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When you look at Mario Batali, Paula Dean or Nigella Lawson, they look like chefs. You believe them as honest to goodness food people. You can tell they eat, and that they love eating.
But when I tell people I’m a chef, they seem suspicious. They seem to be thinking, “You don’t look like no chef.” And I grant them that. Upon first glance, I may not look like the archetypal foodie. But if you’ve eaten with me, you know I’m legit.
Not only do I eat with gusto, I eat a lot of fatty foods. Cheese is my much-touted favorite food, and chocolate, cream and pork belly are close seconds. I could live on pasta, and cook it for myself most nights when I’m eating alone at home. I’m not a huge fan of salads, which I think are often little more than vehicles for processed dressings, but I pine for vegetables in a way that is the equivalent to Celest’s love of coffee and Erin’s candy cravings.
If pressed, I’d actually go so far as to suggest that I like eating more than cooking. There’s an unadulterated pleasure that comes from indulging in dining, whether that means gathering round my coffee table, venturing out to a neighborhood two star, hitting up some seedy late-night grease pit, or getting decked out in a black dress for an evening among white linens. I often applaud the food I’m served and have been known to squeal upon first-bite of a particularly good dish.
Cooking on the other hand comes with considerable barriers to success. First off, as a self-taught, untrained cook, I make a shit-ton of mistakes in the kitchen…some of which have even been caught on tape! So just as eating can sometimes leave me disappointed (read: dry fish, mealy chocolate mousse, mushy vegetables) so too can cooking. It’s less common that I actually make a bad dish, and is more often the case that I make something that isn’t perfect, isn’t memorable, or is just sorta mediocre. That’s frustrating because the remedy to fix mediocrity isn’t as obvious as giving a menu a complete makeover. And that’s the other thing about cooking that I grapple with now that I do it for a living. These days, I cook for strangers more often than I do for friends, and that process can threaten my joy for preparing a good meal if I’m not careful to stay inspired and continually write new and intriguing menus that keep me guessing. Of course, that guesswork is where cooking can get tricky, but I suppose I find a great deal of reward in that very challenge. And when I nail it, there is simply no better feeling than having fed mouths and filled bellies with the love of a homemade meal.
These dual passions for eating and cooking triggered the transition I jumped into headfirst some two years ago, upon deciding to quit my tenure track position as a professor of writing at a local community college in the toughest ghetto I’ve ever known, to commence a food life and make my living cooking and writing about it. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, and I’m the happier for it. However, almost no one believes me when I first reveal my trade. Or worse, they take me at my word, but they doubt my skills.
Like I said, I’m okay with that fact. I get it, I look too skinny to be a chef and I’m not convincing as a real-deal eater either. But the truth is, I’m really mindful and a little bit snobby about what I put in my mouth, and I’ve been blessed with a killer metabolism that helps relieve some of the fried food guilt I’ve known many a girlfriend to succumb to. And who can blame her? There’s so much pressure on women to be skinny, and very little in the processed American diet that supports this proposition. But to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that any of us should eat with an ideal toward skinniness. In fact, I think curvy is much sexier than skinny, and often healthier to boot. But since so many people, mostly women, ask me about my own diet in an effort to better consider their own, I thought it might be welcome to serve up “the skinny” on eating with joy.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am willing to share what I’ve come to regard as the key components in my life as a healthy, devoted eater and cook, or as the Italians would say e’ una buona forchetta, a “good fork.” With any luck and a little willpower, I’m hoping these tips might help others to have a more delicious diet that they can enjoy sans guilt and con triple crème.
1) I love to eat, but I rarely overeat. I do not love the feeling that comes from stuffing oneself “to the gills.” Sometimes I have to check in with myself when I’m halfway through a rib-eye and forced to ponder whether I ought to take the second half home and make steak salad for lunch the next day (keeping in mind I don’t love salad), or just push on through to make it down to the bone. It’s always better to be conscious of this choice, though sometimes, especially when back in Buff eating spaghetti parmesan at Chef’s, I simply cannot resist the urge to clean my plate. But this very notion of “cleaning plates” is one that should be put to rest in a country as bountiful as our own with an equally ample penchant for overindulged portions. I know times are tough, but this is not the Great Depression; most of us can count on our next warm meal and needn’t think of eating as an act laced with the moral compunction to eat everything we’re served. As with almost anything, it’s the quality not the quantity of food that gets consumed that counts. When I’m full, I stop eating.
2) I love to eat, but I don’t eat food I don’t like. Period. I am sensitive to and appreciative of everyone who cooks for me, but if I don’t care for the food put in front of me, I do not eat it. Typically this means processed food, fast food, or particular cuts of meat (often offal), that I don’t feel right about putting into my mouth. Eating fresh foods, real foods, and green foods not only feels right, they taste better and are a healthier choice for my biology, local economies, and our shared ecology.
3) I love to eat, but I don’t eat unless I’m hungry. Eating as habit is dangerous. Instead, eat when your body beckons. I’ve sat at dinners and ordered only an appetizer if I wasn’t hungry enough for a full meal. In fact, I often order a smattering of appetizers and sides as an alternative to the large cuts of protein that take center stage on most entrée menus. The important thing is not to feel obliged to eat by social custom, but rather, to follow your gut (literally) and eat when it growls. Eat in the pursuit of joy.
4) I love to eat, but there are times I eat for my mouth and times I eat for my stomach. Celest first introduced me to this phrase at a time in my life when I felt like I was eating too indulgently and wearing the extra pounds to prove it. Making mindful choices about when it’s time for broccoli (stomach) and when it’s time for bourbon bonbons (mouth), is an essential piece to eating joyfully, that requires not only a taste for healthy foods (so start your kids eating vegetables and whole foods when they’re but babies!) but also the self-discipline to know when to say when. The balance is going to vary for each of us, but great joy can be found in rewards both chocolate and green, and P.S. that nightcap counts as dessert!
5) I love to eat, and I’m fucking lucky that my metabolism loves me. It wouldn’t be fair for me to deny the plain fact that for most of my adult life and all of my childhood, I’ve been a skinny person. I don’t come from skinny people, but my biology has blessed me with a metabolism that makes eating regularly at Fatty Crab an option. That said, I’ve been warned that with age this could all fade away someday, and I’m prepared to battle the onset of a slowing metabolism with good old fashioned exercise. I take twice weekly yoga classes, walk everywhere, and am the sort of person who doesn’t exactly know how to be lazy. I move a lot, I played sports and danced and ran around school organizing as many clubs as possible when I was younger, all of which served as boot camp for the rigors of catering from a 5th floor walk-up in this city. I guess what I’m trying to say is, stop reading and start doing, so you can fully enjoy eating.
How about you? Any tips of the eating trade to share? I think this is a dialogue worth having, and I hope we can have it together. Life’s too delicious not to Eat it Up!