Trial by Fire: My Life With the Culinary Director of Serious Eats

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[Illustrations: Jessie Kanelos Weiner]

It's a Wednesday afternoon just before Christmas, and Daniel and I are stuck in heavy traffic in an Uber going home to Queens. He's just woken up from anesthesia, and his right arm is strapped into an absurdly huge foam box, more arm-chair than cast, intended to protect his newly operated-on wrist. He's woozy and earnest and shivering from having been in a chilly operating room all morning. His eyes are clearer and greener than I remember. He is adorable and handsome and...he's somehow, inexplicably, listing every cut of beef he recently tested for a Guinness stew recipe. He drones on and on, listing cow parts I've never even heard of. For god's sake, he's just had three hours of surgery, is numb to the collarbone, and all he can talk about is beef?

Yes, all he can talk about is beef, and so that is what I'll talk about, too. Because this is what it means to be Daniel Gritzer's devoted partner.

Now, I know what you're thinking, because it's what everyone says: You live with Daniel Gritzer, the culinary director at Serious Eats? That must be incredible! You must really enjoy having a personal chef who shares his deep knowledge with you and hand-feeds you three superlative meals a day, huh? And surely you, too, have become an expert home cook!

Normally, when I hear this (i.e., every time I'm present when Daniel explains what he does for a living), I just smile politely and say something vague about my knife skills. But, if you want to know the truth, it hasn't always been such a picnic.

A month after we first started dating, Daniel and I traveled to my mother's house in Northampton, Massachusetts, for a weekend in the country. The plan was to impress my mom and her partner, Felix, with a memorable Saturday-night dinner. And, with Daniel by my side, I was certain that this meal—the first we would cook together—would be wildly successful, and maybe even a touch romantic. After all, Daniel had cooked in New York restaurants for years before we met, and I'd often been wowed by his lightning-fast knife skills and smooth moves in the staff kitchen at Time Out New York, where we both worked as editors. I, in turn, was looking forward to demonstrating my own culinary prowess. Our ingredients were simple—a heap of beans and several leeks, the makings of a salad, a plump organic chicken—but together, we would work harmoniously to create an outstanding meal. Or so I thought.

About 20 minutes in, we were yelling. Okay, I was yelling, and Daniel was trying to get me to keep my voice down. But he'd taken issue with the way I cleaned the leeks, plucking them out of my hands to demonstrate the "right" way. He'd peered over my shoulder, his breath on my neck, and commented on the disarray of my "work station"; he'd told me I should be more "systematic" about the way I trimmed the beans. Of course I was yelling. I didn't know it then, but this was the first of many times that I'd be likened to a staff cook doltish enough to flout the rules in Daniel's pristine kitchen.

The mood soured, I scattered bean stems across the counter in defiance. At least he's done lecturing now, I thought, sliding slices of leek off the cutting board into the warming olive oil in one of my mom's banged-up skillets. But, just as I was about to add the beans, Daniel cut in abruptly.

"You need to slice those," he said forcefully.

"No, I don't," I replied.

"No no, you do, here, like this," he said, snatching the knife and cutting a bean into three neat inch-long segments.

He was partway into an explanation when I lost it. "LEAVE THEM! I LIKE MY BEANS WHOLE, AND MY MOM DOES, TOO!"

Surely, I thought, this was when Daniel would simmer down. I'd never dated anyone foolish enough not to backpedal as soon as my rage boiled over, which it had a way of doing every now and then. Surely, as previous boyfriends had done, he'd come to see my temper as just another lovable feature, a by-product of my red hair, a counterpoint to my laid-back vibe.

But no, this was a new horizon for both of us. "You clearly don't know how to sauté vegetables if you don't understand that the beans need to be the same size as the leeks to cook evenly," Daniel said, the tension in his throat audible. "Your way is sloppy. You won't be able to get a combination of leeks and beans in every bite. You'll ruin the dish."

"YOU'LL RUIN THE DISH!" I shrieked, too mad to be self-conscious in front of the man I'd been so intent on impressing moments before. "I don't LIKE it when beans are sliced too small!" I was picturing the watery, slightly gray frozen green beans my sister and I had eaten as kids, alongside breaded chicken nuggets, on nights when our parents were out and a babysitter "cooked" us dinner. They were about an inch long apiece, and every sliced green bean I've seen since has reminded me of them.

"Well, I'm the professional," Daniel said. I recoiled at his cockiness. "This is my mother's house," I snarled.

Our idyllic evening had slipped through our hands, a casualty of our first fight. Eventually, after the chicken had been seasoned, stuffed with herbs, and roasted until the skin was crisp and the meat juicy, we finally sat down to eat, our strained silence punctuated by my mom and Felix's polite inquiries about Daniel's family and career.

I refused to accept my own cooking ignorance that night, or any night soon after. In the years that followed, we got serious and moved in together. Yet Daniel and I argued nearly every time we set foot in a kitchen. And then we fought about the fights. Thing was, I'd never cared about perfecting my cooking skills. I'd never given a crap about how to julienne or what the chemical principles were behind keeping a butter sauce from breaking. And I certainly didn't appreciate the fact that I was suddenly living in some kind of twisted, 24/7 episode of Top Chef in which my every move, from scrambling eggs to salting pasta water, was under intense scrutiny. I made a terrible, defensive contestant, sneering and resisting my personal judge's every suggestion. "You're so sensitive," Daniel would say. "You're a f*#king jerk," I would offer back. We butted heads like two alphas squeezed into one small relationship, which is exactly what we were.

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Over the years, on our occasional returns to Northampton, Daniel would offer advice to my mom in the kitchen. To my great surprise, she tended to listen. She seemed to even enjoy getting his feedback. She started going out of her way to get it, consulting him about brining our Christmas turkey, asking him to help her re-create the Puerto Rican sofrito Felix remembered from his childhood. Watching the two of them on those visits, Daniel in instructor mode, my mom his eager student, I realized that I was doing it wrong. If I could just let go of my pride once in a while, I could benefit, too. My mom saw patience in Daniel's didacticism. She hung on to every word of his lengthy lectures. Sometimes she took notes. If I could muster a role other than that of unwilling contestant on my own game show from hell, I thought, Daniel and I wouldn't fight so much while holding knives. And hey, I stood to learn something.

Eventually, I started to think of this when he launched unbidden into a step-by-step demonstration of how to correctly dice an onion. I cracked a smile when he said things like "I'll do it once, and then you try it." I started thanking him for the lessons, with only a hint of sarcasm in my tone, crediting his tutelage when he complimented my technique. And, once he'd been given some recognition, Daniel, in turn, eased up on needing to be head chef. He'd say, "Hey, baby, would you mind if we puréed that broccoli into a soup instead of sautéing it?" Or "Do you have a vision for how you want these parsnips prepared?" He learned quickly that, with a little buttering up, I too was all sweetness and light.

As it turns out, two alphas in one relationship is not only a recipe for bitter conflict, it's also the only kind of relationship I want to be in. It's a pairing with twice the backbone, double the fire. A couple that expects the world from themselves and each other. So, through trial and error upon error, Daniel and I found space for our clashing egos. We discovered that two people can wear the pants in one relationship, as long as they're thoughtful about switching the pants back and forth between them at decently regular intervals. Even in the kitchen.

And so here we are, seven years after that telling first fight, heading home from the hospital as Daniel runs through his encyclopedic knowledge of meat cuts in an anesthetic fog. But by now I've accepted my lot in life as eternal student. It doesn't matter if I want to partake in a 25-minute two-person symposium on beef parts, all while trying to direct a driver through trafficky Midtown, holding in place Daniel's coat, which keeps slipping off his trembling shoulders. I'm doing it anyway.

I hate to admit it, but I've come to relish the role. Seven years in, I am no longer the kitchen dunce. I slice my vegetables with photo shoot–worthy finesse. I salt my pasta water to an estimated 1% salinity. I delight in deboning beautiful little jarred anchovies, turn my nose up at synthetic truffle oil and chalky grocery-store ricotta. I carefully weigh my coffee and pick the perfect grind size to get my morning dose of caffeine. And I clear every last morsel off all countertops during and after cooking and eating, because if I hear "a single crumb is a full meal for a cockroach" one more time, I might ram a carbon-steel knife through my eye (though, mind you, if I did, I would make sure to carefully wash and dry the blade immediately afterward to prevent rusting). I am a learned, Gritzer-certified sous chef.

A few weeks after his surgery, Daniel and I sit down to dinner with a couple of friends at a Midtown izakaya, and the subject of his wrist comes up.

"How are you possibly doing any cooking?" our friend Sam inquires.

"Oh, I'm the designated chopper these days," I sigh in mock exasperation. In truth, I've been loving our time in the kitchen together, Daniel telling me precisely what to do, and then thanking me, praising me, for each diced onion and cubed carrot. He wears the pants sometimes now, but he wears them carefully, knowing they're not his to keep.

"So how is Kate as a sous chef?" Sam asks Daniel.

"Sous chef?" Daniel replies. He looks at me, chopsticks hovering between mouth and bowl, eyes glinting. "Nah, not a sous chef anymore. She's made it to executive."

I beam. I can't help it. And then Daniel launches into a detailed exposition on chicken yakitori, and I don't listen to a single word.