Before coming to college, I could confidently prepare three kinds of food for myself: pasta, sautéed vegetables, and smoothies. During high school, I felt like this was more than enough to sustain me for the rest of my life. If not, I used to tell my mom that I hoped I’d make enough money to have a personal chef. I never wanted to prepare, cook, or clean up meals. Oh, how the times have changed.
I’m not sure where my aversion to cooking came from. My best guess is that in high school, I was always in a rush, so cooking seemed like a luxury I couldn’t afford. I often needed to eat in the ten–minute windows between school and practice. My mom is a great cook, but I never thought deeply about eating her food because at the end of the day—it was a race to eat my dinner so I could get back to my homework.
When asked to help with preparations for dinner, I would groan. To me, cooking was housework, and I wasn’t a fan. I would peel potatoes, cut the ends off of green beans, and chop onions. I would even make my brothers shuck corn for me in return for favors. I hated it that much.
It’s not that my mom never taught me to cook. If I would’ve asked to learn, she would have been excited to help me. But I never did.
My mom tells me I’m impatient. As the oldest of three younger brothers, I’ve become accustomed to waiting for things to happen: waiting for them to be old enough to talk to, to get their shoes on to leave the house, to get down the ski slopes. I’ve never been good at waiting for meals at restaurants, or for breaks from school. I guess I’ve never wanted to cook with her, because I was impatient and hated having to be told what to do.
This past summer, with more free time after graduating from high school, and with the anticipation of only eating out of dining halls, I became more eager to cook. I made a smoothie every morning and perfected my recipes. I made chickpea pasta combinations almost every day for lunch. I had no idea what I was doing. I experimented. One day, I’d add capers and lemon, and the next day, it would just be lemon and tomato sauce. I began to tell how much oil the vegetables needed in order to be cooked, how the pasta felt when it was ready, and what the aroma was when my creation was ready to be eaten. I’d never been told how much to salt things or how to cook veggies. I flipped the veggies like I’d seen my dad flip bacon—it was often a mess. I would spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning, forcing my mom or brothers to try what I had made. It was nothing special, but it was something I had created on my own: no recipes, no instruction.
Something clicked during the first semester at Penn. All of a sudden I was craving a kitchen environment. While talking to my college house director one night at a house–wide dinner, she mentioned that I could cook in her apartment for her, her husband, and eight of my friends. I took up the opportunity—despite still only knowing how to cook pasta, veggies, and smoothies—and we set a date.
My friend and I came up with a menu: pesto pasta (I was confident I could cook that, at least), chicken, and Brussels sprouts.
We ended up getting a pre–seasoned chicken to keep things safe. We went to their apartment in the Quad an hour before everyone else and starting cooking. I’d ask her for oil, salt, pepper, butter, etc. I cut the Brussels sprouts and seasoned them as I’d done at home. Still, without any real knowledge on the proper way to cook, I rolled with it. I added dates, capers, bacon, and lemon. It was a random collection of ingredients—things that I thought would work well together. I got lucky. It ended up really good.
That night changed me. I was cooking for ten people, in a kitchen I’d never been in, and without any knowledge of how to cook what I was cooking. I told a friend who wasn’t at the dinner about this afterwards, and she was astounded that I’d had the confidence to do that without a repertoire of recipes.
The conversations that we had at that dinner in the Quad made me so happy. I loved Penn, but I was missing a homestyle forum. We talked about school and family while sharing home–cooked food, and went in for second and third servings.
Suddenly, I was enveloped in cooking. I went home for winter break and made cookies, my Brussels sprouts recipe, and plenty of pasta. I even tried to follow some recipes.
Over spring break, I cooked dinner for my extended family. I bought cod, pasta, and carrots to prepare. Following a recipe for the first time in my life, I pan–cooked the cod in a bath of chickpea, onions, mint, and oil. With the pasta, I thought about what might taste good and put it on top: garlic, parsley, salt, and butter. I also tried to replicate Magic Carpet's cookies by adjusting a recipe for oatmeal applesauce cookies. In the end, as I was running out of time (amateur mistake!), my mom prepared the carrots and my brother made the cookies, but all under my instructions. I even felt fancy, and put out some burrata with crackers and olive oil. Is that how it is served? I’m not sure, but my family liked it!
Bobby Flay would be insulted by my technique, but my family and friends love my cooking, whether they know I’m improvising or not. And it makes me love it too.
Figuring out how to cook on my own has made me more confident. I may not know the proper techniques, but I’m confident that that will come with time. Some might call it bullshitting, but I call it finesse.