I had the best gig when I first moved to New York, right out of college. I knew a guy who guy who knew a guy who ran a restaurant consulting business, and this business paid for people to eat out for free if they wrote undercover reviews of their meals. For someone with ambitious taste buds, but not quite the salary to match, this was like winning the lottery. Every Friday night, I’d slip on Steve Madden slides, grab my date (my then-boyfriend, now-husband Andy), and head to the assigned eatery, dashing to the restroom stalls in between courses so I could take notes on things like the exact amount of minutes it took for the server to greet me.
The only problem? I knew nothing about food. I mean, I knew a little. But I was only 22 or 23, and I cringe when I think about some wizened veteran restaurant owner pulling up those reports. There was the time I expressed shock and dismay at how bitter the broccoli was (it was broccoli rabe), and the time I was confused by the weird chewy shell on the sugar snap pea starters (it was unshelled edamame). Once, thinking I was the epitome of sophistication, I asked the server for a glass of Rioja, pronouncing the “j,” (as in Jenny). But that was a lot better than the time I almost ordered sweetbreads at a fancy old-school French restaurant thinking they were glazed pastries. “Do you…uh…know what those are?” Andy whispered around his menu, trying to play it cool. I ordered the crab bisque, and we laughed our asses off.
The learning curve was just as steep when I was cooking in my own kitchen, poring over recipes in cookbooks that seemed to embody not only the kind of cook I wanted to be, but the life I wanted to live. But what the heck was chicken stock? Was it related to chicken broth? (Spoiler: They’re the same thing.) And if these Silver Palate women are such geniuses, why are they telling me to reduce the sauce immediately after I add wine to it? How is that logical? And I’m sure I’m not the only one who figured a 16-ounce bag of spinach was more than enough to serve four — only to then serve a tablespoon of cooked spinach to each dinner guest. Why does no one tell you these things?! I thought over and over in those days.
But when we’re learning how to cook — when we’re learning how to do anything — the bungling is inevitable and, not to sound like your mom here, also the only way we get better. Plus, it would be so boring if we didn’t have these stories to tell. (I’ve dined out on them for years!) Of course, I’d love to hear yours.
P.S. 12 essential kitchen tools and 15 things I wish someone told me when I first started cooking.
(Photo: Me in Brooklyn, December 2001, pregnant with my first daughter, trying not to mess up hummus and pita.)
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