Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Musing on cooking for family vs strangers

When I was single and dreaming about having a family, one of the things I looked forward to a lot was cooking for my wife and kids. In those days I was feeling fed up with the food business and was tired of cooking for people I did not know, and I thought that it would be nice to cook for no reward other than the gratitude of my family.

Fast forward to about six months ago and discover that after 15 years of cooking dinner almost every night for my family, I've realized that I need to start cooking for strangers again. Sure my family is grateful for all the shopping and cooking and cleaning I do (At least I hope they are) but how I ever thought that gratitude and the joy of cooking alone was going to satisfy me, I'll never know. On balance, home cooking has been pretty rough job most of the time.

Anyone who has ever cooked every night for the same people year in and out, knows how frustrating it is when somebody at the table decides to use the occasion of dinner to vent something that for some idiosyncratic reason they could not have vented 10 minutes before you called them to dinner. Or how about this one:

You've been cooking for a couple of hours, dinner is ready, you call everyone to the table and instead of taking their places quietly, the kids (or whoever the non-cooking dependent others happen to be) start arguing about something. You try to put a stop to it because the call to dinner is supposed to be a joy and not a cry to battle and the bread is still in the oven and the vegetables need to be plated and you really don't want to be listening to some crappy argument and now your head hurts and you wish someone else was cooking.

Cooking for the same people every day is even tougher if you like to cook a wide variety of things. It seems that everybody besides you has a laundry list of ingredients that they don't like and arcane, but perfectly valid, reasons to dislike them. The net result of years of not cooking all of the things that my family collectively does not like to eat, is that my repertoire of dishes is about as sparse as the hair on my head.

For a chef like myself, cooking for a constant rotation of strangers is in many ways easier and more fulfilling. The not-knowing who you are feeding and what they like and dislike compels you keep trying new things and adding new dishes to your repertoire. With few exceptions, strangers are almost always more polite than family when they don't like something you cooked. And if you turn them off completely, instead of ranting and raving or diving under the table to protest what you have dared to try to feed them, they simply leave and don't come back. Now how cool is that?

Oh and strangers who come to your restaurant or in my case, Barn (Yeah, I cook in a barn) can certainly show gratitude too. Usually it's in the form of delight, but often people thank you for what you have cooked. It's a little weird to hear it considering that they are paying for it and it's really you who should be thanking them for coming. But frankly, when was the last time your family paid you and thanked you for dinner?


Of course, I will cook for my family until I cannot cook anymore. It's a tough job but I still love to do it because I love them. However, I'm very glad to be cooking for strangers again.

14 comments:

Egaeus said...

I do very little cooking for my family (I'm single) but when I do, it's very frustrating. I obsess about how good it is. I treat them more like strangers I guess.

I usually like my food, but what about all these people? Wait, doesn't my sister hate onions? Was that cooked or raw onions? Why aren't these beans cooked yet? I soaked them and they've been cooking for hours! Or maybe I'm just neurotic, but either way, I'm glad the holidays are over.

As far as your new job goes, I dream of doing that. Well maybe not professionally, but cooking your own sustainably grown food would be amazing. I have a few square yards of deck that I'm thinking of cultivating with containers, but acreage with cows and pigs and chickens would be in-freaking-credible, if incredibly expensive. If I'm ever in the area (I travel with my job), I'm definitely going to stop by.

John said...

Like any well-run restaurant, I have a little notebook full of my favorite customers' likes and dislikes. Wife likes, daughter likes/hates, Mom adores etc.

Also in the notebook are notes. About how long the green beans took last Xmas, how much liquid REALLY to use for the eggnog, etc.

Hope that helps,

John

Robert said...

Regarding that email I sent you last night about my attempt at Cajun Eggs, I was in the process of plating before my wife reminded me how much she disliked any form of red meat cooked in tomatoes. After supper, all she could say was "Well, it wasn't as horrible as I thought it would be." But I'll cook again tomorrow - tonight is leftovers.

Laura Semmens said...

I'm just trying to figure out if your co-workers (like me) qualify as "family" or "strangers" ;)

Tags said...

Love means never having to pay your sorry ass.

Tags said...

At least not for cooking.

IdahoRocks said...

I see your point completely. With strangers, it has to be perfect; but with your family, you can make a mistake and they still love you and eat the meal (well, maybe they don't always eat it but they still love you).

The arguing is a bitch, though. Once, after cooking a lovely thyme and garlic covered rack of lamb with appropriate accompanying veggies, the tension at the table became so thick that I told my son and husband that I was leaving for a walk instead of pulling out the tablecloth, and from now on dinner was to be a social time, i.e., loving in nature, and the arguments or whatever could come at other times of the day. Surprisingly, it worked. Maybe they freaked when I left the table in the middle of dinner....

In all, my husband is very appreciative of my cooking and very diplomatic about my failures. He loves that I'll try some difficult or unusual Julia or Batali or Bourdain or Keller or whoever recipe.

My son, on the other hand, is a vegetarian who doesn't like cabbage, peppers, or winter squash (although he does eat fish and snails). However he loves my spaghetti and pizzas and fish and he thinks I'm the best cook in the world. How great is that?!

I think it boils down to really loving food. Most children don't have the experience or genetic disposition to really appreciate great cooking. But my son, who always had to try one taste of everything (without being forced to eat it later), now eats octopus, snails, eel, etc. Of course, he doesn't like to, and won't, cook for himself....

I think one just has to have that experience, like Bourdain's with the oysters in France when he was a child, to cathect how sensual and physically and emotionally gratifying food can be. It's sort of like the Masa experience that Ruhlman writes about. Not everyone has that connection with food. That's why I love reading your blog, Ruhlman's, Reichl's, Bourdain's, and Marlena di Blasi's books. Indeed, Reichl's and di Blasi's descriptions border on the pornographic....

Ain't it great???

boberica said...

So...I don't mean to be presumptious , by assuming that you've seen "The Big Night"...but that scene at the end, with the simple eggs that are cooked for two brothers, is the only way that I can convey the difference between cooking for family and for customers. I know it's simplistic, but I bet you get it...

Jennie/Tikka said...

Makes perfect sense to me.

Hubby & I have very different approaches to food.

Hubby doesn't like sushi so we never have it....I think its been 5 years since I last went out for it. Maybe even longer.

redman said...

Bob I'd love to hear some time what the retail operation at the farm is like. Are you selling food to go or can folks grab a bite right there? also, how goes all that snausage?

Scotty said...

I have been going through many of the same things you express, Bob. What I hate even worse than family interruptions is outside interference. Getting food on the table just in time for the phone to ring, and my wife insists on answering.

But, once again there is synchronicity to your post. I just did the first of what I hope are many post about cooking with your family. It makes everything better!

mirinblue said...

Every single day from the time I can first remember, (I am now 51) when we sat down to dinner...My dad would yell out at the top of his voice "WHO'S THE BEST COOK IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD?" and all 4 of the kids would shout "MOM IS!" This happened every single nite until I left home. Pretty hard to complain about something on your plate after that, huh? And if you did not care for it, you kept quiet as you appreciated the time spent by Mom. Actually, we are still known to shout it out at the table on the rare occasions that we are all together.

Bob del Grosso said...

mirinblue

That is the most delightful thing I've read all day. I got teary-eyed over that story. What a lucky mom you have.

Gary said...

Boberica,

Bob and I used to work with Gianni Scappin -- the chef who taught Stanley Tucci to cook those eggs so effortlessly. He said Tucci went through 200 eggs before he got the knack.