Cooking professionally has taken me to a lot of interesting places, many unexpected, such as the James Beard’s Awards, and some more fun than others, like cooking for a famous TV show, and the thrill of the adventure has helped with the drudgery of standing at my station for hours making hundreds of the same items, or being thrown out of bed at 4 am to rush to the rescue of a drunken sous-chef who was not going to make it in for the catered breakfast. All in a day’s work. Right now, cooking takes me into the kitchens of perfect strangers, who pay me to cater their dinner parties.
While I show up with all the food and spices and condiments and my knife bag, I end up using most of the clients’ pots and pans and assorted kitchen utensils. The first order of business, when I arrive, is to orient myself in an unfamiliar space, trying to gather everything I need before I set down to business. It’s a rewarding experience when the client’s party is a success and everyone compliments us about the food – in the process, I unwittingly pick up a lot of information about the perfect strangers I am cooking for, probably more than they bargained for.
Some of their quirks might be specific to a certain stratum of Angelenos but I suspect they apply to many of us in the Western World, which has become more and more kitchen-centric.
THE MINIMALIST – Not always, but often a man, with a state of the art kitchen that does not get used. Ever. Plates, pots and pans and other kitchen items are bought out of duty. On the plus side, everything is new and barely touched but it is often hidden in unlikely places, and the host will have no idea where anything is. Or what anything is for that matter. This involves a scavenging hunt with the host puzzling over items he or she didn’t even know they owned (or what they are for). Always very grateful for your efforts and invariably pleased with the results which, in their eyes, amount to some sort of magic.
THE GADGET COLLECTOR – This is someone who cooks quite a bit, mainly out of fancy recipe books, with a standing account at Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table. They just can’t resist the egg slicer, the fish poaching pan, the bread maker, the Japanese knives, the egg poacher and every manner of gadget even I don’t know what they are intended for. Surprisingly, this type, also often a man, does not linger about the kitchen asking you what you are doing, or how you are doing it. Eager to answer questions, he or she will know where everything is but space will be at a premium, because most counters are covered with coffee contraptions, Vita Mix blenders and the like.
THE STRESSED OUT MOTHER – She hires someone to cater her parties because her cooking abilities are sub-par and because she is downright exhausted. That she can’t cook anyone can glean by opening the freezer, stashed to the gills with any kind of frozen meal Trader Joe’s has to offer. You can also tell someone who doesn’t know how to cook by how everything is not organized. The silverware drawer and the plates, that should intuitively be by the dishwasher, or the pots by the stove, are all over the place. Kitchen towels and pot holders are few and far between and nothing matches. When I pack the leftovers, after spending too much time trying to find the right lids for the containers, I usually leave instructions on how to re-heat and serve. Like Trader Joe’s.
THE HOUSEKEEPER’S DEPENDENT – This type is fairly common. I will be greeted by a beautiful and large kitchen, adequately stocked, with someone who routinely cooks in it but only basic meals. If enquiring about something more than a baking pan or sauce pot, the hostess will fall into a panic, opening cabinets at random, proclaiming the housekeeper puts everything away. Usually housekeepers don’t cook, so random items can be found in unlikely places which follow someone else’s thought process, often garbled. Colander with coffee filters?
THE COOK – Clearly my favourite. She cooks, has a sizable amount of cookbooks but she doesn’t rely on them often. Her kitchen is intuitively organized and, upon my arrival, she will have stacked kitchen towels, cutting boards, serving plates and anything else she might think I need. She will not worry and feel free to disappear and make herself gorgeous, leaving me alone to do my thing.
Mostly, it’s couples I cook for and, if the husband has an interest in food, he will come in and ask for tips and recipes, and will always offer a drink. And funnily enough, it’s always the men, both guests and host, who will gravitate towards he kitchen, whether it’s asking for seconds, volunteering compliments or wanting to chat. One of them even noticed I left the kitchen cleaner than I had found it – a compulsive habit of mine – and seemed equally grateful and embarrassed.
Kids, I love. They never stand on ceremony, will come straight to the kitchen to ask for more of what they want and help themselves unselfconsciously. Dogs are even better, especially the ones who mill around looking for scraps, cleaning the floor as I go.
In a city where a large chunk of the population thrives on hired help, it’s still awkward to relinquish your kitchen to a stranger who will be gone in a matter of hours and who will have peeked at your leftovers and opened every drawer in sight. I would not be able to do it. So I am grateful for the vote of confidence and for always being treated graciously and warmly. But, as far as I am concerned, my very neatly organized junk drawer is for my eyes only.