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I'm a Professional Chef, Finally Giving Myself a Break in the Kitchen

April  9, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.


I haven’t been counting the days of social distancing. But for weeks, I’ve been at home, stretching pantry ingredients, and cooking every meal from scratch. Using leftover semolina to make fresh pasta, digging in my freezer to find a piece of meat that I can braise with dried beans, and boiling that bag of wild rice that's been in my pantry for years.

All of which makes sense, since I’m a professionally trained chef. For the past 10 years, I’ve been cooking just about every day, in a restaurant or as part of a catering team or in the test kitchen at Food52.

But the other day, I felt uninspired. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t want to cook.

I wanted comfort food. I wanted to leave my apartment. I wanted to take a walk. The plan: Head to the corner bodega, order a half-pound of ham, bring it home, and eat it straight out of the package.

Just getting outside boosted my spirits, even though the neighborhood felt bleak and raw. Approaching the bodega, I peered inside. If it had been crowded, I would have kept walking, but it was late at night and basically empty. So I bought that ham, along with a box of macaroni and cheese, a can of tuna fish, and a container of instant ramen. What was I planning to do with these ingredients? No idea. I just grabbed what I wanted and that was that.

Chefs are trained to seek perfection, from knife cuts to seasoning. Even though we know that perfection is an unrealistic, unattainable goal, the best chefs are obsessive. But at home, especially during this pandemic, we need to give ourselves permission to be less than perfect. Our mental and emotional health depends on it.

As soon as I got back to my apartment, I washed my hands, put a pot of water on the stove, and opened the box of mac and cheese. Waiting for the water to boil, I already felt more at ease. I wasn’t beating myself up for not making a bèchamel and grating cheese, or for ignoring the bunch of kale that’s been sitting idle in my fridge for days. I was giving myself permission to eat exactly what I was craving, even if it isn’t made from scratch.

For many in the food industry, myself included, our work has started to edge into our personal lives, as our professional identities blur with our individual brands. There’s pressure to make every meal Instagram-worthy. But we can’t be perpetually striving. We all need moments of downtime to recharge.

For me, this meant boxed mac and cheese, canned tuna, and a lot of ham (I saved the instant ramen for another night). I mixed the tuna into the pasta, like an almost noodle casserole. And I treated the ham like a side dish, rolled into tubes, one end dipped in mayonnaise, the other in spicy brown mustard. Is this the sort of recipe I’d write up or serve at a restaurant? No. But it felt good to let my guard down.

Of course, I did end up posting a photo on Instagram, and here I am writing about it. So maybe I still have some learning to do when it comes to setting boundaries. It’s a work in progress.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Josh Cohen

Written by: Josh Cohen

Born and raised in Brooklyn, I’m perpetually inspired by the diversity of foods that exist in this city. I love shopping at the farmer’s market, making ingredients taste like the best versions of themselves, and rolling fresh pasta. I learned how to make fresh pasta in Italy, where I spent the first 6 months of my career as a chef. I've been cooking professionally in New York City since 2010.

2 Comments

tia April 10, 2020
My fav "I just can't" dinner is ham (often a ham steak, cubed) fried and mixed into Kraft Delux mac and cheese, with a microwaved and drained bag of chopped broccoli. I pretend it's a good food option because it's got vegetables, but really, it's just delicious. I've definitely been opting for comfort food lately, mostly stuff my mom used to make when my sister and I were kids. Curry chicken casserole tonight!
 
Jeanne K. April 10, 2020
Great article. What type of mac-n-cheese did you use- looks like penne? Great suggestion for tuna casserole, will be making for lunch today 👍