Some cooks like recipes. My mother, for example.
Some cooks develop a sense of what works well with what, and improvise with what's at hand. They also develop a handy set of reliable favorites and standard techniques. My father, for example.
In fact, most people I have met who enjoy cooking fall squarely into one camp or the other. I never had a chance to ask my father about his technique, or the history of how he came to be a wok wizard (most of his inventions were stir-fries of one stripe or another).
For me, also the second kind of cook, I started by unintentionally memorizing flavor combos that work well: mushrooms and thyme; rosemary and potatoes; cilantro and lime; tomatoes and cheese; avocado and...everything. And then just worked from there.
Truth: I had never met anyone who cooked like T. He told me about a dinner he whipped up for his friend, at her house.
Him: "Yeah, I made steak [I think it was steak] with a balsamic/grape reduction."
Me: "You just made that up?"
Me (inside my head): "That sounds weird."
Then he cooked for me one night and it was one of the strangest meals I ever had. He arrived fresh from the Key Food with what seemed to me to be an entirely incongruous and random set of ingredients. Almost like he had played a private game of Supermarket Sweep. It involved orzo, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, raw mushrooms, raw scallions and...blackberries. Now, I didn't care for this meal, but it doesn't take away from the fact that I admired it, in a weird way. Admired the courage that came with flying without a net (recipe) and not relying on tired old flavor combos. The risk of it all. Go big or go home, the meal seemed to say. Did I mention it had two sauces, both drizzled on the plate with homemade sauce drippers made out of Ziploc baggies?
The last meal T made me was an omelet for breakfast. I came back from the gym to find him chopping up things he had found in my (empty, I thought) fridge.
Him: "I am making you an omelet!"
Me (inside my head): "Gulp."
And then he served me a gorgeously cooked omelet, filled --I think--with a thin layer of my corn salsa, cheddar cheese, chopped red onion. It was absolutely delicious. And a little bit strange. This is a third kind of cook, I thought to myself.