Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I Cook

Taking my cue from Michael Ruhlman, whom I greatly admire and who has done a great deal of work demystifying a number of aspects of the culinary universe, I wanted to share the reasons why I cook - personally and professionally. To anybody out there reading this - why do you cook? Leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail, I'd love to hear about it.

One of the things that drives me nuts when I read about all the great European (mostly French) chefs is that they all seem to have grown up on their parents' or grandparents' farm or in their family restaurant (or both), helping prepare meals as soon as they could stand, and had apprenticeships at Michelin star restaurants by the time they were thirteen and had their own multi-star restaurant by twenty. I know it's a bit of an exaggeration, but that seems to be a fairly accurate distillation of all the biographies that I've read.

Professionally, I got into cooking fairly late, but I've been in the kitchen watching, learning, and doing, since I could sit upright. My mom is a fantastic cook (and a fantastic mother, and I'm certain there is a strong corrolation between the two), and I owe my love of cooking all to her. She spent a lot of time in the kitchen when I was little, made all my baby food herself, and when I was old enough to sit upright, she'd prop me up on the counter, give me a spoon and I would "help" stir. Most of my early memories involve being in the kitchen, seeing my mom at the counter or stove, while I played drums on the pots and pans or "baked" things in the low cupboards with pull-out drawers.

In 6th grade, one of the assignments in my Home Economics class was to cook a meal for my family. I went all-out and cooked a grand (for a 12-year-old) Italian feast - tortellini with some jazzed-up marinara, Caesar salad, garlic bread, some kind of dessert, and maybe one or two more things. It went well, and I have a distinct memory of the adrenaline kicking in while I was trying to make sure everything got done at the same time.

Sometime shortly after, the Food Network appeared, and my mother and I were hooked. Weekend mornings were spent watching whatever was on, deciding on some recipes, then heading out to the grocery store and preparing them for dinner. As much as I can't stand the Food Network anymore (I think it has strayed far from its original intended purpose and is beginning to do a disservice to cooking), I have to say I owe much of my early knowledge to it.

I considered culinary school after graduating high school, but decided on a couple other routes instead. All the while, I was working in restaurants as a source of income. Eventually, I realized I enjoyed cooking much more than the classes I was taking, bit the bullet, and enrolled.

I love the satisfaction one gets from preparing great food for people. I think it's a very intimate relationship. People eat out of necessity, and some aren't concerned with quality, as long as it won't make them sick (immediately), but most appreciate when their food has been prepared with an obvious level of skill. We cooks owe it to our diners to do more than just satiate their hunger. We should dazzle their senses and leave them in a better mood than when they arrived - not just full. I don't live for the compliments and oohs and ahhs from diners, but it is validating. Not hearing any diner complaints from servers is a compliment in itself, and hearing compliments passed on from servers is great.

The adrenaline of busy nights on the line is the largest part of why I cook professionally. I HATE slow nights. The nights when the tickets start rolling in, you kick into high gear, and the next thing you know you've been cooking for four hours straight, you're sweaty, exhausted but wired, probably with a number of fresh new burns - those are the best.

So this was a little disjointed, and maybe strayed from the topic somtimes, but I'm not one for editing much. Stream of though writing is much more enjoyable.

To sum it up - I cook because people are MORE than just hungry.

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