Two years ago, we talked with Epicurious’ Digital Director David Tamarkin about a challenge he’d created, called COOK90. It was a simple concept: for the month of January, he asks you to commit to cooking all your meals—breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and even your coffee breaks—as a way to strengthen your skills and experiment with new recipes. Last month, he further formalized the challenge by publishing a terrific new cookbook, fittingly called COOK90: The 30-Day Plan for Faster, Healthier, Happier Meals. In a Q+A with Editorial Director Lukas Volger, we talked with him about his new book, some of the motivations around it, and how COOK90 has changed since he originally conceived it. While the challenge typically takes place in new-year-new-you January, David emphasizes that you can start at any time. So, if you’re looking for a good reason to deepen your relationship with your kitchen, read on—and start making your shopping list.
How has COOK90 evolved since we spoke with you about it two years ago?
It's become a little more realistic. A little looser, a little easier. I took away the rule that you had to cook something different from breakfast every day. That rule really stressed me out—I remember getting really annoyed at some point, thinking "who's stupid rule is this??" before remembering that it was, oh yeah, mine.
Cooking new things every day became less interesting to me as I focused more on the core reasoning behind the challenge, which, of course, is to inspire people to cook more, and to help people realize that daily cooking can be done. To ask that people cook something new for breakfast every day started to seem more like a stunt than an exercise in how to really make daily cooking work. So I nixed it.
We've also gone deep into the meal plans. When COOK90 first started, I felt that meal plans were antithetical to the program, because a key tenet is that you cook whatever you want. But people kept on asking for them, and I realized that there's a benefit to giving an example of what a week or month of COOK90 can look like. So the book has four weeks of meal plans, which I'm cooking through this month.
Other than that the challenge has remained largely the same: cook! three meals a day! all month! Pretty simple.
The aim of COOK90 isn't just to cook all your meals for a month, but to get out of your comfort zone—you can't cook the same meal more than twice. But there is a great hack in the concept of "nextovers." What's the difference between a nextover and a leftover?
Two key differences: Nextovers are intentional, and you use nextovers to make a completely different meal. Leftovers, on the other hand, are usually a happy accident—"Oh, there's soup leftover, I'll have it for lunch tomorrow." That's fine, but when you nextover, you're intentionally making more food than you could eat for dinner, with the expressed purpose of using that food in a new recipe the next day, or the day after that. My favorite example of this is the cover recipe of the book: you roast eight sweet potatoes, and that same night you stuff four of those potatoes with mushrooms, chorizo, cilantro, and hot sauce. A few nights later you use the remaining sweet potatoes in a chickpea-sweet potato curry. The curry is so fast, because you don't have to wait for the sweet potatoes to cook—you just chop them up and add them at the end. When they're warmed through, the curry's ready.
Since you're a food professional and skilled cook, do you ever have to defend COOK90 as a challenge for you to be promoting? Here's why I'm asking: When I did it two years ago, several friends seemed to think I'd picked a pretty easy January challenge—since cooking is my job, and I love it, and I do it most days as it is. But it was actually hard! I realized that I often give in to the impulse to eat out (and that eating out is pretty central in my social life), and that I've got more lazy go-to recipes in my repertoire than I'd realized.
The only pushback I get is from some Epicurious readers who tell me they've been "doing COOK90 their entire lives." Which is a fair point—often, not cooking is an act of privilege. For people who are used to daily cooking, I'm sure doing COOK90 for a month is laughable. But one of my motivations when I started COOK90 was that I felt I wasn't walking the walk—I was talking a lot about cooking on Epi and in other publications, but did I really know the struggle of putting dinner on the table every night? Most people I encounter think it's crazy to cook that much, and think they could never do it; it's only the die-hard daily cooks that lightly scoff because they know it can be done.
One of the cornerstones of COOK90 is leaning to plan ahead for the week. As someone who loathes meal plans and shopping lists, even if they're necessary, I'd love to know how you find pleasure in this particular chore.
I wouldn't call myself a very organized person, so when I am organized, it's sort of thrilling to me. I wave my list in my boyfriend's face—and, uh, put it on Instagram—like: look at me! I planned something! Give me props!
And I guess I love meal plans because I hate the time wasted on deciding what to cook. Or—worse—getting home, finding a recipe to get excited about, and then realizing that I don't have what I need on hand. I feel you that meal plans can be restrictive, and that it's sometimes impossible to know what you'll want to cook five nights from now. But I honestly find that once I start cooking, I can get excited about anything. Until I fuck it up. Then I throw a fit and eat a peanut butter sandwich.
I'm curious how you see COOK90 fitting into the current food landscape. We've probably never had so many people thinking about food so imaginatively and critically, or consuming so much food content. And yet, the way people actually cook in a day-to-day capacity may tell a different story.
All that content you mention—the food personalities, food TV, food publications, "influencers," meal kits, books, podcasts—all of that has some people treating cooking like a spectator sport. They'll watch other people do it, and maybe do it themselves on special occasions. And while I don't think people should be doing COOK90 all the time—I mean, not even I would want to do that—I think a long-term abstinence from cooking has health implications. And financial implications. And relationship implications.
So where do I see COOK90 fitting into the current food landscape? On the fringes. Of course, the entire point of COOK90 is to get daily cooking off the fringe, and into the mainstream.
Photo from COOK90 by Chelsea Kyle, and used with permission.