personal essay

I Knew Dating a Chef Would Be Amazing. What I Didn’t Realize Was How Much It Would Change the Way I Cook.

published Jun 18, 2020
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chef tossing vegetables in frying pan
Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images

I met my girlfriend online when we were living on opposite coasts. “How do you ask someone who lives 2,500 miles away on a date?” she asked me. 

She was a chef, working as a baker in New York. I wrote about restaurant news and events for the calendar of a local alternative newspaper. We traded Spotify playlists and instantly bonded over a shared love of food — we discovered we had the exact same ranking of top three instant ramen brands and listed our desert-island cookbooks. Every day she sent me a photo of the loaves she’d baked at work. About a month of non-stop texting later, she flew to Seattle to meet me for the first time and made me a breakfast sandwich with everything bagels she’d brought with her from Brooklyn.

Today, we share an apartment in Seattle. When people ask me what it’s like to date a chef, I tell them that it’s just as great as you’d imagine. But besides the obvious perks, like getting to play guinea pig when she tests new recipes or coming home to discover she’s made bo ssam, I’ve found, unexpectedly, that my home cooking has soared by leaps and bounds.

Before I met my girlfriend, I was already a competent home cook. But I never strayed too far from the recipe. I stuck to the directions exactly, plagued by an irrational fear that I would ruin the dish and waste my precious ingredients and free time if I diverged. A daughter of a fourth-grade teacher, I learned early on to follow instructions by the book — a lesson that has been a boon in many ways, but has impeded my creativity in the kitchen. If I was missing a single ingredient, I ran to the store to fetch it — no matter how late it was. A friend recalls me once making a dish and insisting on using only the requisite teaspoon of salt called for in the recipe, not a grain more. I scorned the freewheeling improvisers in the comment sections of recipe blogs, their seat-of-the-pants creations a barely recognizable bastardization of the original dish.

Dating a chef has changed how I approach cooking. I’m more relaxed and flexible in the kitchen. I still love to cook from recipes, but I’m also much more apt than before to make a dish my own and to revel in the process. It may seem obvious, but I was surprised to learn that when she’s not working on developing a recipe, my girlfriend prefers to whip up humble, uncomplicated meals like fried rice and grilled cheese sandwiches after a grueling restaurant shift. By observing her carefree cooking style, I began to adopt a more relaxed attitude myself.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned have been practical: Thanks to my girlfriend’s patient guidance, I can now execute a pretty flawless French omelette (well, most of the time), and I can recite the steps of making risotto (which she demonstrated on one of our first dates) by heart. But the biggest change has been in my mindset. The more I embraced the following philosophies, my home cooking began to bloom like never before. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

 Add more salt, and add more acid. (Yes, even more!)

Every dish my girlfriend made somehow tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten, as zingy and irresistible as a potato chip. The secret was in the seasoning. My girlfriend told me that she’d once heard David Chang say that food should be so salty that if it were any saltier, it would be too salty. That simple rule of thumb helped me use a bolder hand when salting. And when a dish is lacking something, it’s more often than not acid. My girlfriend recalls that “Add some acid, chef!” was a common joking refrain in a kitchen she once worked in.

Over time, I developed my own sense for what a dish needed. I took my girlfriend’s lead and seasoned my food with Diamond kosher salt (a favorite in professional kitchens for its hollow, crystal-shaped grains and ability to cling to food) and sherry vinegar (her preferred secret weapon for adding a splash of acidity and brightness). I came to realize that dishes that would have otherwise ended up as abject failures could be saved by simply adding more salt and more acid.

Don’t treat recipes as rules, but rather templates. 

My girlfriend never cooks from recipes — she’s much more likely to throw something together, using her instincts and whatever is on hand. I’m not there quite yet, but I’m learning to view recipes as templates, rather than rigid demands you have to follow. Instead of blindly relying on a written time estimate in a recipe when I’m, say, caramelizing onions or browning butter, I try to use my senses to gauge when the step is done.

This mindset has helped me be more flexible in the kitchen. Recently, I distilled a technique from a favorite recipe for braised white beans and escarole and had the revelation that I now could make it with whatever beans and greens I wanted: black-eyed peas and collard greens, chickpeas and kale, cranberry beans and puntarelle. I now toss in Parmesan rinds, Goya adobo seasoning, mushroom powder, or assorted herbs into whatever I’m making with reckless abandon, recognizing that experimentation and creativity are part of the fun.

Know that your pantry is more magical than you think.

I didn’t realize how much food I was throwing away until my girlfriend entered the picture. She’s a veritable pantry whisperer, a master of coaxing the most incredible meals from things when I could have sworn we had “nothing to eat.” Upon moving in, she promptly reorganized my pantry so that all my languishing odds and ends were visible once again. She also rearranged and labeled the contents of my spice drawer in alphabetical order, and began systematically using them up. Like a magician, she has conjured cookies out of white chocolate, dried cherries, coconut, apples, and oats I’d forgotten I had, and summoned a comforting diner-style breakfast out of diced hot dogs, green peppers, sharp cheddar, and frozen hash browns.

Previously, I always viewed cutting down on waste as a chore — how could those half-used boxes of pasta gathering dust in my cabinet be as exciting as fresh ingredients? But my girlfriend’s resourcefulness has reminded me that using up what you have can feel not just virtuous, but also downright luxurious.

Get a garbage bowl.

In the movie Ratatouille, the chef Colette snarls, “Keep your station clear, or I will kill you!” I laughed with hearty recognition during a recent rewatch, because I’ve come to realize via my girlfriend just how much value chefs place on a tidy work area. The more cluttered the counter, the more cluttered the cook’s state of mind. It’s inspired me to up my game. That means setting up my mise en place beforehand, keeping a “garbage bowl” nearby for scraps, and using every bit of downtime in a recipe to wash all the dishes and restore the kitchen to its original state. It’s made my cooking life so much more harmonious and efficient, and I can’t believe I ever lived any other way.

Become friends with your pots and pans.

My girlfriend likes to say, “Take care of your tools, and they’ll take care of you.” She doesn’t always know what tools will be available to her in a professional kitchen, so she keeps her beloved kit of knives and other utensils in prime condition at all times so that they’re ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. She wipes her knives dry after every task and sharpens them with the utmost care, and scrubs and dries her prized Staub Dutch oven right away to maintain its lovely gloss. The Zen teacher and writer Edward Espe Brown calls this being “good friends” with your pots and pans, and I’ve taken it to heart.

I believe that what’s true for me in the kitchen is also true for me in life. There’s a saying: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Before, I was a meek and rigid cook, hampered by self-imposed rules. As I’ve grown more confident and intuitive in the kitchen, I’ve grown more so in other areas of my life. And for that, I have my girlfriend to thank.