Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

They Need Me to Feed Them

One morning I woke up surrounded on all sides by the three most important men in my life: R, Tito, and Spider. Looking at the three of them all cuddled up to me I realized: I have to feed them every day. They rely on me for this.

There was something strange about that realization because while its a given that cats have to be fed, its odd to think that my human does as well. But its really not that strange, Hispanic and an aspiring foodie I insist on feeding everyone who comes over, like it or not. I've spontaneously made cookies, beer bread, and muffins, the occasion being we had another person in the house. And alternatively, when R goes away on a trip for even as long as three days, unless I have guests over, I eat out my lunches and have toast with cheese and jam for dinner every night. Cooking just doesn't seem worth the trouble. Even making a simple pasta seems a tediously long process during those times. Yet when I have someone to cook for I go all out, like last night: rotini al telefono, braised bok choy, cornmeal cookies with lime glaze, and the dough of a quiche tart. I went to bed at 1:30 am and I'm up at 7 am. Why? My cats demanded to be fed.

Recently I was chatting with my friend Mario about why we cook. A newly minted Culinary Institute of America student with lofty dreams of a Momofuku-style restaurant empire, he and I differ quite a bit in terms of our approach to cooking but are bonded by it (and our mutual love for R). The chef of Savoy Cabbage in South Africa explained it best in an article he wrote for Gastronomica: its the difference between men and women. For men its about showing off what they can do, for women its about making sure people are well-fed and satisfied. This symbol seems to be a motif but its no less true, its yin and yang. Mario and I embody that. He cooks
the way artists paint and actors perform. For him cooking is more than just nourishing, feeding, and palatal pleasure, its spectacle, presentation, and above all experimentation. So I asked him why he cooked, having recently discovered my own reasons for it. Forget about passion and love for food and creativity, if anything that's a given. The question was, what is the driving force that makes you want to cook?

Mario loves working in restaurant kitchens, loves standing around in a small cramped space all day with people yelling. He loves the kind of food you can only get at restaurants, specially the ones that use chemicals to transform them into something completely different from what they were or could ever be in nature. He loves the hierarchy of the restaurant, the chef's coat, and went so far as to admit for him being a chef is a power thing. He loves standing by the table and having people looking up at him, he loves that whole culture of fine dining and innovative cooking. And at 22, he's rather good at it. But at the end he put it quite simply: "I cook to be loved."

For me, restaurants are not my bag. The hierarchy intimidates me, I can't take the structure and prestige of it too seriously because I can't shake the feeling that at the end of the day, its just food, except when there's a business and stocks and employees and benefit plans involved its not just food. Maybe because I don't go to restaurants often, because I don't have a sense of presentation, because I'd rather control my kitchen than be part of the kitchen factory. While I consider culinary school and cooking professionally on a daily basis, an idea borne of the philosophy of making a career from what you love to do, the more I think about entering the restaurant world the less appealing it sounds to me. I like that in my kitchen there are no rules, no pressure, I'm alone and free to do what I want. Its how I unwind and express myself creatively. I cook because I enjoy feeding people and eating good food, but I like sitting at the table with them and eating with them. I'm the home cook to Mario's restaurant chef.

If you boil it down, though, we're not really that different. I had a telling moment a few days ago when my friend D was here. He stood in front of me as I offered R a taste of something I was making for the first time. He says my eyes widened in anticipation in this please like it sort of way, something I wasn't conscious of doing. I'm sure I make that face every time I ask R if he likes what I've made. At the end of the day Mario and I are still cooking for the same reason, even if we approach cooking very differently. Like him, I cook to be loved.

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