Conflict in the kitchen

April 6, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking about culinary power plays between couples.

It’s my observation that, with couples who are interested in cooking, there often tends to be one party who does the fancy footwork and gets the praise, and the other who ends up at best as sous chef – or at worst, general dogsbody whose flourishes are relegated to taking the garbage out rather than the main course to the table.

Certainly in our house when friends come round I’m generally the one who gets to do the razzledazzling while Senor patiently stands by, either at front-of-house with drinks and hospitality, or – more shamefully for me – at the sink with the dishcloth.  In general this arrangement seems to suit both of us, and probably works fine in your house too. But it’s worth questioning, I think.

Because occasionally I have noticed, among some couples I know, that rather more of a power play seems to be going on, with the main cook subtly (or even overtly) intimidating the sous-chef so the latter never gets to develop their cooking skills, and the only meals they are allowed to cook are of the thankless, everyday, dinner-for-the kids variety. Meanwhile, the more confident Better Cook has all the fun. She or he gets to try new the new dishes, buy the expensive ingredients and the flashy gear and generally be the star of the show when friends show up for dinner. They also get to make the mess, then sit back for the praise and the wine while the spouse gets busy stacking the dishes.

I even know of one or two cases where the “Lesser Cook” is actively discouraged, even forbidden, to cook for friends by the Better Cook. None of this is stated up front, of course; it’s justified because ‘I like to do it’; ‘It’s easier for me’; ‘You get too stressed’ and other such furphies. In this way the roles become even more established. The Lesser Cook becomes rather patronisingly known as ‘good at salads’ or ‘a great help in the kitchen’, while the Better Cook can even indulge in a little kitchen martyrdom, sighing at having to do All the Work Again.

This situation is not good, people! 

When Senor and I first met over a decade ago he was not a confident cook. He is now. But in the early days of his culinary development, it took every ounce of my strength not to stand watching over his shoulder, questioning his choice of dish, his onion-chopping method, his balancing of oil and vinegar. No doubt I did a lot of that. And sometimes, to be honest, it’s still tricky – after all, when you do know how to do something it seems only sensible to instruct and educate someone who doesn’t.

The problem is that ‘educating’ can so easily topple over into criticising and intimidating and undermining. And it means the less confident cook remains dependent on the other for approval, unable to confidently produce a great dessert or even independently arrange dinner with friends. It’s a vicious cycle.

I learned that the best way to encourage Senor to cook was simply to stay out of the kitchen altogether while he did the choosing, shopping and cooking. And if there were a few wonky meals as a result, there have also been many more brilliant ones – he is more imaginative in the kitchen than I am, often more ambitious and energetic and certainly more amenable to trying new things.  If he asks for an opinion on how to do something I’ll give it, but otherwise I am now very happy to go read a book while he does his stuff.

I think the solution for us, has turned out to be only one cook in the kitchen at a time. Other couples we know have different arrangements – dividing kitchen labour by course, or by main-or-side dishes, or by occasion.

Over time it’s turned out that Senor’s & my repertoires have settled into a kind of genre pattern – he tends to do Asian cookery much more than I do, and is also much more of a dessert buff, while I lean more towards the simple classics. I am still the one who tends to cook more for our friends, but if he ever volunteers I am totally up for it.

Now, to a recipe.

This one is apropos of nothing really, except that I love peas. And I love leeks. And I love anchovies. And it’s the kind of side dish that can be made ahead, and eaten hot or room temperature or even chilled. And any sous-chef can make it on their way to turning the tables and becoming the King or Queen of the Kitchen.

Braised peas, leeks & anchovies

  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 5 anchovies in oil, mashed
  • 500g frozen peas
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • a squeeze of lemon juice
  • salt & pepper
  1. Saute the leek, garlic & anchovies gently in a little oil until leek & garlic are soft.
  2. Toss in the peas and stock, bring to the boil and simmer until peas are tender and the liquid has largely gone.
  3. Season with lemon juice to taste, salt & pepper.

Now, tell me about your kitchen politics. Who does what in your house, and how do you divide the labour? Have you, like me, ever been guilty of culinary power plays, or felt intimidated out of cooking by a flatmate or spouse? Come on, spill …


  1. Interesting observations Charlotte, but not ones I’ve had the opportunity to make in our kitchen. The last time the Husband actually selected a recipe, shopped for the ingredients, prepared them, cooked them and presented them to me on a plate was the night I went into labour with our first child.
    She is now 21.
    Of course, he is always happy to man the barbecue and claims that as his culinary contribution to our connubial cohabitation, but the shopping and preparation of these meals apparently does not fall into his ambit – or so he believes. He insists on claiming the proffering of (not always well cooked) barbecued meat as an appropriate effort and one commensurate with the time I have put in assembling the total menu, including nibbles, vegetable dishes and dessert.
    On the other hand, my sister and her husband are both high-achievers (I am a happy under-achiever) and I have noticed this kind of kitchen competition in their house. They take pride in each others cooking prowess, while at the same time trying to subtly better the last culinary triumph. A bit of a win for us as house guests as we sit back and enjoy the food.

  2. I was thinking about this just recently. I was the Lesser Cook with a now-ex-boyfriend (nothing to do with the kitchen) — when he was supposed to be ‘helping out’ with a meal I was cooking, I’d suddenly find myself doing all the boring jobs like chopping onion and washing up. But before we met, I’d never been much interested in cooking. Having to fight for my own space in the kitchen, in a way, solidified my interest in it. I’m not sure I’d be so obsessed now had I not had that experience.

    Really interesting thing to be aware of, I think.

  3. My wife feels it is necessary to instruct my every move in the kitchen lest I make a mistake or do something wrong.

    She also feels threatened and insulted if I happen mention that something is on fire.

    After cooking the family’s meals for the last 27 years it is not easy to deal with someone who suddenly has found an interest in cooking after she has retired.

    I used to have the kitchen to myself, now it is a dangerous place for me to enter.

    Learn to share or at least to shut up and do something else .

  4. Interesting, Charlotte… I’d be hard pressed to call who does more of the dinner party cooking in our house…Llew’s a very good cook and definitely handles the Asian cuisine and the BBQ when we have guests. I do the Italian and anything else, as well as most – but not all – of the fuel cooking through the week (which as you know needn’t be boring, though I did rip out a dependable spag bol on the farm last night). The big thing for us is one of style: Llew prepares everything meticulously in little bowls and ramekins before he starts, using just about every bowl and implement in the place before the stint in the kitchen is over. I am far, far more economical and kinder in the washup pile-up than he!

  5. […] brings me to a second piece from How to shuck an oyster, Conflict in the Kitchen. We have, as a couple, had some conflict about who is going to cook when, who cooks the show pieces […]

  6. Oh yes, Charlotte, interesting observations. I have been a terrible back-seat cook inthe past, interfering and making (not) helpful suggestions to R, when he is perfectly capable of cooking.

    It’s taken me a while to accept that he just does things in a different way from me and that when I thought I was being helpful, I was actually being critical and undermining.

    So now, like you, I just stay out of the kitchen and leave him to it. R cooks much more traditional food than me. But he’s also much more willing to do the weekend ambitious, four saucepan meal, when I’d probably just make a salad.

    It’s a much more satisfying arrangement for both of us.

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