I have an acquaintance who told me something funny. She said she always tells people that she’d be vegan if I cooked for her. This is funny for several reasons. One, we don’t know each other well at all, so the idea that I’d drop everything and cook all her meals is kind of bananas. I mean, is she planning to come over and walk my dog every day or what? Two, it’s hilarious that my cooking would be such an enticement for a radical lifestyle change, rather than, say, my visible results. Three, it’s funny that anyone would claim to want a chef, because guess what? You can be your own chef! The greatest mystery to me is why anyone would refuse to learn to cook. It’s like willfully denying yourself the magical power of satisfying your taste buds three times a day, every day.
I have another friend who actually just said, “I’d eat healthy if I had a chef.” It’s true. I’m pretty sure she would. One of the major reasons that people eat the Standard American Diet, in spite of its many major flaws, is that they gag on the taste and texture of healthy foods. My friend was cheerfully eating kale with quinoa. She doesn’t have any food dislikes that I know of. If the only thing that’s standing between her and a healthier diet is her refusal to cook, hey! That’s a problem that can be fixed!
Another reason that a lot of people refuse to cook healthy food - or to cook any meals at all - is that their kitchens are cluttered and dirty. They can’t resolve the power struggles with their housemates (spouses, kids, parents, roommates) over who does the dishes. There’s mail all over the counters and the table. The counters are full of appliances and canisters and cookie jars and cookbooks, to the point that there’s no room to cook, even on a good day. All that stuff is out on the counters because the cupboards are chock-full of plastic cups and containers, preposterous amounts of mugs and plates and bowls, and expired canned foods. I wouldn’t want to cook in there either! The thing about chefs is that they do their own washing up. It’s a matter of professional pride.
Let me go over that again. Chefs do their own dishes and wipe down their own counters. Part of this is that they take full mastery of their work area. The kitchen is their professional territory, and they design it how they want it. It’s their happy place. They have a few high-quality implements like a favorite knife. They know how to turn simple ingredients into deliciousness because they’ve spent so much time and focus on building their skills. It’s also true that wiping down an uncluttered kitchen only takes a couple of minutes. A chef is going to wipe down the same area over and over again, because cleaning as you go is the only way to keep the cooking surfaces available for the next plate.
Most of us have kitchens the exact opposite of what a real chef would want. We have tons and tons of unnecessary stuff. We let our excess kitchen hardware encroach on work surfaces. We let those surfaces get greasy and grimy. We leave our sinks constantly full of pots and pans and dishes. We “stock up” on more food than we can eat, so the ingredients are never fresh basically by definition. We look at cooking as an unfair, unrealistic chore. We refuse to put in the time to learn proper knife skills or how to prepare basic ingredients, even though it would pay off immediately in faster prep and better-tasting food.
My friend has a perfectly adequate kitchen. Granted, it’s a bit small, but so is mine. So is the working area of most professional chefs in restaurant kitchens. My friend doesn’t have an issue with food hoarding (like I have had) and she doesn’t have tons of excess dishes or other hardware. If she wanted to learn to cook, she could start today. She could find a new recipe and be sitting down to something surprisingly good half an hour later.
I’m a good cook, but most nights I just make something quick. My husband and I trade nights, and we have a thirty-minute rule. If one of us (okay, me) wants to make something fancier or more time-consuming, then it needs to be on the weekend. Too many times I’ve decided to try a new recipe and we’ve wound up eating dinner at 9:00. If I want to play, I need to start in the afternoon. On an average night, we might well be eating something that takes only ten or fifteen minutes.
What we know that most people don’t know is this: almost all vegetables only take five minutes to cook.
You can do it even faster than that if you eat bagged salad. Just buy a bag and make sure you eat the entire thing that night. If you live alone, you’re totally allowed to eat it all by yourself. Just watch out for the dressing.
We literally will eat a microwaved vegetable with… whatever. The important thing is that we eat our cruciferous vegetables. We’ll have a head of broccoli one night, and we chop the whole thing up, microwave it for four minutes, and eat it. Probably I eat one-third and he eats two-thirds, which makes sense because he’s twice my size. Another night we’ll do the same thing with a head of cauliflower at seven minutes. When we get cabbage, it lasts for two or possibly three nights. Sometimes we’ll just eat it shredded raw as a salad, but usually I sauté it for about four minutes. Bok choy, kale, chard, collard greens, all about four minutes. (It averages out with that naughty seven-minute cauliflower). Almost all the time, whatever vegetable we’re eating cooks faster than whatever we’re eating it with, and that includes pizza pockets.
I hear a lot of people talking about how they’re trying to eat less processed food. Whatever they think that means, it seems to include depressingly long periods of kitchen prep. To my mind, chopping up a cabbage and sautéing it for four minutes is about as unprocessed as you can get. You can even cook it in water if you don’t want to eat oil. The only way to transition into eating healthier is to make that transition gentle and straightforward. Heap up a bunch of expectations of perfection and purity, and it’s simply too hard to keep the commitment.
The main differences between me and my friend who doesn’t cook are that I’m not obese anymore and she still is. We’re both married, we both live in apartments (hers is bigger), and we’re close in age. I like to cook because I like cooking whatever I want to eat exactly how I like it, and then eating it whenever I want. Anyone can quickly learn the skills and find the recipes to give that gift to themselves and others. I like to cook because cooking is its own reward, but I also like that cooking my own meals gives me the body I want to have. Healthy food freed me from the prison of four-day migraines, night terrors, and chronic pain and fatigue. Healthy food gives me the energy level I need to live a happy life. It got me my marathon medal. Sure, yeah, healthy food helped me lose 35 pounds and keep it off. That’s just a side effect.
Being a good cook comes from cooking a lot. Maybe some people who are super-learners could simply observe a chef very closely for a couple of meals, and then walk away with elite cooking skills. Not me. I did find that when I committed to just one hundred hours of deliberate practice, my cooking was already significantly better only ten hours in. That’s a couple of weeks of making thirty-minute dinners. Truly, truly not a big deal. I keep trying to come up with an analogy of something that’s as easy to learn as cooking, with as big a payoff, and I can’t think of one. It’s easier than learning to drive, at any rate. If you agree with the statement that you’d eat healthy if only you had a chef, you could be that chef. Your own personal chef could be yourself.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.