When chef, Momofuku restaurateur and irreverent media personality David Chang approached food journalist Priya Krishna with the idea to create a cookbook with a major twist—the book would have no recipes—she was deeply skeptical. It was 2019, the same year Krishna published her bestselling cookbook Indian-ish, which includes precise recipes for dishes like roti pizza and tomato rice with crispy cheddar. Chang’s idea was to try to share with the masses how he had started to cook at home after the birth of his first child—an improvisational, hack-filled approach that shuns all fuss and relies heavily on the microwave. “How are we going to put people in front of a steering wheel,” Krishna remembers thinking, “without telling them how to drive a car?”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the world went into lockdown and Krishna found herself back at home in Dallas with her parents. She noticed her mom cooked just like Chang. “She was freewheeling in the kitchen, making constant substitutions, coming up with clever hacks on the fly,” Krishna says. “Suddenly everything Dave had said to me a year prior felt incredibly prescient.”
After months of debates about the clearest way to describe meat doneness, the importance of “authenticity” in food and the best approach to unraveling common misconceptions about cooking—all of which play out in colorful exchanges on the page—the pair is set to publish Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave) on Oct. 26. A lively instruction manual on how to wing it in the kitchen, the book includes essays, interviews with food scientists and guidance on how to take basic ingredients like chicken thighs, rice or frozen vegetables and prepare them in simple, adaptable ways.
Chang and Krishna spoke to TIME about the roots of their perspectives on cooking, the best tips from the book and how they’re pushing back against rigid standards in the food industry.
TIME: Cooking at Home is dedicated to your moms. What are your strongest memories of your moms in the kitchen?
Krishna: There’s this line where Dave says something like, “How did the best cooks you know become the best? It wasn’t by following a recipe.” My mom immigrated to this country, found almost none of the ingredients she was familiar with and figured it out: I liked this dish, what are the flavors? Pita was a sub for roti. Feta was a sub for paneer. Seeing the way her mind worked was amazing, her ability to constantly innovate and adapt.
Chang: When I think about the memories I have as a child, if they’re not on the golf course, they’re moments of cooking with my mom or grandmother or aunts, making dumplings or cooking a steak from Costco in the toaster oven. It’s the same story of immigrant parents—my mom telling me that 7UP was why her naengmyeon was so delicious. That story is something this book tries to celebrate.
The book starts with a lot of prefacing and reassuring the reader that even though there are no exact recipes, you can still learn something. Do you really think people will be shocked by the concept?
Chang: I think it goes against the grain of what people want. So I have to be honest, I’m extremely nervous.
Krishna: I made this food for people, I got honest feedback and we made tweaks accordingly, but in all honesty, I have no idea how it will be received. But Dave and I are always questioning the standards that have been set by institutions. Why do cookbooks need to be made this way? Why do we need to be taught this way? When I think back to my cookbook, I remember how my mom thought it was insane that I called for a quarter cup of chopped cilantro to garnish. She was like, what Indian on earth is measuring that out? I would ask her the difference between a small and a medium tomato and she would just give me this blank stare.
Chang: I feel like Priya gave me the same expression when we were going over the meat chapter. I was exasperated trying to figure out how to tell people to cook it this way, with this amount of heat. How do you explain something that you don’t think is ineffable but you just sort of have to do?
Krishna: But that was the best part of the book, because it was the result of literally hours and hours of exasperated conversations until Dave would make a comparison and it would all of a sudden click. Probably one of the top five takeaways is the Tempur-Pedic test: when you press your thumb into it, does it feel like a Tempur-Pedic mattress? Yes, the meat is done. No, keep it cooking. That just makes it feel so simple—I can cook any meat, knowing this test.
Aside from the Tempur-Pedic test, if people are to do one thing from the book, what should it be?
Krishna: Make cacio e pepe in a blender. It will change your life.
Chang: I would say the best takeaway is: don’t listen to me. The dal recipe is my favorite because Priya browbeats me, saying, “I don’t want anything to do with this.” Getting to taste her mom’s dal, I was like, No wonder she feels this way.
I loved the part about dal, not only because it’s fun to see you bicker on the page, but also because you’re grappling with the idea of ownership, asking how and when it’s okay to crib from other cultures and how to give credit. How do you reconcile those questions?
Krishna: I was constantly grappling with, what gives Dave and me the right to put a recipe for pozole or pho? And if we’re going to put our interpretations of those dishes, how do we do that in a responsible way? For almost every recipe, we have a list of books: if you are interested in this cuisine, here are books by actual experts.
Chang: It’s part of a conversation that we hope will continue. I mean, we hope that people don’t use this book at all down the road, and it’s a stepping stone for people to find the real authorities.
Dave, you write about how you didn’t think you were great at cooking because “good” cooking adhered to strict, European standards. How do you push past those expectations?
Chang: When I was in cooking school, I came back from Japan and asked my French instructor, “What about pork stock?” He said that was for “savages.” He didn’t mean anything ill of it—it was what he was taught. But if you look at how people have adapted toward ramyun, how can that be true? Cultural truths, particularly in food, should be questioned. If something is good, why? If something is bad, why? It allows you to have a lot more empathy for things that you may not be familiar with.
Krishna: Coming into this industry, I had worked in kitchens in college, but I certainly didn’t have classic French culinary training, and I saw that as a huge drawback. I would try to put the food that I was writing about in the context of European food—calling a dosa a crepe, a roti a type of Indian flatbread. As time has gone on, I’ve realized that there are a tremendous number of people who grew up the way that I did and who want to see that experience represented.
Read More: The Truth About Home Cooking
The restaurant world has a longstanding reputation of being really rough and tough, and the public is learning how food media can be similarly tough and discriminatory. Now, everyone’s pledging to change. Can we trust that restaurants and media companies are really committed to that change?
Chang: In terms of restaurants, people are just getting acclimated to the idea that there’s more than just what’s on the plate. I know that the people I work with are trying to get to a future that’s better, and that’s just one day at a time. It starts with effective communication and clear goals, and trying not to promise something you can’t do.
Krishna: Personally, I am just very tired of sitting in DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] meetings. Show me mastheads with people of color at the top and restaurants where workers share in the profits. Media is built on a legacy of whiteness and restaurants are built on the assumption of inexpensive labor. I’m excited to see organizations like Whetstone that are rethinking the traditional model. And I hope to see people in media—I would hold myself accountable to this—not putting chefs on a pedestal, and instead treating restaurants for what they are, which are collectives of people who all play a part.
Chang: Maybe the best way to think about food isn’t from a professional perspective at all. Where I’m at is reevaluating everything—and home is where a lot of that is happening.