If food is love, then cooking is the romance and courtship of love. Knowing how to prepare a dish well takes patience, acceptance, and dedication, just as in any relationship, and while cooking itself is an act of love, teaching someone how to cook could very likely be one of the most loving and caring acts one can do for another. To teach someone not only how to feed themself, but also to feed others (and especially how to feed them wholesome, delicious foods)—is a selfless and sacred demonstration of the heart that will reverberate throughout the lives of those who have learned the art. I am a cook. My teachers were my grandfather and my mother. The memories I have of spending time with and learning from them in the kitchen are some of the most cherished and most valuable ones I possess, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.
My grandfather had many televisions. Don’t ask me why, but I can guess that maybe there was so much going on in the world that he wanted to make sure he didn’t miss anything. That, or he had a lot invested in stocks. News, stock market, cooking show, stock market, sitcom, news…luckily, all but one TV would be muted at a time, and usually it was the cooking program that we could enjoy. He also had many kitchen gadgets. Most of them I wasn’t allowed to touch, and some of them I was too afraid to touch because I had no idea what they did to the various foods they were inflicted upon. There was always the din of Emeril going on about broths and stocks in the background, while various gadgets whirled and whizzed and strange scents curled out from the hub of his home—the kitchen.
Sometimes he would call me over into this mad laboratory to teach me how to go underneath the dimpled skin of a whole chicken to rub spices into the meat, what to look for in a good, ripe tomato, or when the right time was to cut into a grilled steak without it losing all of it’s tasty juices. I learned that cucumbers “weep”, mushrooms don’t like baths, and chef’s knives were to be respected and properly maintained. “No fat, no flavor, no fun,” “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice,” and “The Golden Rule is: ‘Whoever has the gold makes the rules’” were mantras he would occasionally have me recite as I dutifully scrubbed potatoes for the main meal while he julienned carrots for the salad. For the more complicated meals, I would look on as he explained what each gadget actually did. When we weren’t in the kitchen, we were in the living room watching Emeril (I would always wait for him to yell “Bam!” and mimic the tossing of imaginary spices and yell it too), or the ‘Two Fat Ladies’ with their English accents, motorcycle and side car, messy hands and cigarettes with cocktails after messily showing us how to make artery-clogging (yet oddly tempting and tasty-looking) British fare.
While my grandfather taught me the mechanics and specific techniques of the culinary arts, my mother had a different approach. If my grandfather was the refined chef, then my mother would have to be the accomplished home cook. He was the soufflés, the red wine reductions, the standing rib roasts…my mother was the fried potatoes with onions, the biscuits and gravy, and the lamb chops. He put romance, style and history into his dishes, while her secret ingredients were love, memories, and improvisation. We didn’t have too many gadgets in our kitchen at home. We also didn’t buy nearly as many ingredients to have on hand as my grandfather did. However, the ways my mom could throw together a meal with anything she had lying around in the pantry or fridge was nothing short of a miracle. It was like trying to hang a picture frame without nails…it seemed unlikely at first, but somehow she did it.
“Come in here, you’re going to help. One day you’ll have a husband and family and you’ll need to know how to cook for them,” she would say. Our small apartment kitchen wasn’t as magical as grandpa’s laboratory with his gadgets and huge, double-door fridge brimming with strange meats, veggies, and cheeses. Our little electric stove and oven couldn’t possibly produce the kinds of things he cooked. At least that’s what I thought at first. The more she called me into the kitchen to help her, the more I would learn. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. The more I knew, the more she would trust me to do on my own, and in time, I would almost single-handedly prepare our evening meal by myself, much to my own satisfied bewilderment. When everybody would sit down to eat, nod with approval mid-chew, and continue digging in…that was my crowning glory—and I knew I was hooked on this thing called cooking.
I am now a cook in the United States Coast Guard. Actually, I’m a Food Service Specialist, to be precise…but I prefer to call myself a “cook”. I’m no “specialist” in one thing or another, but I do enjoy coaxing ingredients into something that pleases both the eye and palette. I honed my culinary skills in A-school in Petaluma, California, not too awfully far from the Culinary Institute of America, upon which most of our curriculum was borrowed from. I learned what mise en place meant and why it was so important, how to beat the clock while turning out a meal for hundreds of patrons, and how to produce cost-effective meals without sacrificing quality. I felt the pride of wearing the chef’s hat and starched, white chef’s coat. I had somewhat of an advantage in school because of my prior, informal “training” with my teachers who also happened to be related to me. Despite all the French terminologies, immaculate uniforms, and exact weights and measurements of a formal culinary education, the lessons and stories imparted to me by my grandfather and mother are what instilled in me the love of food, and how to show love though my dishes. They loved me enough to be patient with my small, inefficient hands and inability to fully reach the counter when younger. They loved me enough to teach me something new each time I stepped into their kitchens. They loved me enough to answer my endless number of questions and guide me through the motions while sharing with me their stories and life lessons. They loved me enough to teach me to cook for myself and for others, and today I find myself teaching others as well. Their love helped me find my life’s passion, and that love shows in every dish I teach, prepare, and serve.