Sunday, Sep 21, 2014Sunday, Sep 21, 2014
 

Waking up to the sight of men cooking

They are taking over the stove and making waves in the kitchen and on TV

Published on Aug 10, 2014 11:00 AM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Not so long ago, when I was in my 20s and 30s, bachelor cooking was about survival. Venture further than that and actually confess to enjoying being in the kitchen and you were suspected of being gay - or queer, in the vernacular of the day.

How times have changed. I now find myself exchanging recipes and helpful cooking hints over the dining table with all manner of males, even the big hairy ones who at one time wouldn't be caught dead in an apron.

I'm thinking here of my old friend, Jim Whittle, a bear of a man recently claimed by brain cancer at too young an age who was not only a wine connoisseur, but also a terrific cook. The best duck confit I have ever eaten - and he even had a day job.

Frankly, I've never understood men who can't at least least boil an egg. I mean, here I was the other night preparing a jazzed-up gazpacho, while my American son-in-law departed from his usual Mexican fare in favour of pan-fried mahe-mahe and a light salad.

That's a long way from the day when the most important feed of the week was the Sunday morning fry-up, the greasy ensemble that served as the perfect antidote to some hard drinking the night before. It was, essentially, a cure. Like an aspirin.

As was the pre-dawn stop at the pie cart, better known as The White Lady, on the way home from a party. They served a hamburger there that was so crammed with everything, fried egg and beetroot included, it looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Of course we have to thank the so-called celebrity chefs for the sea change - guys like Jamie Oliver, who talks about cooking as if he was on a factory floor, and Anthony Bourdain, whose fondness for cocaine was once more legendary than his cuisine.

Oliver clearly enjoys the hell out of throwing things together in the kitchen, not just bopping around on his scooter, giving us a lesson in Cockney terminology and reminding school kids to forget the chicken nuggets and eat more green stuff.

I sometimes wonder about Bourdain though. For all his frolicking around the world, carrying on a love affair with Vietnamese pho and chowing down everything in sight, I can't say I've ever seen him actually cook anything - not even an egg.

He is listed in his Wikipedia biography as a chef, author and television personality. But he does have the good grace to acknowledge in his amusing, profanity-laced 2010 book Medium Raw that perhaps the order should be reversed.

For years he was executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles, overseeing rooms in New York, Miami, Washington DC and Tokyo. Even that suggests he didn't do a lot of hands-on cooking before he turned to books and television to earn a crust.

Bourdain says every young man (and woman) should have basic knife skills and possess the ability to make an omelette, roast a chicken, grill a steak, cook vegetables to the required state of done-ness and put together a standard vinaigrette.

And here he veers into my territory when he decrees that we should all have at least a modest yet unique repertoire - a few dishes that we love and that we practise at until we are happy with the results.

My list includes a basic stir fry, with lots of nam pla and prik e-noo (chopped chilli in fish sauce), roast lamb, of course, and chicken cacciatore, highlighting a to-die-for tomato sauce I have developed to perfection and can liquefy into a Bloody Mary.

And then there is risotto. It took me a long while to master the art, but I'm finally there. The secret, of course, is never to leave the kitchen during the whole 30-minute-odd process, otherwise the dish turns to mush.

The other secret is not to be too traditional. Like khao pad, there should be no rules about what you put in a risotto - mushrooms, peas, asparagus, broccoli, prawns, bits of salami. Anything you can think of really, as long as the rice is the right consistency.

I wouldn't enjoy making a career out of being a chef but I find it rather therapeutic to be pottering around in a well-stocked kitchen, cutting and dicing. In some ways it's a little like pulling together a story.

Even if you are really only guessing about what goes with what, the kitchen is the place to express yourself. Canadian celebrity chef Michael Smith always says he likes to cook without a recipe. I think that's me too, in my own amateurish way.

It helps of course that you have a good grasp of the basic ingredients of a particular dish, but after that it's all about embellishment and adding flavour. It helps if the wife sings your praises if what you produce is not only edible, but also tasty.

She loves putting chilli on everything - and I mean everything. If I let her she would happily commit culinary crime by slathering sambal all over my prized roast leg of lamb. If it was Australian I wouldn't mind so much. But New Zealand lamb!!??

Perhaps one of my greatest kitchen achievements was a Thai chicken curry that was so hot she actually couldn't eat it. The fact that I couldn't either, even with a mouthful of cooling cucumber, is beside the point.

Bourdain says it's better to cook at home, whenever and as often as possible. It's cheaper for a start, but he also makes the argument that there is a direct, inverse relationship between the frequency of family meals and social problems.

Members of families who eat together, he declares, are less likely to "stick up liquor stores, blow up meth labs, give birth to crack babies, commit suicide or make donkey porn".

Amen to all that.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com