As one would expect, most restaurants (though not all) will be closed this Thursday for Thanksgiving. An informal polling of chefs and cooks I know reveals an even split among those that will do a share of the cooking for their friends and family, and those who'll be letting someone else run the kitchen. By the way, if you do find yourself cooking for a professional, relax; don't fret over how fancy the food is, as they are more than thankful to have the day off, and happy to be on the other end of the hospitality game.
I've played both host and a guest on holidays past. Since moving to New York City, my own ritual began to evolve: one day of scouring the city for ingredients, the next a marathon of cooking and eating. Now that my wife's restaurant has been open for Thanksgiving, I'm the guest yet again, enjoying the meal with her chef, staff, and friends.
As the food media bombards us this week with holiday recipes and tips, many of them from chefs like me, I'm reminded how often I'm asked about home cooking the other 364 days of the year. People are curious, I guess, not just in what we eat during our downtime, but also how we fit those meals into the odd, long hours we work. It's true: I cook at home nearly everyday. Despite the daily twelve-hour schedule our restaurant work demands, it's important that my wife and I find some form of routine and normalcy. We achieve it by maintaining a fairly regular dinner hour. Rather than at a more conventional time- when we're busy taking care of someone else's meal- it just happens to fall at the end of our day, that is to say around 1:00am.
One might think cooking at home is the last thing I want to do after a stressful day in the kitchen. I love it. I find this kind of cooking therapeutic in a way, not just because I'm feeding myself and family, but it also acts as a buffer, a transition between work life and home life, however blurry that line becomes. As we decompress, I methodically prep my ingredients and my wife gathers the plates and pours some wine. All the while, we recap the day's events: mine from a back-of-the-house perspective of the kitchen, and from her dining room, the ins-and-outs of the front. By time whatever I've cooked hits the table, we're relaxed.
It's not always easy. Our Manhattan kitchen isn't a room unto itself, but rather a loosely defined area of the apartment. This cramped corner offers only a sliver of counter space, and the stove is a fraction of the one I use at work, and nowhere near as powerful. There's no ventilation to speak of, so the simple act of searing a steak often requires a dismantling of the smoke detector, out of fear it will wake our neighbors living their 9-5 routine. We make up for all this by being lucky enough to use the nicest of tools and utensils, from sharp Japanese knives, to sturdy sauté pans and imported cast iron pots. I can be just as obsessive about such things at home as I am at the restaurant. It can be difficult to switch modes, to cook for two instead of two hundred. Even at the market, I forget to scale it down, and I usually shop with a ravenous appetite.
Though it would make more sense to shop for our meals in advance, we seldom do. I always manage to stock a basic pantry; there are staples like olive oil, garlic, and spices. In addition to basic dry goods like sugar and flour, I also like to have on hand short and long grain rice and at least one kind of pasta. In the refrigerator, there's usually a wedge of good cheese, some bacon or chorizo, a few lemons. Alongside a stash of ice cream, there might be a pint of chicken stock, or a few vanilla beans at the ready, tightly wrapped in the freezer. And one will find some slightly more esoteric items in the cupboard, whose variety or obscurity might immediately flag me as a chef: argan oil, Vietnamese fish sauce, and smoky pimenton from Spain, or palm sugar, Lebanese za'atar, and fragrant tonka beans. In other words, I keep a lot of tasty accessories, but no center-of-the-plate in which to incorporate them.
Thus, I tend to shop for each meal, inspired by the moment. We live in close proximity to a handful of the city's best (and priciest) food markets, but my options are far fewer when I leave Le Bernardin late after dinner service. There may be a deli or bodega on every corner, but the selection of fresh foods, especially proteins, are somewhat limited. It's not uncommon to travel a dozen blocks or more out of my way to a proper grocery store that's open 24 hours. Once home, laden with a supply of vegetables and fresh herbs, the best options for meats, and usually some assortment of organic greens, I get to cooking.
What do I cook? I very rarely reference the hundreds of cookbooks within reach of the tiny kitchen. And while I try to be inventive, I wouldn't say my dishes offer a flair or presentation worthy of a fine restaurant. Surprising as it may seem, I cook simple, everyday fare, the stuff we crave when we're around 'fancy' food all day. I find happiness in rolling out spicy meatballs and slowly stirring a pot of polenta. I make a pretty mean taco, and I've nearly perfected the Thai dish, pad ga prow. Though it's not uncommon to come home and roast a whole chicken or to build a bountiful salade nicoise, we're just as satisfied with a quick BLT. A simple soup is comforting to eat, but I find more enjoyment in the meditative act of making it.
Don't get me wrong, we do enjoy our meals in restaurants, but days off also allow for more consuming projects- dishes we just don't have time for during the busy week. I love long, slow braises. I'll spend hours prepping complex paella, which requires diligent attention. Though I could grab a slice down the block, nothing beats a hand made pizza dough; if I'm feeling ambitious, I might even make my own mozzarella. One inevitably asks, as a pastry chef, if I'm constantly whipping up inspired sweets and decadent desserts in my home kitchen. The answer is, quite frankly, rarely. And when I do dabble in domestic pastry, it's something far more rustic than the plated desserts we do at the restaurant. I don't really know why - probably the lack of space and all my specialized equipment, or most importantly, the absence of sous chefs!
Never mind that the time and effort that goes all this extra-curricular cooking is far longer than the time we spend eating it. Cooking and eating are simply one long process for us, and the happiness that comes from it justifies our devotion to this weird and wonderful business of food.