In early 1997, after six years of marriage, my wife and I divorced. The context and reasons are not relevant to this story and are best left to another occasion. What is important is that at the age of 30 I suddenly became a single dad and the primary caregiver to our five-year-old twin daughters.
I was privileged to have a steady, well-paying job at a tech company, which allowed me to hire a daytime nanny to help me get the kids to and from preschool and to handle some of the household chores. But there was one responsibility that fell squarely on my shoulders: I had to cook. For myself, and more importantly for my kids.
Prior to getting divorced, my wife and I shared cooking duties, but to be honest neither one of us were very good at it. I had learned a bit from my mom growing up, and soaked up some experience fending for myself in college, but truth be told, I really didn’t know what I was doing. My mom, whom I love dearly, is British and loathes cooking – even though she too did it every night for our family while I was growing up. Baking aside, the Brits are not known for their cooking prowess; the fact that she hated it too tells you everything you need to know about what I ate nightly as a kid, and what I learned from her (ask me about “Chinese dish” sometime; yeah, this was the 1970’s). Upon reflection, it was a huge missed opportunity, since we were living in Napa, California, the heart of wine country and the culinary capital of California (if not the nation – though I am sure there are many who will want to debate me on that).
Getting divorced and becoming the household’s sole provider of nourishment doesn’t magically impart one overnight with the skills and knowledge on how to cook for a family. Tammy, our beloved nanny, and I cobbled together a collection of about 15 or so recipes that we could rotate through weekly menus; we would each do some of the grocery store runs to ensure that at least we had the right ingredients to make whatever the menu said we were supposed to cook that night, and sometimes she would even start something cooking for me while I was driving home for work. Dinners weren’t fancy, but most were basically healthy and something the kids would eat. Ditto for breakfasts and lunch.
By the time the kids hit their teens, our need for a nanny decreased substantially and we parted ways with Tammy. Now it was just me and the girls, and I was working without a safety net. Breakfast was one of two or three options I rotated through. While my daughters had a pretty decent cafeteria at their school, they actually preferred to bring a lunch – more to save time standing in line than for the quality of the food I provided, though neither one asked for much variety either. Dinners were the real work, though. I cut a few corners: Friday night we would tend to go out, and one other weeknight would be “hamburger helper” night. Saturdays and Sundays I had the luxury of time. But Monday through Thursday were tough. I’m proud that I got a reasonably balanced meal on the table, but I’m not super proud of much of what I cooked.
Sunday was my saving grace. While my priority as a single dad to be home for dinner with my kids every weeknight, and 99% of the time I pulled it off, salmon dinner on Sunday was our big tradition. I’d make a loaf of bread, cook up some yummy local salmon, boil up some rice and steam some broccoli, and we’d stuff our faces. Secretly, it was a low-skill dinner; but it was OUR dinner, and our tradition, and we loved it. Just having a warm loaf of bread fresh out of the oven was enough to win over my kids.
When my daughters went off to college, and I became an empty-nester, suddenly I had time on my hands. Also, I was now cooking for one adult instead of for two kids and an adult; that makes a big difference. What hadn’t changed, though, was that I still really didn’t know what I was doing in the kitchen. Yeah, I could make a few variations on a very basic loaf of bread, I knew how not to burn meat and fish, and I could accurately measure out ingredients well enough to stumble through a straightforward recipe, but that was the high bar of my skill set in the kitchen. So I decided that it was high time I actually learn how to cook.
With some research, I stumbled across the cooking school of a marvelous lady named Carol Dearth. I spent fourteen consecutive Wednesday evenings with ten classmates in her kitchen-classroom, learning everything from knife skills to how to roast (and carve) a chicken. We made sauces – so many different sauces. We poached eggs and made omelets. We pan-roasted chicken breasts. We made mashed potatoes. So much more.
We talked about the science behind cooking: types of heat, the Maillard reaction, dissolving flavors, how to handle different types of proteins. Even how to do wine pairings.
It was glorious. Carol rarely made us stand and watch while she made food; she forced us to us get in there and do it ourselves while she coached us through it. I learned so much every week; it was exactly what I needed. By the end of the fourteen weeks I was a different person in the kitchen. A Cordon Bleu chef I was not – far from it, and I’m still far from it today – but I could pick up a recipe and understand what I was supposed to do, and the logic behind the sequence of steps. Knowing why a recipe is written a certain way brings with it both a boost of self-confidence and also a ton of freedom to mess with it, because it gives you a much better intuition for where the real limits are.
I kept taking classes (in fact, I still do, though I will admit that COVID has dampened my enthusiasm for spending hours in a cramped kitchen with a bunch of strangers). I learned to make and decorate cakes – despite my limited artistic prowess. I learned to roll sushi. I took classes in Asian and Hispanic cuisines. Even some more eclectic stuff like making cheese.
It gave my daughters a very good reason to come home from college from time to time: they got to experience some really great food when they did. My regret, however, is that I didn’t know then, when I actually HAD to feed my kids, what I do now. We wouldn’t have eaten gourmet food every night, but we would have eaten a lot better than we did.
Some true confessions, which I think are important for level-setting: I really don’t care much for fancy gourmet food, and I rarely eat it either at home or at a restaurant. I am, at heart, a comfort-food person. I will admit to making a mean crème brulee and subjecting my friends and family to it (because, really, who can resist cracking through the layer of caramelized sugar on top? And because it’s fun to use a mini-blow-torch). Also, my lack of artistic skills means that I focus more on taste and texture than presentation. I’d never get hired by a restaurant, and I would never start my own (it would be short-lived, to be sure), but my home cooking is tasty, filling, and satisfying, if I say so myself.
I started this site for people who have to cook. Those who just finished school and are out on their own. Those who suddenly find themselves with a home full of mouths to feed. Those who can’t afford to eat out every night, as well as those who could but don’t want to.
There are a lot of us out there. A few are lucky enough to have a talented cook for a parent (or grandparent) who dragged them into the kitchen and passed on what they knew. But with every passing generation, there are fewer parents who know how to cook, and fewer still who take the time to teach their kids. Society has figured this out, and there are cottage industries being built to exploit it. You can order take-out food to be delivered to our front doorstep using your phone. You can sign up for subscription services that deliver partially pre-made meals that allow you to throw together a “home-cooked” dinner in thirty minutes. The biggest problem with these options is that they are very expensive. You could do this once or twice a week (and it sure beats hamburger helper), but it takes a pretty big paycheck to afford to do that every night. If you’re trying to stretch a paycheck, you have little option but to cook for yourself.
Having to cook when you don’t know how is intimidating and scary. I know that firsthand; I lived that experience. But having come out the other side, and then learned how to really cook, I can tell you that you can do this, and you don’t have to spend fourteen Wednesday nights at a cooking school to learn how.
Learning how to cook involves two things: knowledge and skills. Watching cooking shows on TV or the Internet gives you the impression that it’s all about skills that you practice for years. In fact, just the opposite is true, especially for home cooking: it’s 90% knowledge and 10% skills. And most of the skills relate to presentation, rather than preparation; you can dispense with them and still serve up some super tasty grub.
Some of the knowledge required for cooking is the stuff you read in a recipe: precise measurements, the order in which to do things. The nice part is that knowledge is written down and you don’t have to memorize it; just pull it up as needed.
Some of the knowledge relates to how to do specific tasks. This part often gets confused for skills. The truth is that most cooking tasks, once you have had them explained to you and perhaps demonstrated, are very straightforward and require no special ability, dexterity or training. Once you know what you are supposed to do and have done it successfully once, you can do it over and over again. For example, beating an egg, flipping an omelet, or measuring out half a cup of flour. They are only scary and mysterious until they are explained to you; then they just become ordinary tasks.
What’s left is a set of practical knowledge about ingredients, equipment, and the science of cooking. At least in theory, if you’re cooking from a well-written recipe, you don’t need to know any of this stuff. In practice, knowing it makes cooking easier and more intuitive; it’s what makes it possible to know why a recipe was written a particular way – and where you can modify it to suit your needs (or whims).
Here at Haftacook, you can learn both the knowledge and the skills that will help you to cook at home – for yourself, your family, and your friends.
If you’re looking to learn how to cook seriously fancy food, you’re not going to find that here – though what you learn here will give you a stronger foundation to cook fancier, more complicated things. Fortunately for you, there are plenty of other sites and resources for people aiming high with their cooking. More power to you, and I wish you the best on your journey.
For the rest of us – those who have to cook to feed ourselves and our families, and those who can’t afford to have others regularly do the cooking for us – I hope you find knowledge, liberation, and inspiration here. Cooking, even when I wasn’t good at it, brought my kids and me together. And once I became competent in my own kitchen, I discovered the power of being able to create my own family recipes. It starts with a request to “make that thing that you cooked the other night.” A year later, “that thing” has a name. Ten years later, your kids are asking you for the recipe, and twenty years after that it’s being passed down to your grandkids. This is the stuff that families are made of. It doesn’t have to be fancy, or gourmet; it just has to be uniquely yours. If that’s something you want to be able to do, you’re in the right place.