Anthony Bourdain once inferred that cooking is one of the most personal things you can do for another human being. This statement allowed me to think deeply about the significance of this process that we do day in and day out. What a wonderful skill that can, through certain people, go way beyond the process or technique used. Cooking need not be perfect to be expressive and caring, but when it is – oh what a gift. To cook for another person is to express love, respect, personal history, generations of caring, and the willingness to risk it all – to put it out there and say: “This is what I can do for you in this moment”.
We can readily think back to that special dish that a grandmother prepared for her family. Maybe it was an Italian grandmother who spent every Saturday preparing that Bolognese sauce for the family Sunday dinner that would last for hours. In the time that those tomatoes were blanched, peeled, crushed, combined with onions and garlic, beef and pork, and fresh herbs from the garden and then carefully simmered and stirred for hours on end – that wonderful woman was pouring her heart and soul into an expression of love for the family that would sit around the table. Maybe not a sauce, but quite possibly it was that perfect apple pie cooling on the windowsill – tempting everyone with its deep aroma of apple and spice and flaky butter pastry; or a pot roast that was seared and braised with carrots, onions, and celery until it fell off the bone. Cooking was not a chore to these individuals – it was a gift that was offered to people, a gift that considered family history and generations of passing down a special recipe or technique – it was as uniquely personal as anything could be.
Maybe we can reflect on that “early in life” Mother’s Day or Father’s Day when as a five or six- year-old child we prepared toast and jam with a glass of orange juice and carried it haphazardly into a parent’s bedroom for breakfast, a breakfast that you had prepared as a true act of love and gratitude – a very personal gift that came from your heart. It may not have been technically perfect, yet to that parent it was the most incredible meal they had ever been served – it was as personal as anything could ever be and maybe it even brought a tear to their eyes. “This is what I have to offer and all that it means is present on the plate.”
It could have very well been the neighbor who during a tough time in your life, took the time to prepare a meal and deliver it to your home. That knock on the door and presentation of a dish that he or she knew would be tasty was a way of saying – I am so sorry that you are having a tough time and I truly hope that this will let you know that I care, and I am here to help. When you look into that neighbors’ eyes you can feel the personal nature of the gift and know the healing power that it brings.
When friends, throughout your life gather to celebrate, to connect, to cheer each other on, or to simply recognize the importance of friendship – they do so with food that is prepared in a manner that attempts to express just how important those things are. It could be a simple burger on a backyard grill, or a complex multi-course dinner with that special bottle of wine that had been saved for just this event. In all cases it was a deep expression of caring, of dedication, of connection, and of love. When those glasses were raised and clinked with each other, when that first bite was enjoyed and when stories and laughter ensued long into the night – each person knew just how personal and special the moment was.
A relationship with another person may begin with a physical attraction, but it is solidified that first time that one cooks for another. Of course, there are other moments that lead to building a relationship including numerous meals at restaurants, but that first time that a person makes an omelet, prepares a plate of pasta, roasts a chicken, or removes the cork from a bottle of wine during a meal prepared just for that other individual is the time when a relationship moves to another level. It is so personal, so fulfilling, so expressive of how the other feels that it can literally take your breath away.
We decided at some point in our lives to become cooks and maybe chefs. To some it may be a job, while for others it was a calling. To those who view it as a job it may be rote and somewhat impersonal, a process with steps to memorize and plates to assemble as the picture dictates. To those who see it as a calling it is an opportunity to recall our past experiences where food was a unifying force, a means of expressing what is sometimes difficult to put into words. To those cooks who see the potential, this craft is a way to perpetuate the history of their family, to pay homage to a parent who passed down a recipe from two generations before, to remember just how everyone felt when that Mother’s Day or Father’s Day breakfast was presented by a six-year-old, and to give back to all who choose to accept a plate of food.
The cook or chef who understands how personal cooking is, who feels the power of expression through food and who knows that every plate carries with it a tradition of caring is a person who has found one of the most personal ways of communicating with others. The way that a cook handles ingredients, pays respect to time tested processes, maintains his or her tools, buttons up a starched white chef coat with pride, maintains a clean and organized station, caramelizes a cut of meat before braising, trusses a chicken, gingerly opens an oyster, or simmers a stock that will be used for soups and sauces is a way to build the gift that will be offered on the plate to every special guest. Throughout the process – a serious cook is engaged in an incredibly personal process of giving back, of thanking a guest for choosing his or her restaurant, of maintaining the trust that a guest invests in the cook, and of saying thank you for being a part of my life. It is that personal.
We should never take for granted how important food is and how significant the process of cooking can be. We may not have the gift of words, of music, or art, but we have a lifetime of history, of caring, of tenderness and tradition that through our hands, heart, and soul is prepared for the plate. This is what we do.
“Cook for me” is such a wonderful request, such an incredible opportunity, such a tremendous gift. Think of this every day that you draw a French knife across a wet stone to build an edge, set-up a cutting board in preparation for your shift, fold your side towels, build your mise en place, check the edges of plates, stoke the fire of your grill and line up those sauté pans for another service – this is the moment when you offer yourself to others. Cook for me, cook for you.
*Picture is from 1970 – apprentice with the Statler Hilton Hotel in Buffalo
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Keep it personal
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