How We Became Top Chefs

Cooking together as a family has given us a new creative outlet, one that has brought us closer together

My mother was a very good cook, big on brisket and chicken dinners, but she never showed any interest in teaching me how to prepare meals alongside her. I guess she figured I'd learn by myself when I got older— more likely, she didn't think about it at all.

She spent her long days doing housewifery tasks, which included making three meals a day for her family, and I never heard her object. She made sure to have homemade snacks ready when my sister, brother and I came in from school, and I imagine the last thing she wanted or needed was to take precious minutes out of her crammed, relentless day to help a little girl learn how to peel potatoes or sift flower or roast a chicken.

For my part, I was horrified by what I perceived to be the drudgery of my mother's life (not that I would have thought to offer her a hand). The last thing I wanted was to become domestic like her. Her life seemed tedious and self-sacrificing, and that didn't appeal to me in the slightest.

When I went out on my own as a young adult, I taught myself — or learned from friends — some basic cookery so I could survive. I learned how to scramble eggs, make French toast, boil pasta, stir-fry veggies, and grill chicken and fish. That was it, more or less, and that was enough. My microwave became my best friend — way to go, instant oatmeal and mashed potatoes.

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I married a man after my own heart. Together, we dutifully stir-fried veggies in our wok, and opened a lot of cans. We ordered takeout and dined in restaurants (often just the local Greek diner) as often as we could afford to. When friends and family had us over for elaborate meals, we were in awe of their creativity in the kitchen but never imagined ourselves doing the same. We were content with our food lives, never dreaming of more.

Then we became the parents of a daughter, and I suddenly realized my inadequacies in the kitchen. Now I felt bad that I was never the one in my family hosting Thanksgiving, and thus passing the tradition on to my daughter. Occasionally, she and I baked cupcakes from a packaged mix, and I was thrilled that we were at least cracking eggs over a bowl together. Sometimes we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or grilled cheese together.

And then, as a family, we three serendipitously discovered cooking/reality TV shows one evening while we were idly flipping channels. We instantly fell in love with the cooking competition shows, our favorites being "Chopped" and "Top Chef," in which chefs compete for prizes as a panel of judges debate the merits of the dishes they've just whipped up, often out of very strange ingredients.

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Initially, it was just the excitement of seeing who lost and who won that captivated us, as well as the highly opinionated and wonderfully witty judges, but gradually it became the food itself, and the process of the chefs making it, that drew us in just as much. We watched all the new episodes and then went back and watched all the previous seasons in their entirety, rooting for our favorite chefs and listening carefully as they described how they had prepared their meals.

We began casually speaking to each other of "amuse-bouches," a term we'd never heard before. We began arranging our food prettily on the plate; I went so far as to cut my daughter's bagel and cream cheese into pieces and arrange it as a flower.

Spices became a huge deal. We now seasoned heavily with turmeric and basil and dill—whatever the dish called for, and we tried to listen to its silent cries for what it needed. We made sure that spices complemented one another and weren't arbitrarily thrown in. No more throwing garlic into everything we cooked because that was the one thing we knew how to do.

My daughter and I began baking together from scratch, which turned out to be a far more joyous (and, OK, slow and messy) experience than using a mix. We marinated fish and left it overnight to soak in the flavor. We made our own marinara sauce instead of relying on Paul Newman.

Cooking together as a family has not only given us each a new creative outlet, but has brought us closer together, and we've gone so far as to invite a few friends over for some low-key dinners and brunches. I'm not ruling out the possibility of our one day hosting Thanksgiving, once we master how to make a delectable turkey that's crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside, along with some sweet, marshmallow-y candied yams that will be to die for. We're working on it.

Tags: food