Food feeds my soul. Like most people who LOVE food, I find myself overtaken by its transformative powers. I can and have read cookbooks all day, and I am a student of cooking methods, techniques, and pairings, testing each one until I get it just right, or right enough to make a mistake and still whip up something delicious.
I take great delight in making my grocery lists, walking the aisles and filling up my basket. The ladies who know me at the check-out register in my home base market ask me what I’m making, and we joke around about who’s coming over for dinner.
Meal prep is a sacred time for me. Chopping, dicing, seasoning, pulling out the platters I want to use for serving, all of it to me is a happy ritual. When my family comes over, they ask if I need help, even though they know I’ll likely decline. My husband Karl is quick to tell them that I like to do that stuff alone, don’t be offended, and that he too is hardly ever permitted to cross my “Les Nessman” threshold.
Because Karl and I both travel so much for work and eat out close to 75% of the time, staying home and cooking on Saturday nights are the best date nights ever! We sip cocktails, turn on music, usually gypsy jazz, and delight in each other’s company and great conversations while I flow from fridge to stove. Plating has become one of my most favorite things about making meals, namely because if ever picked as a contestant for Food Network’s Chopped, I know the importance of the visual taste.
I will tell you that my passion for cooking didn’t come from watching my grandmother slave away in the kitchen nor does it stem from the coveted recipes handed down to me from generations before. Many chefs and enthusiastic cooks like me attribute their interest in the culinary arts to someone or something deeply rooted in their upbringing. For me, it was a limited childhood experience, maybe even something that I inherited against the odds.
The woman who gave birth to me was a genius in the kitchen. Even though she only mothered me for a hand full of early years, and most of the memories I do retain I’d like to erase, I do remember the taste of her potato salad and pot roast. Her ability to make everything and anything she served taste as you had just gone to a better place were remarkable. Before she and my father divorced, I recall sneaking out of the bedroom I shared with my twin sister to watch dinner party guests taste something off her hors d’oeuvres spread, sink into their chairs and make that noise you hear when someone takes a bite out of a little slice of heaven. A few times, one of us would score a nibble when nobody was looking.
My earliest memory of my father’s cooking prowess was just after he gained unexpected custody of my sisters and me in the early 1970’s. How in the world was a single father expected to make something four little girls would like during those very first, you’re-on-your-own uncertain days? The answer, chocolate rice! Yes, white Minute Rice flavored with Nesquick Chocolate Powder mix. Bravo! My dad made the world’s best breakfast too. My favorite was poached eggs with runny yolks on a piece of burnt toast. He used to cut it all up for me to get it all nice and mushy. With all my relationship ups and downs with my dad over the years, I have never forgotten what that gesture meant to me. There was a lot of competition for his time and so, special attention, even in the form of making my favorite eggs, to this day, is a memory I hold on to dearly.
My dad became quite the chef over the years. He loved to grill meat, smoke the fish he caught, and make us try the game he hunted. May I just say, wild boar has absolutely no redeeming qualities. The last meal my father cooked for me was just a few months before cancer took his life in July 2017. Karl and I had gone down to Florida for a visit after he had been released from the hospital and between chemo treatments. My dad’s resiliency was astounding. I don’t know how he mustered the energy, but he felt good enough to golf with us, 18-holes no less, come home and take a power nap and then make us all a decadent lobster dinner. That would be the last time my dad and I sat at the table together. I miss him every single day.
My dad was an entrepreneur, a manufacturer’s representative with a multi-state territory to cover. He traveled a lot, and so shortly after he became our sole parent, the daily care for my sisters and me was handed over to live-in housekeepers. Over the course of the next 6-8 years or so we had somewhere close to 10 of them revolve through our home, and let me be clear, none of them bared any likeness to Alice from the Brady Bunch.
The new chefs in my life, from the time I was about age six and for the next six or seven years included:
-An older woman, (Francis) maybe 75 or so, from Poland who once made pumpkin pie by scraping out the guts of pumpkin and putting them into a pie crust to bake, no seasoning, no taste, but all the stringy membrane you can imagine.
-A younger woman (Karla) from the city who specialized in food of the faster variety. Her time with us was pre-microwave, so cold French fries were a staple.
-A former Nun (Rita) who loved experimenting with cooking Sherry (wink wink) who seemed to spend a lot of time in the kitchen but put very little on the table.
-One who stepped right off the boat from Ireland (Bernadette) and made quite a Shepard’s pie
-And, a most memorable middle-aged lady from the Bahamas (Helen) with a chain-smoking habit (cigarettes and weed) who prepared her favorite native dishes, long before my palette could appreciate them.
When my children were growing up, I was “utility” cook. Working full time on a limited budget and juggling their school and sports obligations, I became quite adept at preparing more for less. Regardless of the circumstances and available resources, I wanted whatever I made to 1) taste good 2) give them proper nutrition (at the time I simply did not understand the hazards of sodium and preservatives) 3) lend itself to leftovers. Knock on wood, may I never see another box of Hamburger or Tuna Helper again.
Packing their lunches for school was as vital to me as making them dinner. Even if the brown bag had a PBJ in it, the silly dog drawing or smiley face on the outside or simple note written on their napkin, sent them the message that I loved them and wanted them to enjoy their meal. They thought I was just trying to embarrass them I think.
Today, cooking is probably the single most enjoyable activity in my life; golf is my close second. When I met and fell in love with Karl in 2007, I told him that my goal was never to cook the same thing twice for him. While there are only so many proteins, I can assure you that I have never once prepared for him the exact same thing.
I shared from the start that cooking fuels much of my creative side. A little bit of this, some of that and you’ve got something new and different and exciting. I’ve been fortunate to use this approach in my work as a business leader. Just as I love hearing the ones I feed tell me how much they enjoyed the meal, it fills my heart to receive positive feedback after a speech I’ve just delivered, or a strategy concept my team, and I have worked so hard on for a client.
I’ve determined that the difference between being a cook in your home and the chef in your kitchen is leadership. Cook when you need to eat, chef when you want to taste life and create lasting memories.