Good friends of ours are pretty bad cooks. He’s really into onions, tends to omit salt and douses everything in far too much curry or turmeric. She can’t seem to make sauces, so things are horribly watery and tend to lack flavour and any notion of blended aromas. We like these people a lot and we regularly entertain each other, but now they’re talking about opening a restaurant. Eek! Sitting through one of their meals as an invited guest is one thing, but asking people to pay for them? Our friends will have to go out on a financial limb to finance their project. Should we say something to dissuade them or let them risk financial ruin – and possibly total humiliation?
Why do I have the feeling that, over the years, you’ve laid on the postprandial buttering-up of these horrible home chefs a little thick and accidentally swelled their egos like a pair of puff pastries?
You (stifling gag reflex): “Wow, this chicken is, uh, something, Fred. How’d you do it?”
Him: “Yeah, well, I don’t like to follow recipes. I just ‘wing it’ and go on instinct. First I jacked in mucho onions, like I always do, but it still seemed to lack flavour” – Her: “So I ladled on one of my famous sauces”– Your spouse, lying like a rug: “Mmm, yes, we love your famous sauces!”
You (drily, as spouse glares): “Yes, their reputation is well-earned.”
Him: “But even that didn’t work. Then it hit me: curry powder! Instant flavour! So I poured in, like, a whole package and that really seemed to fix it!”
You: “Yes, well, I think it’s safe to say you really ‘fixed’ this chicken, Fred.”
Your spouse (kicking you under table): “Yes, it’s absolutely delicious!” Then, to them: “You guys are so talented. In fact, you know what? You should open a restaurant!”
Something like that? Just a guess. Whatever the reason, your friends have clearly been marinating in a piquant mix of delusion and self-congratulation over what sound like highly rudimentary culinary skills.
Now, I’m no Julia Child, but I’ve learned a few things over my years as the primary cook of the household and a Food Network junkie.
Your friend “tends to omit salt”? In the culinary world failure to salt, along with failure to pepper, is called “failure to season.” On one of my favourite shows, Chopped (four chefs prepare three courses, one cook is cut after each round, the last one standing gets a cash prize), it’s a choppable offense.
And if you brought a plate of unseasoned, say, scallops to “the pass” on Hell’s Kitchen, Chef Ramsay might dash the plate to the ground, kick a garbage can across the room, stab a knife into a chopping board and, screaming epithets, order you out of the kitchen.
Also, just because a little of something is good, doesn’t mean a lot of is it great. (This is applicable to many other areas of life.) I remember when I first discovered garlic, thinking, “A little makes the dish a little tastier, ergo if I bung in a ton of garlic it will be a LOT tastier.” It doesn’t really work like that. The fact that your friend is in his “lots of onions” phase tells me a lot.
Finally, if learning to cook teaches the attentive apprentice anything, it’s to curb his/her hubris. Many of these techniques and combinations, you slowly start to realize, have been passed down through the generations – for hundreds, if not thousands of years. You can’t reinvent everything in a single lifetime, let alone every time you step in front of a stove.
Your friends need to eat some humble pie. And I’m afraid it might be your duty to serve it to them, even if it’s a little lumpy going down and leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Do it, perhaps, across the tablecloth in a fine-dining establishment, so they can see first-hand, the difference between la vraie haute cuisine and the gruesome grub they serve you.
Start off by being gentle, genial and general: “Listen, guys, you’re creative chefs. But did you know the vast majority of restaurants fail in the first year, costing their investors a fortune – and many of those are started by seasoned chefs and restaurateurs?”
If they balk and say: “Well, we’re part of the talented crème de la crème fraiche that rises to the top and beats those type of odds into a frothy meringue!”
You: “We never wanted to mention this before, and only say it because we love you and want you to be happy, but the truth is we feel you both have a lot to learn in the kitchen.”
Them: “But you said we were good enough to open a restaurant! Lots of people did!”
You: “I hate to break it to you, but we, and they, were all lying.”
This may cause their self-esteem soufflés to fall for a while. So be it. Being honest now could spare them all kinds of misery: financial ruin, humiliation, maybe divorce. You owe it to them to be honest, even if it feels like you put their dreams in the Cuisinart.
There’s a lot at stake, here. They could lose their house, sounds like! And if they lose their house, they’ll lose their kitchen, too, and then they’ll never get better as cooks.
David Eddie is an author and the co-creator of the HBO Canada television series The Yard .
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