by Ben Miller
As someone who tends to be pretty competitive in the kitchen, I found this article about amateur cooking competitions from yesterday’s New York Times pretty entertaining. But reading it also reminded me about how much the reasons for why I personally choose to do a lot of cooking have changed so much over the last few years.
I first started cooking in the fall of 2006, my senior year of college. My decision was based on three factors: being tired of the repetitive dining hall food, wanting to eat healthier, and learning to cook before striking it out on my own after graduation.
My initial culinary attempts were a mixture of failures sprinkled with modest successes. When others asked how my kitchen adventures were faring, I’d also joke “well, I haven’t given myself food poisoning yet.” That was true, but I certainly wreaked havoc on my taste buds. While my dad knew to regularly expect phone calls with an assortment of random cooking questions, that didn’t stop me from creating some truly abominable dishes, such as the “spa” chicken, a dish that only involved orange juice and plain chicken breasts, or the “chicken coated in dried parsley.” I also learned that baked ziti goes bad much quicker than a college student would expect.
But one downside to cooking was it made me lonely. All of my friends were still on meal plan, so I often ended up eating dinner and lunch alone. But instead of going to the dinning hall, I started bringing my friends to me by having somewhat impromptu dinner parties.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s where the competitive chef was born. It’s one thing to churn out something gross when eating alone, but a whole different matter when you’re feeding your friends. And of course, it also helps to start making more complicated things that sound really impressive when you are describing them.
But unlike the contests described in the Times article, my cooking was always about trying to one-up or compete with myself. To prove that I was capable of putting together something very complicated and delicious. If it took hours to do or required the purchase of some new gadget, even better.
Cooking again became a source of making friends when I moved to Washington in the fall of 2007. Many of my fondest memories of my time here could be easily labeled by the food they involved (homemade french fries and a burger made with pickles and sun-dried tomatoes; ceviche; barbecued pizza; a seafood extravaganza).
I also came to really enjoy the pressure related to dinner parties–something I’ve only previously experienced on a basketball court. That panic between serving the first dish and actually tasting the finished product, the do-or-die moment of success or failure is something that I really enjoy to this day.
Throughout all this, I remain a very competitive cook. I want things to taste good, I want them to be complicated, I want them to take a long time to make. (Presentation is a lower order concern.) But it’s not a zero-sum game. If I’m cooking with friends, I want us all to put out great dishes.
Lately, my cooking has carried me in the direction of making things I would have avoided in the past because they seemed like too much effort–bagels and fresh pasta to name a few. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until I try my hand at homemade sausage or roast duck, two items I’ve been eyeing recently.
Like any hobby or activity, cooking is something people pursue for their own personal reasons, which can change over time. For me, it started as learning a life skill has become a source of enjoyment and personal growth. And yes, it’s also generated a competitive edge for me in the kitchen. But I’m not going to use that competitive urge to participate in a cookoff with a large numbers of strangers on stage. I’m willing to stick with my hardest critic: myself.