Served: Cooking at Home with a Chef


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpg"How do you stay slim, married to a chef?" I hear all the time.

First, Micky and I are not married, but that does little to answer the question.

The fact is, Micky doesn't cook at home these days. He used to whip up an occasional pre-work breakfast for us—eggs with fried eggplant and hummus, or macerated fruits with thick yogurt. On his day off, sometimes he'd roll up his sleeves and get busy with our pasta maker.

Now, the pasta maker's been hanging out in the closet for a long time. I understand. We've launched brunch at our restaurant, and our calendars are penciled with a zillion details for a zillion parties. This means Micky's 12 or 13 hour days are becoming 14 and 15 hours. And that's six, sometimes seven days a week in his chef's whites in an epically hot kitchen. No wonder he's not eager to pop into our kitchen at home in his scarce free time.

What about me? I love to cook. It makes me really happy, slicing away at a summer squash, or turning browning bananas into nutty, dense loaves. I used to feed friends and family lemony pasta and garlicky shrimp with abandon, and worked for a few months as a real cook in a real restaurant kitchen.

Winning My Heart and Stomach

Rewind to our third date, a year and a half ago. Micky invited me to his apartment in Queens to make dinner. I brought the wine and DJ'ed his stereo, and asked if I could help cook.

"No," he said, "I got it," his laser focus directed at the cutting board.

I remember the agnolotti he made for us—neat rows of dough filled with sweet San Marzanos. I watched him as he pinched the eggy pasta off into identical satchels, twisting the ends.

He saw I was interested. "Do you want to make some?"

"Definitely!" But I didn't have a practiced hand. My pasta envelopes were lumpy and uneven. I thought they were sort of charming in their messiness. Rustic. He threw my batch into the trash.

He wasn't mean about it or anything. We were falling in love, and it was a romantic and delicious night. But for a second, I mourned for my inferior, banished little agnolotti.

While Micky was between jobs, we both ate really well. I came home to salmon tartar with sesame and hot oil, and the best schnitzel I ever tasted. I remember my stomach rumbling all morning while he prepared elaborate breakfasts, whipping meringue to fold into buckwheat pancakes, or fashioning a custard for marcona almond and apricot pain pardu that made me giggle with unbridled delight.

Tension in the Kitchen

But cooking as a joint venture proved less idyllic. "We're at home!" I've said to Micky a few times when he's all seriousness in our little kitchen. "Relax! This is supposed to be fun!"

His Chef Switch seems to flip on automatically around food. He is all business. Whenever I asked if we could cook together, hoping to have fun in the kitchen and pick up a few cheffy tricks, I end up peeling garlic and watching Micky do his thing.

Years in the best kitchens in the world means he chops and dices at the speed of light (and with robotic precision), knows his way around ingredients I can't pronounce—and my love for food is pretty serious—and can look at a duck breast or a piece of salmon and know if it's cooked to perfection. As for me, I like to consult recipes, even if I riff on them. You couldn't call my carrot and onion pieces "mirepoix." They're too abstract to warrant such a title.

And so, I became intimidated. I don't cook at home too much anymore.

Micky does appreciate home cooking. Before we went to Passover at his aunt's house in Maryland, I heard all about her Moroccan salads and meatballs and the rolls of sweet pistachio she served for dessert.

Aunt Shoshy's cooking was as deeply satisfying as promised. It was clearly the creation of a wonderful home cook, not a professional chef. Chicken pieces piled high on a plate, a bowl of bright red pepper and tomato salad. Nothing showy, or perfect, but everything tasty.

Alas: I Can Cook

This year for Passover, we went to my parents' house to join a gaggle of my family. I decided to take the day off to help my mom cook. Micky had to work. In my mom's kitchen, I felt that familiar pang of joy. I blanched green and white asparagus for a salad with goat cheese and shallots, and roasted peppers to serve with eggplant and handfuls of parsley. Together, my mom and I whizzed dried fruits and pistachios into charoset.

The next day, I watched with a smile as Micky helped himself to seconds of my eggplant dish.

"You made this?" he asked.

"I made it." Cue the twinge of pride.

I love to cook. Chef boyfriend or not, I want to do more of it. Food at home should be about love, joy, family. And if my basmati rice is soggy and crunchy at the same time, it's not the end of the world.