All home cooks tend to have one major flaw. We don’t say “I’m a home cook.” We say “Oh, I’m just a home cook.” I spend my time on the road urging people to lose that “just,” to stop apologizing, desist from outlining the ways in which our talents, abilities, and output fall short. What we are doing is comparing ourselves to chefs and feeling ourselves the lesser for it. We are not chefs; we can’t do things that chefs can do — we don’t have the time, energy, or training — but to deduce that we are inadequate at the task of creatively feeding ourselves and others is madness.
I am routinely called a chef. I point out, politely, that I am not a chef, but a home cook who writes about food (I have no training and have never cooked professionally), and I am always charmingly chided for being modest. But I am not being modest in the slightest: I don’t regard being called a chef as an accolade; I regard it as a case of false attribution.
I can see it confuses people: If someone writes books and cooks, albeit clumsily, on TV, then it is fair to presume that person is a professional. So I will own up gladly to being a professional food writer. But I started my food-writing career (relatively late in life — my first book, How to Eat, came out when I was 38) precisely because I felt that the domination of chef-food in publishing and television was damaging and wrong. Real cooking is what happens in the home. Restaurant cooking can be fabulous, inspiring, transcendent, and oh-so-marvelous in many ways, but for me it will always partly belong to the realm of theater. Furthermore, the restaurant kitchen insists and relies on conformity; the spontaneity of the home cook is by contrast gloriously anarchic. Don’t apologize for that: revel in it.
Of course, there’s a reason why the home cook has always been seen as a lesser creature: traditionally, chefs had been male and paid; home cooking was “women’s work,” unwaged and taken for granted, sentimentally prized but not essentially valued or respected. There was a time when denigrating cooking and insisting on how hopeless you were at it were ways of establishing distance from the role of domestic drudge. And yet I have always felt that to disparage an activity because it has been traditionally female is itself anti-feminist.
Moreover, cooking seems to me to be one of the basic prerequisites for sustaining the self: it is an act of primary independence. I love feeding other people — I can’t even let a person who’s come in to mend my boiler leave without something wrapped in aluminum foil — but I derive no less deep satisfaction from feeding myself.
Cooking is also, supremely, a creative act. By that I mean not an art but a craft. I leave the Art with a capital A to chefs. For the home cook, or for this home cook in particular, there is something less lofty and more physical: the feel of the dough in my fingers, the scent of a lemon as I zest the skin and the aromatic oils spritz in the air, the sizzle of onions in a pan, the darkly gleaming beauty of an eggplant. Cooking provides deep aesthetic pleasure though it is manual work.
But it doesn’t have to be labor. It doesn’t have to be difficult. It certainly can be difficult: I read any recipe written by an award-winning chef, and I know I will be daunted. Getting dinner on the table doesn’t require any abstruse skills, arcane knowledge, or even dexterity. I haven’t got a knife skill to my name, but I cook often and gladly. For home cooking is not technique-driven but taste-led. The very simplest processes can lead to great complexity of flavor. The chicken-and-pea recipe below is a testament to that.