Critic-Turned-Cook Is No Master Chef, But Is Learning More

Shoot!—no realty TV stardom for me. After trying out in January, I missed the final cut for Gordon Ramsay's upcoming reality show, Master Chef.

When I heard the news this week, I stomped my feet and cried: Why not? My faithful Facebook friends rallied. "The show is going to stink without you! You were robbed!"

But before pitching a full-blown hissy fit, my daughter Claire sounded the voice of reason: "It's not your destiny." Yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Becoming a Better Cook

As disappointed as I am, I don't regret going down this twisted path, a crazy detour that required me to make an audition video in my kitchen, cooking my signature dish, Memphis won tons. In the weeks I spent wondering if my future would involve getting hollered at by Gordon Ramsay, I became a much better cook. I read cookbooks like I was cramming for a final exam. I pored over The Elements of Cooking and followed Michael Ruhlman's advice on making veal stock (a huge pain, but worth it). I studied Madeleine Kamman's epic The New Making Of A Cook, committing mother sauces and so much more to memory. I sharpened my fabricating skills on a flock of chickens and ducks. I experimented with all sorts of recipes.

All this cooking in my own kitchen inspired an idea. What if I tried doing some personal cheffing?

Practicing My Personal Cheffing


My neighbor Doug with Ad Hoc At Home lamb chops. [Photograph: Leslie Kelly]

My neighbors agreed to be my guinea pigs. I'd make dinner for four and run half of it next door. The gravy on top of this arrangement was free meals for me—yes, I will work for food.

The first meal was a hit: Lamb chops from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc At Home, rice croquettes from Daisy Martinez's Daisy: Morning, Noon and Night, and toffee cookies from the aptly named 400 Sensational Cookies. Tomorrow night I'll make David Chang's shrimp and grits and a Momofuku-inspired pickle plate.

It was kind of shocking how fast the groceries added up: close to $70 for one dinner, and that didn't include using ingredients from my pantry. Which brings up the age-old burning question: Is it cheaper to cook at home or to eat out? Sometimes, I think it's a toss up.

My baby steps towards dabbling in small-scale catering also got me thinking in another direction. Maybe I could cook for some of the chefs I had reviewed. Then they could rack my food over the coals. Talk about turning the tables. Sounds kinda like the script of a reality show, doesn't it?