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Evolution of an (amateur) chef

My wife and I hold 4-5 parties a year that necessitate a large quantity of food. We’ll host BBQ’s or holiday meals at our home and my wife, being an over-prepared Italian woman, will ensure that we have enough food to feed most of Essex County for the next three weeks. After a Labor Day barbecue, we made hamburgers and/or hot dogs a weekly part of our diet for about six weeks until we finished them. Of course, barbecues are different because the food has less to do with craft and quality than the sheer number of mouths that need to be fed, with the exception of something special prepared like, what I did at that same party, four racks of ribs on the smoker and a slow-cooked pulled pork.

Holiday cooking tends to be a little more artisan. We carefully choose the menu by the following process: the choice of the entree comes first then is supplemented with appetizers, desserts and drinks. Well, in my family, the drink decision probably come right after entree decision, though we haven’t officially declared anything, and the drink hasn’t yet been the deciding factor in what we’re eating.

“Oh, we’re having a roast beef? Better get six, no, eight bottle of red wine.”

Preparing food for a holiday celebration is much different because of the care with which we treat our food. There are little extra touches of garnish for presentation. Think that rosemary sprig is finding itself onto my wife’s plate on a random Tuesday in October? No way, but I’ll be sure it ends up on my in-laws plates around Christmas time.

The truth, though, is that this is the type of event that I love preparing for. Again, the over-prepared Italian wife and I bicker over most of the microscopic details of the house in the days leading up to the event. There was one time where she called me on the ride home and said, “Start cleaning the house before the guests come,” so I did. I scrubbed and swept and fluffed cushions. I wiped counters and lit candles. The downstairs was immaculate. She came home and said, “Okay, I’ll do upstairs and you can finish downstairs.”

But we never fight about the food other than the quantity. Every year, I try to keep a tally of what we made too much of. Every year, she tells me to shut up and just listen to her. And, it’s through this that I learned “husband 101,” which is to simply say, “Okay” to most suggestions or ideas. It’s not to placate, I swear, but because she’s usually right (even when she’s not).

Being the cook is much easier than being the host, as I can simply slip away into the kitchen with a glass of whatever and observe, check, monitor, measure, assess what’s happening within those kitchen walls. No one bothers me in there aside from the essentially polite requests from guests asking if I need any assistance. “Nope,” I want to say, “Just go in the other room while I drink alone.”

Sunday "long cooks" are my favorite days of the week.

Sunday “long cooks” are my favorite days of the week.

The cooks, seemingly having the stress that accompanies preparing food for a large group, actually have it easier than the others. If done right, most of the food is essentially prepared beforehand, ready to be placed in the oven, or garnished with that stunning sprig of rosemary. All it needs is some warmth and plating. The subtle nuances of cooking a meal for other people seamlessly smooth themselves into mindless tasks, effortless exercises easy to sew up with a drink in hand. But, I do believe, there’s got to be some practical measure, too. I can be obsessive about cooking, making sure turkeys are the right temperature, or, if we’re doing Italian, the crisp on the cheese just the perfect shade of brown. Call it perfectionism, maybe, but it’s a well-deserved satisfaction of having no real responsibility.

Cooking is an acquired skill, for everyone, really, but the ability to cook is a expertise that must be actively pursued, I guess, much like anything in which a person wants to succeed. But, in that manner, it’s a little trickier to define. I enjoy writing and wish to make it my actual profession one day, so I work hard at the craft. I’ve networked and taken workshops; I write daily. I read the works of writers who have mastered the craft. Same goes for teachers or construction workers or baseball players. But that work produces tangible results, for which people get paid a sum of money. For a passion to pay is a culmination of drive, natural talent, luck, acumen, and capacity for learning, education and hard work.

But cooking is not like most of these things because, for the most part, all of the good cooks that I know are not professional chefs. They’re moms and dads, accountants, physical therapists, and exterminators. They have nothing invested in the profession of cooking, so why do these people – including myself – look to improve their skills in cooking, read cookbooks, watch the Food Network, get mad at Guy Fieri, and buy fancy cookware? Why chose such an artisan hobby? Why choose, after a long day in front of students or writing or killing bugs, to take an extra hour to prepare a beurre blanc to accompany the fish?

Evidence has been mounting that there’s a simple answer to what seems a complex question that I just asked. The answer is that people have been coming to the conclusion that what we put into our bodies should matter more than anything else we do. It’s a matter of mindfulness, too. Where we used to scarf down a hamburger in three bites, we’ve begun to take more pleasure in the process, not just of cooking, but of eating, of actually tasting our food, looking at the presentation, discussing the ingredients. In this way, it’s not that dissimilar from the way Americans have begun to choose craft beer over big beer. Ingredients and craft matter, but more, I think, that anything, we wish to replicate the dining experience of being out at a restaurant from the comfort of our own home.

Medium rare London Broil and homemade popovers.

Medium rare London Broil and homemade popovers.

I wonder how restaurants feel about the average American cook – like me – who has the ability to cook really well and the desire to try recipes labelled “difficult.” This is not a claim I can cook like any chef who gets paid to do it. I will say with 100% certainty that there are many, many restaurants serve food that’s better than I make in my kitchen nightly. That being said, I can do a meal like sirloin steaks really well. And I have the ability to make my steak – and my wife’s steak – exactly the way we like it, 100% of the time. Most restaurants cannot do this with consistency. I like to think that the influx of home chefs have pushed restaurants to evolve to a point where they’re making newer, more innovative dishes in a way people like me cannot do. There’s a technical skill, palate superiority, and understanding of what just works that I do not possess, or that most of the good cooks I know do not possess. Restaurant eating, I’m sure, is probably on the ascent, but so is the number of home chefs, who know, that regardless the cost and quality of what I buy at the butcher or market and fish market, I will always be spending less money than when I go out. That’s got to be a little scary to restaurant owners. Maybe not, though. I do know people who eat out almost every night of the week. But, surprisingly, it’s no one my age.

I can’t even fathom what I used to eat. I was never a poor eater, to be sure. My family ate at home, more often than not, and when we did go out, it was to just one or two other local places that served the basics. I can’t remember ever heading into the North End of Boston for authentic Italian food, nor did we ever head into a fine steak house. Tomato sauce was store bought, as was the meat. But the food was always good (and always there) and my mother still makes the best eggplant parmesan in the world. I never really ate fast food out of a preference, not some ethical or health-based stance, and probably more of a testament to the quality of burgers that were made at home.

With that said, my mom or dad never taught me to cook, nor did my grandmother possess some otherworldly skill in culinary arts, passed down through generations like some families I knew. I never learned or leaned over a bubbling pot of tomato sauce and played around with ingredients, tasting the difference between a sauce that’s too hot or just hot enough, too garlicky or just garlicky enough (for the record, I think “too garlicky” and “too hot” are impossible achievements).

In my life, though, there were hints of fine dining and cooking. In college, I did a semester’s internship working with the Walt Disney World College Program. One of my roommates was a chef – and still is down in Orlando – and he was making dinner one night. We all splurged on steaks. It makes me laugh to use the word “splurge” on steaks because they probably cost $8 each at a local market.

“How do you want yours done?” my roommate asked.

“Medium well,” was my answer.

“I refuse to make your steak over medium.”

He told me actually facts about medium rare meat. It’s not blood, it’s the juices from the far. Anything over medium is too dry, and the flavor has been cooked out. I’d never known that you could cook meat under medium well. It changed my world.

Also in college, one of my roommates my senior year came back to our apartment with many pounds of venison meat, which I didn’t mind preparing. Another roommate and his now-wife would make us Sunday dinners. The two of them did come from Italian households where there was the learning over a bubbling pot of sauce. It was from these people I learned that I didn’t want to be the idiot who just ordered take out, or baked a frozen pizza for dinner every nightSo I did what most people do, which was to start exploring recipes and under-cooking chicken, burning sauces, throwing out crock-pots full of some gross noodle and cheese recipe that I got from a homeless guy, and finishing homemade meals that my dog wouldn’t. To be honest, I was never that bad partly because my difficulty level was set at “moron.” Most of the recipes were basic and, from that, I started getting a little more exploratory.

But then something happened. That exploration turned into an activity I really liked to do. I looked – and still look – forward to new recipes or “classic” recipes. The best day of the week in the fall is Sundays, where I do what I call a “long cook.” A long cook is essentially what it sounds like: a long cook. I’ll do ribs or a pulled pork or full chickens on the smokers or I’ll make sauce with meatballs and sausage or soup or a chili. The house fills with the smells of a long cook.

For a while, I started telling people that, should I be put in a hypothetical time machine, please tell me to go to culinary school. Take writing classes, but go to culinary school. But now I take that back. I wouldn’t change anything about what I’ve learned through the process of failures and successes in the kitchen. There are recipes I share with others, recipes I’ve thrown out; Ingredients I thought I’d never use are now staples.

We should care what we put into our bodies. Sure, some of my recipes aren’t the most health-conscious recipes, but I think the care and craftsmanship involved in the cooking promises a dining experience as opposed to just eating. Call it Buddhist, call it mindfulness, but food should be something we enjoy, not something in the way of social media or television. The hours I spent cooking, the minutes I spend eating are important because I’m doing something I love for and with people I love.

And that careful gaze that I’m giving our dinner in the final hour of preparation at those big holiday parties we host, it’s being done with a mindfulness that I want the dinner to be a success not just from a fun standpoint, but from a culinary standpoint. It’s an intent, watchful gaze aimed at making sure guests have the gustatory experience of the week or month, but sometimes, just sometimes, that look is the look of someone just drunk enough to be impressed with himself.

Any recipes, cooking tips to share? Share them here, or link them. Anyone think I should compile a list of my favorite recipes?