Top | First Person

The cooking student

(article, Aaron Hamburger)

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Not long after I first met Anthony — who's now my husband — things started to get serious. One evening, he was telling me about his ex-boyfriend, and I asked him what had gone wrong.  

“He made me feel ignored,” Anthony said. “Like, I used to beg him to cook something for me. Even boil me a hot dog. But he never did.”

A cool chill prickled down my spine. Clearly, I was in trouble. 

I prided myself on being the kind of New Yorker who boasted, “I don’t cook; I order.” I’d curated an impressive selection of takeout menus in the drawer beside my kitchen sink. For potluck gatherings, I bought boxes of chocolate or bottles of wine.

Still, I desperately wanted to make my new boyfriend happy. And so, I announced that I would make him dinner.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Red Velvet Cake, in process."]My menu? A microwaved vegetarian corn dog. A brick of frozen spinach, also microwaved. And mashed potatoes — from a box.   

Unfortunately, the corn dog stayed stubbornly icy in the middle when I served it beside a splotch of brown mustard. By contrast, the spinach spent too long in the microwave and turned a peculiar shade of gray-green.  Mercifully, the mashed potatoes were just the right temperature — but bland as paste.

“Thanks for trying,” said Anthony, making himself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. 

Another evening, I attempted to fry up a batch of tofu squares; they stuck to the pan and disintegrated into flavorless scrambled eggs. I boiled vegetables to mush. I drowned spongy pasta in a lake of sweet tomato sauce from a jar.  

Why was cooking so hard? Even when I simply tried to follow a recipe, I lost my place, forgot a crucial step, or misunderstood the instructions and got flummoxed.  

By contrast, Anthony would effortlessly whip up a piquant pasta puttanesca or a tender tuna steak charred in a cast-iron pan. Though he’d sometimes start from a recipe, often he could tell when something was done just by poking, tasting, or smelling.  

“Please let me do the cooking in this relationship,” said Anthony one night, after sampling a plate of my soggy potato pancakes. “I love you for all your other talents.”

As I picked miserably at my oil-soaked shredded potatoes, I asked myself: Why did I keep messing this up? I wasn’t an idiot, so why couldn’t I figure this out?

I decided to go to cooking school. I signed up for an intensive course at the Institute of Culinary Education called "Techniques of Fine Cooking" — five consecutive sessions, Monday through Friday, each lasting six hours.  

On the first day, I received a folder of recipes and an apron, which I tied nervously around my waist. I was awed by how much our teacher knew — not just how to sauté onions, but also the chemical transformations that took place when a “product” (he referred to all food to as “product”) met direct or indirect heat. He knew that knives never went into a dishwasher and that salt never went into a marinade. He knew how to slice and dice onions like the chefs on television.

We divided into teams and went to work, which was mostly chopping. Finally, after two hours, our team produced a large soup pot of gazpacho. Our teacher dipped in a spoon and took a taste. 

As he sipped, I asked eagerly, “Is it good?”  

“I don’t know,” he replied. “You taste it and tell me.”

“I think so,” I said weakly. “How do I know?”

“Is it the best damned thing you ever ate?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Then add some salt and try it again.”

I did. “Better,” I said.

“Amazing?” he asked.


“Add more salt and a little pepper.”

I still wasn’t sure that it was amazing, but it was definitely improved, so I said it was amazing.

At the end of class, when we sat down to sample the foods we’d prepared, I was shocked by how good everything was. There were roasted Provençal tomatoes stuffed with minced shallots and breadcrumbs, sautéed tilapia filets in a melted butter sauce, a simple salad with sherry vinaigrette. It was like a meal from a restaurant, and I’d actually made it — or helped to, anyway.

Right after school, I called an incredulous Anthony to say I was making dinner that night. Then I raced to the supermarket, where my problems began.  

For example, that Provençal recipe called for beefsteak tomatoes, but the tomatoes didn’t seem to be identified as “beefsteak.” So I just grabbed the biggest ones on display. Also, I couldn’t find sherry vinegar, so I got red-wine vinegar.  

When I finally got to the register, my total bill came to 85 bucks. Wow, I thought. That’s a lot of takeout.  

In my kitchen, surrounded by vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, pots, and pans, I felt overwhelmed. Chopping took much longer when you did it alone. Plus, there was the question of timing. Summoning my long-dormant fifth-grade math skills, I calculated when to put the tomatoes in the oven so they’d come out just as the fish were being flipped to the second side in their pan. Yet somehow, my tomatoes got done 20 minutes early. I frantically covered them in foil to keep warm and started my fish.

Three hours after I’d begun, the kitchen was a mess, but dinner was done. Looking a bit skeptical and amused, Anthony took a bite of the fish, then the tomato, and finally the salad. Then he laughed.

“What?” I asked.

Anthony replied, “It’s . . . it’s edible!”

I took a taste. He was right. It tasted like what we’d made in class.  

“I’m just happy you liked it,” I said at the end of the meal.

He hesitated. “Well, I didn’t exactly like it," he admitted. "I appreciate your hard work, and I’m sure you made it well. But I don’t like things with all this stuff on them. It’s just my taste; I like simple things.”

Rather than hurl our dinner plates at his head, I quickly cleared them all and disappeared into the kitchen. Anthony followed me there. 

“Hey,” he said. “You did a good job.”

“But you didn’t like it.”

“So? Is that all you care about? Pleasing me?”

I looked at him blankly. “Well, uh, yes.”

He laughed. “Don’t you know what a picky eater I am? Why don’t you think about pleasing yourself?”

Anthony had a point. Every day, he ate the same thing for breakfast (half an English muffin with cream cheese) and lunch (a slice of plain pizza). Dinner rotated between veggie burgers, pasta, and fish. I, on the other hand, studied the latest news of restaurant openings, eagerly ordered unfamiliar dishes in ethnic eateries, and bought desserts if they looked pretty.

So what about pleasing myself? What did I want to learn to make for me?

It's been six years since that first cooking class. I’ve mastered a repertoire of delicious recipes that my boyfriend doesn’t care for: fragrant sweet-and-sour cipollini onions braised in white wine with red grapes, grilled chicken breasts sauced with stewed tomatillos and sprinkled with queso fresco, and my mother’s fluffy pumpkin chiffon pie.  I’ve also stumbled onto a few things Anthony does enjoy, including a chunky guacamole scented with ground cumin and a rich red velvet cake.   

Now at parties, I volunteer to bring the dessert. New recipes tempt instead of terrify me. And at the suggestion of one of my cooking teachers, I’m currently teaching baking classes of my own.

The more I experiment in the kitchen, the less I find I rely on the approval of others — even my beloved Anthony — both in and out of the kitchen.  

Because sometimes to please the ones you love, you have to please yourself first.

p(bio). Aaron Hamburger is the author of the award-winning short-story collection [%amazonProductLink asin=0812970934 "The View from Stalin's Head"] and the novel [%amazonProductLink asin=0812973208 "Faith for Beginners"]. He teaches writing at Columbia University and blogs about dessert at The Sweet Spot.

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