“Yeah, but I can’t cook like you.” Quite a few people have said that to me lately, and it always makes me smile.
It was ten years ago that a light bulb went on in my head. Amidst growing health concerns, I knew I was going to have to start eating primarily homemade food in which I controlled the ingredients. There was only one massive problem: save a handful of tricks, I had no idea how to cook decent food.
That’s the other thing people say all the time: “Have you always loved to cook?” That one makes me smile, too, because the truth is I don’t love to cook. I love to eat. But it was only ten years ago that the idea of eating my own food was monumentally depressing. I had so much to learn; I didn’t even know where to start.
So I began with what I did know: what I loved to eat. I want some chili; how do you make chili? I want salmon; how do you make salmon? And so on. There were many glorious failures. But slowly – and I mean slowly – I started having small successes. Those tasty moments were exciting; I would literally lick the plate clean in sheer elation that I made something that actually tasted good. Through those moments, I began to understand the chemistry of food, what ingredients were meant to do, and why/when you used them.
Most importantly, I started feeling a shift in my health and seeing the healing power of whole foods. That motivation pushed me to learn how to make a lot of convenience items, like dressings, condiments, seasonings, and canned items. I learned how to slowly transition from familiar preservatives to whole ingredients that didn’t make me swell up or have digestive issues. I was slowly but successfully retraining my body to prefer whole foods.
Then one day, it caught my eye how pretty food could be. My design training started picking up on the colors and textures of the plates I was creating. Food really is edible art. I grabbed my camera and started playing, and my love for food photography was born. It has since become one of my favorite aspects. Even my husband knows the routine: he can’t have his dinner plate until I’ve taken a photo of it, usually out on the patio where the natural light is better. I’m incredibly proud that I haven’t used a single inedible trick on any food shot I’ve taken. Every single one was made and taken by my hands in my home kitchen, and consumed not long after being photographed.
In my excitement, I started posting my photos online. Not so much of a brag as it was (and still is) the sheer enthusiasm of “LOOK WHAT I DID!” I never expected my posts to catch on the way they did. People started asking me for recipes, which I didn’t always have and had to learn to write, as many dishes were a result of trying and combining new ideas. It was strange when friends started texting me for food recommendations or even help when they got stuck. It was even weirder when I realized I actually knew the answers.
My growth continued much the same way it started, by trial-and-error making what I loved to eat. My first bigger personal challenge was lasagna from scratch. The assembly stressed me out, but it worked, and I licked that plate clean. I kept going, watching other people cook on YouTube and visiting specialty food stores just to learn what was out there. I saved up money for gourmet tools and ingredients, buying name brands at outlet stores and Black Friday sales. I read through cook books, quickly realizing which chefs I preferred. I pushed myself to try cuisines that were new to me, even when flavor profiles seemed strange and unappealing. I signed up for classes at cooking schools, even when I was hugely intimidated. I started to realize my palate could taste the ingredients in a dish when I went to a restaurant. For the first time ever, I would think, “I could make this.” Or even crazier, “I could make this better.” I eventually took on one of my lifetime goals: a complete holiday dinner from scratch by myself. I started a week in advance, but I loved every minute of it and was elated when that worked, too. It has now become one of my favorite annual traditions.
Somewhere in the midst of this journey, I discovered Julia Child’s back story and fell in love with her. I had always seen her skill level as something I could never hope to achieve…until I learned she didn’t start cooking school until the age of 37, and it didn’t always go smoothly. But her tenacity and sheer joy of eating good food eventually grew her into one of the ultimate icons of home cooking. She has encouraged me in the kitchen more times than I can count. And that’s why I smile when people say, “I can’t cook like you.” Because I get it. I still don’t see myself as any sort of expert; I’m just someone who loves to eat and has put in a lot of time to understand food.
If I can leave you with anything, it’s the idea that YOU CAN. Believe me, I’ve burnt it, too. I’ve under-cooked it, too. Mine has separated, too. Mine fell apart, too. Mine has also been too salty, sweet, spicy, mushy, watery, still frozen, overly cakey, unripe, bland, and simply inedible. I’ve set it on fire, melted it, made it explode, dropped it on the floor, and just straight up broken it, as well. I have been there.
But if learning to cook is important to you, just take a deep breath, give yourself a break, and start again. It can be a long journey, but you’ll get there eventually. And when you do, it’ll be delicious!