The Luxury of Eating In
This week, I sat down with the chef of a restaurant to talk about a dish on his menu for an article I’m writing. I write articles like this, about a dish, a chef, or a place, for a local magazine, as well as restaurant reviews.
I like reviewing restaurants. I enjoy the opportunity to have dinner with people I care about and want to catch up with and have it somehow count as work. I enjoy being undercover, observing like any other diner.
But as much as I love restaurant reviews, I love the articles which allow me to interview people far more. I don’t know what happens when I tell a chef or a restaurant owner that I’m a food writer, but there seems to be an acceptance, an acknowledgement that we’re in the same business, in a way. We are people who care about food.
When I do these interviews, we talk about the restaurant and the dish, of course, but we also talk about the roads that brought us to this moment. I once talked with a chef who told me that he started his career in high school as a tableside flambé assistant at a local historic hotel.
In these moments, we are colleagues. Usually these people are busy, behind the scenes. I recognize that our relaxed conversations are a rare gift.
As I chatted with this chef, between bites, we talked about our favorite oils. “I’m a fan of coconut,” I told him. “I cook everything in it now, since it doesn’t break down in high heat.”
“That’s a good oil,” he said. “We can’t afford that here. Can you imagine what we’d have to charge?”
I shook my head sympathetically. We moved on to a discussion of the sauce.
“We use beet sugar,” he told me. “But I don’t like to talk about it since all the sugar beets are GMO.”
This fact had escaped me in my sugar research earlier this year.
“You have to make your decisions,” he said. “There are all kinds of problems with sugar—this is the one we chose.”
I kept thinking about this long after I’d thanked him and gone about the rest of my day. There was something in this conversation that caught my attention, asking me to take note, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I went home and made myself something to eat, cutting up half an organic tomato and adding it to cold macaroni pasta with shaved pieces of Parmesan Reggiano I’d achieved with a vegetable peeler. I added some pink salt, my latest favorite, pinched between my fingers, and some black pepper.
I’ve long attempted to quiet the fears of friends who are nervous about having a food critic over to eat a cookie or a dinner. “You could make me anything,” I say. “I can taste the love.”
I mean this.
There is a soul to cooking done specifically for someone known and cared for.
I sometimes wonder when this idea first took root in me. I remember that my mother had a small metal container she kept in her kitchen for many years. It was the size of a spice tin, and it said: Love. We always opened it and shook some in whenever we cooked or baked together.
Going out to eat has always been a special occasion for me, an entertainment, a treat. But today, as I fill a pitcher with filtered water, cucumbers, and mint, responding to my own thirst with thoughtful details, I realize what it was that eluded me from that conversation with the chef. I have long thought of restaurant dining as the luxury. But now, I think about the poverty with which they approach their dishes, not splurging on the interesting, or the delicious, like I do for my guests or myself.
I sip my water, and drink in the richness, garnished with love.