I’m writing something at the moment on the evolution of the chef, and what the role of a chef is and perhaps should be. It’s hard to escape the pull of the home cook - the first person who cooked for you, whether it’s your mother or your father or someone else. That act of cooking, which is not an act of cheffiness or ego, but a purely altruistic act of feeding, is something that imprints on all of us for life and informs our tastes whether we decide to rebel against it or not. In my introduction to the Best Value Project that I did for Eater London, I tried to define the group of restaurants I was writing about by saying they ‘tended towards home cooking’. I guess some people may take that to mean that I value ‘home cooking’ more than the self-conscious ‘restaurant cooking’ that most food media decides to write about. This is not quite true, and I now think the problem is that I was using very imprecise terms.
For one thing, many of those restaurants are run by technically great chefs - if your mum has Sirichai Kularbwong’s wok technique or your dad can stuff a whole lamb with perfectly cooked rice like Namak Mandi can, then I would like to swap families with you. Furthermore, your dad could be my dad who I’ve only ever seen cook scrambled eggs for himself and once called us from his holiday to say he’d cooked steak for the first time and actually this cooking business was really easy, or your dad could be Jackson Boxer. There are as many versions of home cooking as there are homes. But I think there’s something which stays the same.
I don’t use Jackson as an empty example - I always love seeing what chefs cook at home, especially when they have children. And the running theme is that even great chefs eventually cave to the capricious whims of their audience, because they love them. I’m going to preview a future newsletter written by Jessica Wang who says “Restaurants have masses of other considerations but a mother’s cooking has but only one objective: to please”.
I think this is the thing which stays the same - which is the essence of home cooking - that it is the cook in that moment giving the eater what they need; something that will both nourish them and make them happy. This quality is not just something diaspora restaurants have; it is the hallmark of every great chef from Olivier Roellinger to Steve Williams at 40 Maltby Street. It does not involve the abnegation of ego, but the control of it - to know when tampering is going to give pleasure to the diner or pleasure to the chef.
In today’s newsletter by chef Sam Wydymus, she explores what happens during lockdown when these two monoliths ‘restaurant cooking’ and ‘home cooking’ start to collide. Lockdown has meant we suddenly have an army of home cooks playing at being chefs, and chefs who suddenly have all the time to cook for themselves and for their families. I think both are going to learn something: ‘home cooking’ and ‘restaurant cooking’ will always be different by their very nature and the interference of capital, but it’s my hope that many people will realise that the best of both is actually much closer than we think.
Beyond The Pass, by Sam Wydymus
It isn’t easy living with a chef at the best of times. Everyone thinks it must be amazing; a private cook creating fantastic meals, at all hours of the day, in the same way that all interior designers have stunning apartments, mechanics’ cars never break down and sommeliers get to drink wine constantly. The truth is we’re all too busy making ends meet by cooking, designing or repairing for other people. Professional chefs are rarely around to cook family meals; evenings and weekends are usually spent behind the pass. Images of chefs relaxing with family over Sunday breakfast are for photoshoots, while the reality is a frantic ring round to find cover for an absentee chef or pot wash. That’s our job. On our rare days off, cooking for a crowd of picky relatives is the last thing we want to do. If we do want to cook then it’s for ourselves.
Now with restaurants closed and everyone on lockdown, chefs, and the families that own them, have found themselves in an unprecedented situation. If the restaurant kitchen is a chef’s home, the family kitchen is the domain of the partner who doesn’t cook for a living. As with all species, a sudden change of habitat is a shock for both migrant and indigenous populations. In this case, the home cook has to make way for the professional. As diplomacy doesn’t always come naturally to chefs, this can be a challenge.
If you are used to being the god of the kitchen you survey, being forced to share it with an entire household is unthinkable. It might resemble a kitchen as far as having a stove, sink and fridge, but it is actually the heart of the home. Forget yelling at the pastry guy for encroaching on your section – try working with an entire family’s detritus of used tea mugs, school books, discarded clothing and homemade slime, all cluttering up the one, small work surface. For all your years of experience creating dishes, the menu for every meal is now dictated by what the kids, and possibly the dog, will eat. What’s worse is that, here, the domestic cook rules. They know the tastes and preferences of the family, they know the oven’s idiosyncrasies and what’s been hidden in the freezer for emergencies. If there are children in the house, this is vital information.
The switch from professional chef to domestic cook is not easy for anyone involved. The majority of head chefs don’t do prep. It’s not that we don’t want to but we are usually knee-deep in allergen notifications, produce invoices or holiday entitlement paperwork. Now we are found home alone, wishing we’d had the foresight to ‘borrow’ the Thermo or Robo at the first whiff of a lockdown. Who knew domestic dishwashers take half a day to finish the first cycle and what’s with the deficiency of spoons?
For someone who has spent a lifetime behind the pass there is a surprising amount to learn. It’s a big change going from 80 different covers twice a day to the same six covers every hour of the day – the latter is arguably more challenging. Measures I knew by heart had to be recalculated to reduce portion size as, for some inexplicable reason, my family flatly refused to eat the same soup three days running. Adapting dishes to the produce available is a skill all chefs must have, but adapting to not having a favourite knife, gadget or that pastry guy is a different thing entirely. It also turns out the heat-shielding effects of an oven cloth are greatly diminished if someone steals it to mop up tea. When you realise the cloth is wet, do you endure the embarrassment of dropping the tray of hot fat or suffer the third-degree burns? Likewise, you can’t be seen to cut yourself on a knife you’d been nagged to sharpen, nor cast aspersions on any of the kit you have previously sworn as being adequate for ‘the home’.
In a restaurant kitchen it’s highly unlikely a customer will saunter in and raid the fridge. Meanwhile, at home, the mayonnaise painstakingly beaten by hand will be mixed with tomato ketchup and smothered over crabsticks the minute backs are turned. Accepting assistance is worse. Loving partners become hostile at being demoted to the pot wash and surprisingly sarcastic about the amount of pots and pans being used. The five-year-old commis replacement eats more dough than he rolls and his teenage siblings have all become food critics.
The lockdown has brought all kinds of new insights. Never have there been so many courses, recipes and bake-a-longs aimed at a general public stuck at home with nothing to do but learn to cook. All this is great. Social media-savvy chefs can connect directly with their customers, explain the thinking behind a dish and show how truly difficult their art can be. Professional cookery writers, annoyed at this sudden encroachment on their territory, can pick up the pieces when the chef dishes don’t work in a domestic setting. With luck, perhaps everyone will come out of this with a new appreciation of all sectors of the food industry in a ‘you don’t miss it until it’s gone’ kind of way.
Whilst this lockdown may well turn customers into budding chefs, their favourite chefs will also have become more insightful and inventive cooks. Restaurateurs are resourceful; their time in the domestic kitchen will not be forgotten. New ideas, tastes and techniques will emerge to excite and enhance menus all over the country. Chefs will put down the paperwork in the home and embrace ‘playtime’ guilt-free in the kitchen. Re-hone skills not used since college days. Try out dishes on a captive audience that aren’t in a position to get rid of them. Chefs, I hope you gain a new appreciation of your long-suffering kitchen porter. Restaurant kitchens strive for perfection on a plate that’s impactful on the eye, divine on your taste buds and liked on Instagram - maybe what can come out of this experience is that a little of the spirit of conviviality found around the family table will be translated to more restaurant dining rooms.
Who knows what will happen next? Our professional ‘normal’ will be reset. Over the next few weeks and months, perhaps new kitchen stars will be discovered, although this time not behind the professional pass, but in homes and on social media. The world will go through stages of growing sourdough mothers, exploring exciting new uses for pasta and wondering how to justify both the delivery and expense of a Spinzall. This whole new interest in home cooking will go one of two ways. Restaurant customers will either return with a renewed respect for chefs and cooking as an art form, or they will return as smug cooking ‘experts’. As chefs and restaurateurs, we’ll be ready to welcome both versions, enlightened by our experience walking in the shoes of a home cook. Meanwhile, the family kitchen will quietly revert back to the old ‘normal’, with a new oven and much sharper knives.
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The illustration was done by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://natashaphanglee.myportfolio.com/work. She was paid for this newsletter.