I forget when Master Chef premiered on Fox, but it was about three or four years ago, back when I was a TV critic. That’s the competition show in which ordinary people put their cooking skills up against each other in the usual challenges and eliminations. It features Chef Gordon Ramsey as the head judge. I was watching the advance screener of the show and realized I was getting really annoyed. At first, I thought it was Ramsey, who is annoyingly full of himself, and wrote it off as his schtick.
But then he kept going on about how the competition was about celebrating home cooks. And I realized he was celebrating home cooks by turning them into restaurant chefs. Huh? And then there was his big thing about having to use only the finest ingredients? Say what?
That’s when I started feeling a little insulted. It was as if Ramsey was saying the only good cooking is done in restaurants by people who use only the best. Excuse me, it does not take any great talent, though maybe some training, to make fabulous ingredients taste good. You want to make Kobe beef taste good? You sprinkle some salt and pepper on it and make sure it doesn’t overcook. That’s it, baby. The finest ingredients are easy. The really talented cooks are the ones who can make the lousy ingredients taste good.
If you think that’s impossible, then you have been brainwashed by Ramsey and others of his ilk. Women have been making lousy cuts of meat, entrails and borderline vegetables taste fabulous for generations. Some of the great French classic dishes, including coq au vin, boeuf bourgignon and cassoulet started out as hearty peasant fare, cooked by women trying to figure out how to make stringy old chicken and scraps of stringy meat taste good. African American women took the worst bits of the pig and made chitlins a delicacy. Chinese women made chicken feet tasty.
I’m not saying there isn’t a lot to be learned from restaurant cooks. There is. And I love eating in restaurants, so please do not take anything written here as negating any of that. But home cooking is a different beast and if you want to celebrate it, then don’t focus on the hobbyists, who spend the weekend carefully shopping, then using every pan and dish in the kitchen whipping up some fabulous gourmet treat, placed perfectly on a plate worthy of a magazine layout. Focus on the women and men who day in and day out, stretch their food budget out to buy what they can afford, then get dinner on the table night after night, after long days working at whatever they do. Who create delicious meals out of nothing and a warm and welcoming space for families to come together and share their lives and be present to each other.
There’s a lot being said about the obesity epidemic in this country. There are many, many factors, including inactive lifestyles, and over-processed foods loaded with sugars. But I would argue that a big part of the problem is too many meals eaten in restaurants. I know that’s when I start to gain weight. And I start losing when I eat at home. Which also means that a good solution to the epidemic might be getting folks to start cooking and eating at home. We, as humans, connect over food. Meals form the basis of religious ritual in both Judaism and Christianity. Food is community.
There are those who insist that connecting with each other through food and meals is dangerous, that it’s what’s making us fat. I want to knock those idiots upside the head. The obesity epidemic started when the tradition of the sit-down family meal started falling apart. The solution to obesity isn’t making us afraid of our food, but instead (and counter-intuitively) it may well be to make us fall in love with our food again. And with spending time together in the kitchen and at the dining room table.
Yes, daily cooking can be a real grind. It’s not easy to come up with dishes that are tasty and healthy and budget conscious every night. But we do it because it’s important, not only for our physical health, but the health of our spirits. Because it’s important for growing healthy, loving families. Kind of like what our moms did for many of us when we were growing up. And generations of mothers before that.
Gordon Ramsey does not believe in home cooking. He believes in restaurant cooking at home – which has its place. But real home cooking isn’t about showing off. It’s about getting it done. It’s not about the finest ingredients. It’s about making the ingredients you have taste great. Real home cooking is about bringing families – however you define that – together in what winemaker Wes Hagen called “The last great analog ritual.” It’s the most important work there is.