I’m not sure what this says about me, but one of my proudest moments was when my boss, the executive chef at a popular but by no means great restaurant near Columbus, Ohio, said, beaming, “She cooks like a guy.”
It was hard, but fairly won praise. One night, dropping a filet of sea bass into olive oil a little too quickly, fat bubbles sprang out of the pan and ran up my arm like track marks. Here’s the thing: In the heat of a kitchen in a 400+ covers-per-night restaurant, the pain from that kind of burn goes unregistered. I was also blessed with being ambidextrous when it comes to wielding a sauté pan. I simply switched the Calphalon to my other hand, flipped the fish with a deft move of my wrist (I practiced by forcing packages of beans to do somersaults after someone made the comment, “does any of the food stay in the pan?”) and extended my blistered arm while the boss salved it up with aloe.
No false bravado on my part. The food had to be cooked. The same chef had once yelled at me for “standing around and watching the show” in the midst of a grease fire. The food had to get out, and I was on the line.
This, by the way, is what you call the sauté cook in a kitchen, the line cook. Anyone who refers to him or herself as a chef had better be an executive chef, because that title is the only one that earns you the bragging rights. When well-meaning friends and relatives say, “She’s a former chef,” I am quick to correct them. I am a former line cook, no more, with the scars to prove it. (When the scars from that particular burn faded after ten years, I was kinda bummed.)
I’ve been thinking of cooking lately because I’ve wondered if I should get back into it – not as a profession, but as a writer. For a couple years, before following in the steps of most print papers and folding, the Ann Arbor News employed me as a Special Writer on the subject of food. The gig was offered to me and a fellow writer (one of the best, my dear friend Lou Schiavone, whose Watermen Pen ads from the 80s are legendary); he was only interested in restaurant reviews, but I was very happy to write about cooking. I adore M.F.K. Fisher – who doesn’t? – but also lesser known writers outside the food world like the late great Bert Greene and Molly O’Neill, whose New York Cookbook I adore, and the glorious team of Jane and Michael Stern. All understand that food is story. When I bought a used copy of the Sterns’ Square Meals and gave it to a colleague who wasn’t particularly familiar with my writing beyond work (digital ads), she said, “How could you not have written this?” It was only fair to tell her that the Sterns, and that book, are so deeply embedded in my writing DNA that I can’t disguise their influence, any more than I can disguise my Nordic height.
Over Easter weekend, I had the Kid capture some video, thinking that a little mini cooking show would be a pleasant diversion. I made a big old Greek dinner, because Greek food on Easter is spectacularly perfect. The shooting was more a learning experience than anything else; he’s a rather erratic photographer (he’s only 14, for heck’s sake) and I could benefit from better lighting. But the idea feels fun and right. I’ll keep you posted.
My friend Adrian always, without fail, cooked dinner for his kids, doing the time-honored city-dweller daily shopping trip and throwing whatever was fresh and felt right in the pan. Raised in London, living for the last few decades in NYC, he has a lovely rambling post about his food influence, his Maltese mum, here. Enjoy his ravishing photography along with his reminiscences, provided you can scroll past the photo of his beautiful friend Irene, a burlesque artist of consummate grace. It’s no wonder they hooked up; the best cooking, like the best burlesque (at least the way she performs it) is an intensely intimate sharing of one’s inner self.