The 4-Hour Chef: An Extended Review of a Terrible Book

Tim Ferris is pretty good at a lot of things. He writes good copy and great titles--both of which are critical ingredients for any best-seller. He's got a knack for applying the 80/20 rule to a wide range of disciplines. And he's good at writing to his own demographic--let's call it 20-39 year old urban/suburban men.

However, what Tim Ferris is really good at is hype. And let's be honest: you have to be good at marketing and hype to get the 20-39 male demographic to read you. The problem, however, is that all this hype makes Ferriss's books appear more rigorous than they really are.

And as we'll soon see, what intelligent readers will mostly do while reading The 4-Hour Chef is question Tim Ferriss's credibility to write it.

Speaking of 20- and 30-something men, here's yet another thing Tim Ferriss is good at: affectation. Like hype, affectation is utterly useless to readers, but it at least produces some unintentional humor. If for some foolish reason you buy The 4-Hour Chef, prepare yourself for countless name-dropping experience brags like these:

"The Maasai warrior I bought this from was eager to talk, which we did for more than an hour."

"Marc Andreesen [ed: this is the founder of Netscape, which invented the internet browser] introduced me to a series of [whiskeys] over dinner. At the time his kitchen featured a walk-in whiskey library stocked with a fit for every palate, each scored from 1-4 (4 being the best)."

"I was once invited to a rather fancy cocktail party in San Francisco, held at a billionaire's house."

[In a section on the USA's best hunting locales] "Catskill Mountains, New York. Squirrel season: Sept. 1--Feb. 28, though I particularly like January and February."

Now, these could be the casually tossed-off comments of a garden-variety narcissist, or they're the deliberate statements of a tone-deaf young man who doesn't yet know that "eager to impress" is an oxymoron. Maybe both.

But in a huge book that's scattered, disorganized, covers too much ground too superficially, contains perhaps 300 pages of fluff, and contains all the bragging above, it suggests to me that Tim Ferriss doesn't know when he is outside his circle of competence. Reread the "squirrel brag" quote above. Are we really to believe Tim Ferris has a favorite month for hunting squirrel?

Expertise You Don't Have
Sure, okay, it's just squirrel hunting. No big deal, right? We could laugh it off and not take it seriously. But I want to focus on this quote, because it illustrates an enormously important point about author credibility.

This squirrel brag is one of dozens of examples in The 4-Hour Chef of what I'd call pretend expertise. Ferris acts as if he knows, through personal experience, which months he likes best to hunt squirrel. But the problem is this: knowing the best months would involve actually hunting in all the other months, most likely over a period of years. You'd have to do this before you could believably make the claim that you "particularly like" a given month.

Yet judging by both context and the book's production timeline, it's infinitely more likely that Ferriss simply went out and hunted for squirrels... once. It happened to be in January or February and he "particularly" liked it. Readers, do you see the distinction? In this tossed-off brag, Ferriss lays claim to expertise he doesn't actually have.

And when an author pretends to have expertise he doesn't have, he annihilates his credibility. Just one or two instances of this in a book can destroy the reader-author bond of trust. The 4-Hour Chef contains dozens. Which leaves readers unable to rely safely on all the information in this book. It's not always clear exactly when Tim is out of his depth, but you can be certain that it's more often than it should be.

Combine this credibility problem with the laughably exaggerated claims both in and on the book (e.g.: dramatically improve your sex life, or worse: speak fluent Spanish in 8 weeks), and The 4-Hour Chef starts to feel a little like talking to the pathological liar kid from your high school. Sometimes he'd say something fully true, but not often enough for anyone to trust him.

How Do You Define "Fluent"?
Consider Tim's discussion of languages (Ferriss spends several pages on the topic as part of a broader discussion of rapid learning). Admittedly, Ferriss shares some excellent techniques for efficiently learning a foreign language. But anyone with success learning languages will know instantly that Tim uses a generous-to-the-point-of-meaningless definition of the word "fluent." Which means even this particularly useful portion of the book loses credibility too.

The thing is, The 4-Hour Chef didn't have to be so bad. It actually teaches some useful things. Like how to throw a low-stress dinner party. How to manage leftovers. How to add more herbs and greens to your cooking. How to employ aggressive use of 80/20 principles to make cooking less intimidating. How to buy cooking gear cost effectively. How to modify recipes. Except that you can already find all this advice, ahem, elsewhere. And rehashing information your readers can easily find online--for free, even--doesn't really help your credibility either.

And yes, there are competent recipes in The 4-Hour Chef too: Union Square Zucchini (page 158) and Coconut Cauliflower Curry Mash (p.154) are simple, inexpensive recipes that would resonate with Casual Kitchen readers. The Eggocado (p.183) is a creative--albeit also rehashed and unoriginal--idea for a quick and easy meal.

But the rest of the book? Terrible. Filled with how-to's on getting the perfect cup of coffee, the best whiskey, the best tequila, the best slow-carb white wines, and the best tea pairings to go with dinner. Essentially, a collection of lists for people who want the "best" of something, but who don't want to work too hard to get it, find it or learn about it.

Eating Crickets and a Failed Vermonster
Worse, the entire book becomes extremely thin after about page 350. There's no reason to include a ten-page spread (complete with silly pictures) on failing to eat an entire Ben and Jerry's Vermonster. That's the kind of crappy content for a backup blog post, not for a book. The sections on coffee and sous vide cooking are incoherent and need rewriting. Likewise, the section on eating crickets needs rewriting too: it's so try-hard witty that it's impossible to take seriously.

I could go on: Tim's instructions for "coffee for lazy people" require a digital scale, a temperature probe, a handheld grinder, an Aero Press coffee maker and eight discrete steps. There's a preposterously useless liquid nitrogen-based ice cream recipe that strokes the author's ego more than it informs the reader. There are dozens of full pages in this book containing nothing but a profoundish-sounding one-sentence quote from some famous person. The outdoors section of the book contains page after page of photos of snares, slingshots, firepaste, explosives, knives and Maasai warrior swords--and it reads like Tim's personal application to be The Most Interesting Man In The World.

Remove the brags and filler, get rid of the full-page Lincoln and Da Vinci quotes in gigantic print, and this 670-page book boils down to maybe 150 pages of useful material.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't address the 4-Hour Chef "Reviewgate" controversy. Anyone who looks over the Amazon reviews of this book should be aware that more than 50 separate 5-star reviews spontaneously appeared on Amazon the very same day the book came out.

Remember, the 4-Hour Chef is 670 pages long. Should we believe all these 5-star reviews came from impartial readers who had actually read the entire book? I'd say that's about as believable as... well, as Tim Ferriss having a favorite month for hunting squirrel.

Final Thoughts
Readers, what makes a writer credible? What makes us trust a writer enough to rely on what he or she teaches?

Let's return briefly to a concept we touched on above: the "circle of competence." This concept comes from none other than Warren Buffett, who was well-known for protecting his investors by avoiding investing in industries he didn't understand. Buffett made it his personal policy to know--and remain within--the boundaries of what he knew well. Tim Ferriss will probably never read Casual Kitchen, but for what it's worth, I think he should read up on Warren Buffett's circle of competence concept. It's discussed repeatedly in Buffett's free and publicly available annual letters to his shareholders. It might help Tim better define the scale and scope of his next book.

But wait! Ferriss wrote at least three blog posts about Warren Buffett, and he even goes so far as to claim that he devoured Buffett's "incredibly readable annual letters."

And yet, if the concept of the circle of competence comes up repeatedly in Buffett's annual letters, how can Tim not know about it? Did he really "devour" Buffett's shareholder letters? Or did he just skim 20% of them and confuse that with knowing the material? Does this mean Tim defines "devour" the same way he defines "fluent" and "favorite month"?

80/20 Won't Make You Credible
This gets to the fundamental problem of exclusively using 80/20 strategies to learn. It seems really cool to think you can get away with just learning the most important 20% of Spanish, the most important 20% of cooking, of hunting, of tango, of whatever. It's alluring to think you can skip 80% of the dumb stuff in any subject and yet still be an expert.

But you miss things when you skip 80% of the material. Sometimes you miss really, really important things, and it then becomes painfully obvious to your readers that you've strayed far beyond your circle of competence.

Maybe an 80/20-type approach to learning is sufficient to fake it. Maybe it's enough, even, to become a competent amateur. But if you want to author a book and have real credibility with your readers, you have to learn the whole 100%, and learn it well.

Readers: This is the harshest (and longest) book review I've written in a while. What are your thoughts?

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Stuart Carter said...

the only thing that's worse than deliberate ignorance is "pretended competence" of a subject the reader knows about. The pretended competence shines through more and more clearly and leaves you shaking your head and feeling... violated? So this review has saved me the bother of borrowing the book from the library :)

chacha1 said...

I wasn't going to read the book anyway, because seriously: four-hour chef? I'm a very smart person, and it's taken me four *years* to learn how to cook.

Very entertaining review though. :-) I couldn't agree more that pretending to expert status when you have (at best) a shallow understanding of your subject is both deceptive and ultimately self-defeating. Because you never get away with it.

People who have read Ferris' stuff previously and who go to this one, who try to become kitchen-competent on the basis of it, and who crash and burn are going to blame him, not themselves, and rightly so.

Of course there will always be the small proportion of readers who are always convinced that *they* are in the wrong, and if they just buy one more self-help book they'll be fine. But there's no helping those folks.

Liz T. said...

Bravo. You described the sense of uneasiness I feel from time to time when talking to someone (or reading something) but could never find the right words for. You did, and it's perfect. THANK you!

Sally said...

"People...who try to become kitchen-competent on the basis of it, and who crash and burn are going to blame him, not themselves, and rightly so."

I think they'll blame themselves, especially if they have little kitchen knowledge. When a blogger or cookbook author screws up a recipe and it gets published anyway, people following the recipe tend to wonder what they did wrong. It rarely occurs to them that they're not wrong and that the recipe or technique is a failure.

Jean said...

Great review - I've only read the four hour work week and the four hour body, and I completely see what you mean about misapplying the 80/20 principle.
I've enjoyed your blog for a long time, and my good opinion has been enhanced by this honest and specific review.
Thank you.

chacha1 said...

Sally - maybe I should have said "people who crash and burn SHOULD blame him." :-)

You're right though, my personal approach to learning new things (of a baseline confidence in my own competence) seems to be more rare than it ought to be.

Esme said...

I checked out the 4-Hour Chef specifically because of the claim on the back about learning Spanish. Reading the bit about learning a language had a useful point or two, but went on too long. I felt like there was a world of difference between learning a few words and the priniciples of grammar and actually holding a conversation with someone.

Daniel said...

Esme, and even the language-related content is largely rehashed from Tim's own blog from years ago. Once again, there are some useful nuggets in this book, but you've gotta wade through a lot of brags, filler and favorite squirrel hunting months to get to them.

And Stuart, I think you picked the right word: violated. It's how I feel, for example, when I read articles about investing by authors who don't know the boundaries of *their* circle of competence. You feel like someone is tarnishing the very nature of expertise in your subject, they're misleading readers, and yet they're blissfully unaware of doing both.


Ronda said...

Well, it may have been long and harsh, but I read it all. It was good. Though I haven't (and won't) read the book, I certainly recognize the type. Not only books, but people who blab on and on and pretend to know things they don't, are so annoying!

sydney said...

Simply put, the title of the book is an insult to chefs who have busted their ass in culinary school and worked their way up the line in restaurants. The title, "4-hour *Home Cook*" has less hubris, but is still insulting to those who have spent hours in the kitchen refining their craft. Cooking is a craft, not something you can pick up and master in a day or two

Leah said...

I used to read his blog, and the comments probably are legit - early copies shared with readers, and (if I remember correctly) a contest for everyone who posted a review. It's another game, and I think it was promoted that way. "Regular publishers wouldn't take this on, so let's show them how to make a bestseller!"

Nick (Macheesmo) said...

Nice review. I was inclined to buy this book just because it had the word "chef" in the title, but I haven't bought it yet...

I can tell you the one Tim Ferris book I would buy today:

Four Hour Book Selling.

I would say that's the definite area where I would consider him an expert.

Drew Kirkland said...

Daniel - I believe that your review makes some very good points about The 4-Hour Chef. However I truly believe you have wrongly misguided members of your audience due to the emotional nature of the review. You make claims discrediting Timothy Ferris' expertise and techniques without offering a more direct, more reliable source of information.

Timothy Ferris is, as always, incredibly clear with his intentions in The 4-Hour Chef. He separates the book into four distinct parts (META - learning, DOM - domestic, WILD - survival, SCI - science) and goes on to outline each chapter and it's intentions. This book is laid out exactly like The 4-Hour Work Week and The 4-Hour Body, they are intended to be used as reference manuals. Ferris makes a plethora of references to techniques and theories presented in The 4-Hour Body, like The Slow Carb Diet, which keeps the book engaging and relevant. The 4-Hour Chef is hands-down the most relevant and useful book of Ferris' target audience of 20-39 year old males. Compare it to The 4-Hour Body which offers advice on losing weight quickly AND gaining weight quickly - how could you possibly be interested in both? That immediately makes a large portion of the book irrelevant.

I own all three 4-Hour books and The 4-Hour Chef is the only one that I was not anticipating buying (I actually didn't know it was even in existence when I got it as a birthday gift) I bought the other two myself, and overall I have found The 4-Hour Chef the most intuitive, resourceful, insightful, informative, relevant, engaging, and entertaining. If you buy any Timothy Ferris 4-Hour novel, make it The 4-Hour Chef (and especially get it if you already own any of the others).

Just my two cents - Drew Kirkland

Daniel said...

Drew, thanks for your thoughts. I have to say, you lost me with this sentence:

"You make claims discrediting Timothy Ferris' expertise and techniques without offering a more direct, more reliable source of information."

It's the book author's responsibility to provide reliable information and credibility.

I've written a book review. If I see evidence that the author exaggerates his expertise or offers unreliable information--or for that matter if I see any weaknesses whatsoever in the book at all!--I will tell my readers.


Drew Kirkland said...

Daniel - glad to share an alternate perspective. Please forgive me as I have miscommunicated my point. My point is not your lack of an alternate source, but that I believe you are taking a simple opinion from Ferris and misconstruing it to be a claim of steadfast expertise. I don't believe Ferris is claiming to be an expert on squirrel season in the Catskill Mountains of NY, but is merely offering an opinion based on information gathered from true experts (Steve Rinella). He does disclaim on the page before "the following is meant to be used as a guide". It's hard to believe that you would let a few questionable opinions stop you from listening to thousands of other jewels of advice offered by Ferris.

A note about the statement "80/20 won't make you credible". I'd say that anyone who can learn 80% of something is credible in that category. Foreign language, cooking, sports, or any other given subject. I'm almost certain that you don't know %100 of everything that you do? Even something as simple as the English language.

No hard feelings - DK

Daniel said...

Drew, no worries at all. As readers here know, I encourage people to disagree with me. This is how we all learn.

There is useful advice in the book, no doubt about it. The issue, however, is author credibility. If there were just one or two examples of pretend or affected expertise in The 4-Hour Chef, that would be... better. Critical thinking readers should ask themselves how many examples they will tolerate before beginning to doubt the overall credibility of an author.


Peter Lin said...

Hi guys, I'm working on being a better chef and would be interested in your review of Tim's actual recipes & cooking techniques. I can get around a kitchen fine but am no expert, so would really like to take my cooking to the next level.

I get that Tim's a relentless self-promoter, huckster, and maybe even snake oil salesman. And he's probably not an expert at squirrel hunting by any means. Given the book's namesake, did you guys see any problems with his content on cooking techniques or recipes?

Daniel said...

Hi Peter, I'd say if you can already get around a kitchen just fine, then this book would be useless to you. In all likelihood you're already too advanced for it--both in context of his recipes and cooking techniques.


Mike said...

Hey Peter,

While maybe I agree with some of the comments about Tim's bombast, I found all the recipes I've tried to be phenomenal. I also, get around the kitchen pretty well, but found myself learning new flavors and a couple of techniques. Well worth the $20 the book costs.

And anyone who has an advertisement on their site for "Eat this and never diet again" is more credible than Ferris?

Kevin Olega said...

I read the 4 hour chef from cover to cover. I didn't become an expert chef in four hours but it got me started in the kitchen. The way I understand it is that I'll get a nice introduction to the fundamentals of cooking with the lessons of part one which is about 4 hours of prep time. It's not a perfect book because some of the nice gear is not available in my country but it's pretty good.