Cooking and overthinking: my two favorite hobbies
“À cette heure où je descendais apprendre le menu, le dîner était déjà commencé, et Françoise, commandant aux forces de la nature devenues ses aides, comme dans les féeries où les géants se font engager comme cuisiniers, frappait la houille, donnait à la vapeur des pommes de terre à étuver et faisait finir à point par le feu les chefs-d’œuvre culinaires d’abord préparés dans des récipients de céramistes qui allaient des grandes cuves, marmites, chaudrons et poissonnières, aux terrines pour le gibier, moules à pâtisserie et petits pots de crème, en passant par une collection complète de casseroles de toutes dimensions.” Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann
During a recent interview, an interviewer asked me to tell him something that was not on my CV, a hobby of mine for example. I said I cooked. “What do you mean ‘you cook’?” he said, “Everyone cooks! What’s your goal? Do you go to cooking competitions?” A bit taken aback by his reaction, I said my hobby is to test recipes and cookbooks and made up a goal of publishing my own cookbook one day.
I didn’t get the job anyway, and the reality is: when I cook, I cook.
Yesterday for example. I made pan-grilled marinated chicken, with gochujang and miso-roasted potatoes. I even put a little bit of cornstarch in the leftover marinade over low heat, to create a balsamic reduction for the chicken. The potatoes were an idea I got from a recipe from Ottolenghi’s cookbook Flavour. I found the marinade online, on a blog called “Mom on Timeout”. I am no mom, but I am on timeout. There was already gochujang and miso paste from Tang Frères in my fridge because, well, during the past four months, I tested 48 recipes: I needed gochujang for a Mapodon, and miso paste for some gnocchis. And I made all this on a Monday evening, only for my husband and me. No goals, except for just a very nice evening.
There are two types of cooks in this world: the ingredient cooks and the recipe cooks. I’m definitely in the latter category. I truly admire ingredient cooks. I’ve watched a friend wander in the food market of Tirana, buying octopus and vegetables, and improvising a delicious meal in the small kitchen of our rented apartment. He’s the type who could publish a cookbook! But I’m less creative and I love to follow orders. Since 2020, I’ve been hoarding cookbooks and meticulously trying as many recipes as I can. When we left with little luggage for a bigger house for the first COVID lockdown, Marc put Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi in one suitcase. I truly believe this is the reason I stayed sane during the first few months of the pandemic. Recently this habit has become some kind of an obsession, linked to the free time I have from being unemployed.
Cooking gives me a sense of control and confidence. I know I am a good cook, primarily because I like what I cook for myself, I can test my success with my tastebuds. I can also control the input and the output: I plan, I buy the ingredients, I cook with a process I decided… And the outcome is tangible. For someone who likes to be told what to do, I am a bit of a dictator in the kitchen. There is little uncertainty at the end. I know when it’s good and I definitely know when it’s not good. But I’m (most of the time) a very good cook and it’s genuinely nice to do a lot of what you excel in.
I also believe I love cooking because it makes me productive during an unproductive period of my life. I use my creativity and my organizational skills for the best use I have for them so far: making my relatives and friends happy.
I now have a whole process when I invite guests. I informally save the date with them, then I’ll browse my recipe books and my recipe Notion databases to find inspiration, then I go on Canva to craft a formal invitation with the menu I plan to make. Sometimes I’ll add a small explanation of each dish when they are too exotic for a French audience. The invitation is sent on Whatsapp. I will pick my ingredients in specialized supermarkets and go to the wine shop in my neighborhood whose owner recently waved at me on the street, leading me to wonder whether it would be better for me to not be such a good customer. My biggest project was the party I threw before leaving for Tel Aviv when I decided to invite all my MBA friends. I cooked typical French dishes for two whole days. I loved it.
Then we’ll have our little dinner, our deep conversations, and our surprising wine. They will leave late at night and I will post the menu on Instagram. If I was better at the whole Instagram game, I would take some videos, photos, perhaps make tutorials and create more content about it. I do fantasize about making a living out of it as a food influencer. Why be so productive if I don’t get money out of all this work? But then I remember the last time I filmed myself cooking: I cut some onions and cried for five minutes on camera. As for the photos, here is one I took of my chicken and potatoes dinner:
My mindset right now makes me think of the character of Deidre in The Incredible Kimmy Shmidt. She is a smart, educated, and well-read housewife who is frustrated by her life of charity galas in the Upper East Side and uses her intelligence to persecute other housewives. To quote her:
“I have a degree in political science from Princeton, and all that wasted mental energy has to go somewhere.”
I am not a genius who formerly worked in the State Department, and I certainly don’t persecute other housewives. Yet. Still, I do feel frustrated with my shiny degrees, my skills, and my productivity which go nowhere except toward elaborate dinner parties and other homely crafts like knitting and sewing. I am the kind of feminist who will repeat “Housework is work”, but this mantra just won’t seem to apply to me. If I were a better person, seeing my friends and family enjoy what I make would be enough, and if I were a better feminist, I would value my work in the kitchen just as it is: hard work. But no amount of Notion databases and Canva creations is cutting it entirely. Even writing this article is a way to legitimize the work I do and the creative process I have in the kitchen. A way of saying: I’m not your regular housewife, I am actually an intellectual cook.
That’s why I put a quote from Proust at the beginning of this article by the way.
Thank you for reading so far. This is the start of a series of more personal and informal articles I plan to write in the next couple of months. I hope you will enjoy it!