Posts Tagged ‘kitchen politics’

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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 …