Cooking for your partner is a treat, but a tightrope.
At the beginning of a relationship, you’re trying to seduce someone with food. Later, you’re demonstrating an ability to nurture, that as a spouse or parent, you’ll be a dependable provider of food. As time moves on, cooking a special meal is a way to show that you still care, that the spark, the eagerness to please them, burns strong.
From the first meal I cooked for my wife to planning the latest Valentine’s menu, the stress remains the same.
Whether you’re a kitchen novice worried about a chicken breast cooking all the way through, or a world-class chef trying to outdo yourself, the stakes are the same – your ego and their pleasure.
The first dinner I cooked for Victoria was ceviche and a cheeseburger. If it sounds like these things don’t go together, they don’t. And it’s far too much food for a date. The ceviche, a complex salad of raw sea bream with green mango, cucumber, raw garlic, fried shallots, lime juice, Thai basil and mint leaves, was meant to show off my sophistication. The burger, basic smash style in a cast-iron pan, was to let her know I wasn’t pretentious. Later, I learned that she had spit the seafood dish into a napkin. But the burger won her over, and when she recounts the meal, she only mentions that.
Early in the relationship, there were more flops. Knowing her as I do today, it’s insane that I tried feeding her beef cheek. No matter how crispy I made the outside, or how much mole I covered it with, she was never going to go for the gooey interior of the off-cut, which I now understand belongs to a family of forbidden foods known as “weird meats” – lamb, duck, goat, offal, sausages, anything floating in liquid.
At first, I took these setbacks personally. Disappointed at a meal she didn’t love, I’d mope for the rest of the evening, a passive-aggressive form of guilting I hope I’ve learned not to do any more.
Eager for approval, I’d get tense, too. I understood that after a hard day at the office, my wife didn’t want to come home to an experiment or challenge. And while she’s always going to be nice about it, and appreciative, we all know the difference between “Thanks for making dinner” and the preferred response of “Honey, can we have this for dinner EVERY night?”
Over time, as I adapted to cooking for her, building a digital photo album of “Vic’s menu,” dishes or ideas that she’d like, I found her adapting to me as well. Gradually, she warmed to rapini, fish sauce, mussels and beets. Ingredients she thought she didn’t like – onions, mushrooms, carrots – were unlocked with the cheat codes of caramelization, butter and patient cooking. She used to pick onions off her food and now she asks for extra.
Making dinner, or packing her lunches, is my favourite part of the day. But for her birthday, I needed to wow her, which meant moving beyond my comfort zone. So this year I added dessert, not a strength for me.
My cheesecake came out of the oven cracked on top. The sides, torn when I pulled away the parchment paper, looked raggedy. The surface was level at first, but caved in as it cooled. I filled the crater with a cornstarch-thickened cherry sauce that, while disgustingly gloopy to me, filled in the cracks. But the goal here was not to impress myself. It was to make my wife happy.
But she would not have cared if the cake sloped like a ski ramp, if the bottom had been burnt, if I’d covered it in cherry jam packets swiped off the table from Denny’s. It’s hard to believe, with your ego on the line, but when you cook for someone you love, it really is the effort that counts. The meal can be terrible. The point is that you made it for them, because you care.
We recently took a trip to Italy, and since then I’ve been experimenting at reproducing scialatielli ai frutti di mare, a pasta of rich dough made with eggs, flour, milk, cheese and olive oil. Split-second timing is critical in serving this with fresh clams, the liquid from the seafood, plus a bit of pasta water, emulsified with the oil, transforming it into a creamy sauce to coat the nubby pasta. Planning to serve the dish on Valentine’s Day, my first couple of dough attempts have been too dense. Still, when she tells me she wants to continue our Feb. 14 tradition of fried chicken from Popeye’s, I’m frustrated that I can’t show off my fancy dish. And while it’s taken me some time to abandon that lofty goal, I’ve eventually learned what every aging rock band knows – play the hits. You can always add a side dish to customize it.
It’s easy to forget what your partner wants when you start confusing that purpose with the elusive aim of Instagram food-styling perfection, or restaurant-chef cooking (looking at you, people with sous vide machines at home). It doesn’t matter if your meal is too dry, scorched, sticky, overseasoned or underseasoned. The real goal is an act of service for your loved one. As long as you remember that, there is no such thing as a kitchen fail.