This is my response to Jim and his recent letter. His comment are in bold.
" I feel very nervous when it comes to flavoring food."
I've got good news for you - the food is already flavored. You are nervous because you're trying to push and pull ingredients, force them to submit to your recently acquired skills and techniques, instead of following them to see where they go.
A bowl of perfectly cooked spaghetti, tossed with good olive oil, garlic, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and chili flakes, is an "awesome meal," as your friend put it. True, your training is why the water had enough salt in it, the pasta was drained at the right moment, the basil was a beautiful green chiffanade, instead of an ugly black pile - but, the "awesomeness" of the meal, the "flavoring food" part, had little to do with you - it was the inherent goodness in the ingredients.
Don't try to make the food do tricks. Sliced leeks slowly melted with a strip of bacon, topped with grilled salmon is done - why are you trying to make a béarnaise sauce? Because you know how? Don't take credit (or blame) for the foods flavor, only for bringing (not forcing) it out.
Young painters use too many colors, young musicians use too many notes, and young cooks use to many ingredients.
"But the challenge to "make an awesome meal" out of random ingredients (i.e. without a recipe) made me want to throw up."
There is no harder task than trying to cook in a strange kitchen. Even the most experienced chefs lose that precious confidence stumbling around a foreign pantry. The key words in your sentence are "the challenge," because that's exactly what it is - a challenge, as in a fun, exciting, and dangerous dare.
Feeling like you want to throw up before the meal is understandable. Especially if you confuse "challenge" with "necessity " And, if after cooking the recipe, it really is bad, pretend to drop it on the floor and call for pizza.
"Is it just experience? I hope not!"
It's never "just" one thing, but, experience is a big part of it. Your 1,000th hollandaise will probably be better than your 4th. There's a reason people start as cooks, and then become sous chefs, chefs, and finally executive chefs. What's your hurry?
Old experienced chefs are expected to put out stunning food; cooks right out of culinary school aren't. This is why you should be cooking with relaxed abandon, free to mess things up royally. That whole "learn from your mistakes" thing was invented in a kitchen.
"Maybe I am looking for the holy grail of cooking, but…"
Get in line. We're all looking for it. And, even though you won't find it, never, ever, stop looking.