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Don’t learn recipes, learn how to cook.

Have you ever watched the TV show on the Food Network called “Chopped?” Each episode features four chefs competing for a $10,000 prize for cooking the best meal, comprised of three dishes: an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert. One chef is eliminated after each round.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? There’s a wrinkle though: the chefs do not know which ingredients they must use for each dish until just before they start cooking. All ingredients must be used in some way. Other common ingredients are also available.

Consider some of the surprise ingredients that have been included in the chefs’ “mystery baskets” in the past. In one episode, the ingredients for the appetizer were ground turkey, piquillo peppers, and gooseberries. For the entrée, the chefs had to use top round of lamb, coconut flakes, snap peas, and quick cooking grits. For dessert they were given celery, blood oranges, frozen pie crust, and jaggery. How do you make a dessert with celery? And what the heck is “jaggery” anyway?

The chefs could attempt to prepare for the contest by memorizing hundreds of recipes. That seems like it would be a losing battle though. I mean, how many dessert recipes use celery? (I looked and could not find a single one.) And how could the chefs possibly anticipate the almost limitless combinations of existing ingredients they might find in any given basket?

Instead, chefs learn techniques like stewing, grilling, poaching, sweating, braising, and baking, as well as an array of classic preparations, then apply them on the fly. Béchamel sauce is a common and versatile white sauce, and once a chef masters making it, he’ll have a world of variations at his command. Understanding which flavor combinations complement each other, like cinnamon and sugar, or apple and bleu cheese, allows chefs to be even more flexible and adapt to any given basket of ingredients.

Learning to program works in much the same way. Programming challenges can’t always be resolved by following recipes, so at the O’Reilly School of Technology, we help you to learn techniques. We want you to learn skills that you can mix-and-match and then apply to all sorts of different situations. Don’t get me wrong though – recipes are important too. How else would you know which ingredients to combine and how to make a tasty croque monsieur or baked rigatoni with béchamel?

Just like they do in culinary school, we provide mentors to guide you as you practice your techniques. Instead of a kitchen, we provide the learning sandbox of CodeRunner, a virtual Linux box, Eclipse, Visual Studio, or Talend Open Studio. Instead of recipes, we provide lessons. And unlike real kitchens, you don’t have to worry about running out of a particular ingredient or making a mistake and ruining expensive ingredients. We encourage experimentation in our courses. If something goes awry, your mentor is there to help you get back on track. If all else fails, your sandbox can be scrubbed clean and you can start again – no need to trek to the store to buy more groceries!

O’Reilly School offers you your very own well-stocked kitchen. Newbies are encouraged and welcome. Don’t be afraid to experiment – the ingredients are plentiful, your mentor is there to help, and no matter what kind of hash you make of things, you will not be chopped.