I may not ever create an omelette Julia Child would be happy with, but I have learned humility, embraced failure, and kept it simple. And I think Julia would be happy with that.