by Eric Barton | May 27, 2020
We’re in the Golden Age of the At-Home Chef
Has quarantine reminded us of the joy of a homemade meal?
There was a time in American history that only exists now in old episodes of “Family Ties” and stories from grandparents. Evening started around a table. On the plates—meat, starch and veg — was a meal that unquestionably would have been cooked at home, from scratch.
Somewhere in the last generation or two, microwave dinners and takeout food replaced slow-cooked beef roast, mashed potatoes and garden greens. And the tradition of gathering together each night to break bread gave way to soccer practice, late nights at the office and a thousand changes in the way we live, many of them for the better. But for those of us who enjoy cooking, we longed for more time in an apron, serving those we care about something we made ourselves and to bask in the occasional word of thanks for the labor.
We’ve had a reprieve lately. We found ourselves stirring rouxs, basting chickens, taste-testing homemade marinara and taking time to savor a long, lazy meal. For many, aspiring to become a restaurant-quality chef at home meant dusting off “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in an attempt to master something complicated and worth bragging about on social media, or maybe improvising to recreate a simple but lasting food moment similar to that time you nibbled pecorino drizzled in balsamic and drank Chianti for hours in Italy. The proof of these quarantined culinary accomplishments is around our waistlines and on our Instagram feeds these days, where friends we knew as fine home cooks suddenly seem like they’d gone to culinary school when we weren’t watching.
“In these past two months, I have spent so much time in my kitchen. I love it. Cooking, ordering ingredients, it really has been a light during this otherwise dark time.”
My friend Brandon Chase is one of them. He runs his own law firm in Miami, representing mostly people who’ve had accidents on cruise ships, which is the kind of business that usually keeps him in the office whenever the sun’s up. That all changed in March. Suddenly with a lot more time at home, Brandon decided he’d try to master pizza. Brandon has become friendly over the years with Chef Justin Flit, the revered talent behind Navé. With supermarket shelves bare, Brandon asked Flit for some double-zero flour, the fine-as-talc secret ingredient in many exceptional pizzas. Flit not only gave him access to the restaurant’s shelves but he also offered him counsel and tips on how to make a pizza at home that measured up to his favorite restaurant slice.
That exchange started Brandon down a flour-covered rabbit hole that has lasted three months. His first pizza, cooked in a cast-iron pan in his oven, turned out terrible, he says. So he researched new dough recipes, adjusted the hydration level and experimented with toppings like chorizo, calabrian chili and egg yolk dropped on a carbonara pie. Most memorable for him was the pepperoni, braised leeks, garlic and pickled onion pizza, perhaps because, unable to share his creations with anyone but his wife and son, he dropped it off for a friend, who raved about what Brandon had achieved.
From what I can tell by looking at his Instagram feed, his efforts produced professional-quality pies with crusts as flaky and ingredient profiles just as edgy as any I’ve seen in Miami eateries. But beyond mastering that delicate sauce-to-cheese ratio, Brandon cooked up a much needed distraction during a time when everyone needed something to keep their mind off the “what-ifs.”
“When I’m in the grind working long hours, I don’t really have time to enjoy being in the kitchen,” Brandon told me. “In these past two months, I have spent so much time in my kitchen. I love it. Cooking, ordering ingredients, it really has been a light during this otherwise dark time.”
One thing about Brandon’s story worth noting: it began in part because he couldn’t find double-zero flour (or any flour for that matter) at the supermarket. Even though it may seem like a downer to find empty shelves, this story is an indication of something good.
In these past few months, we’ve had a return to baking at home, to people making multi-day sourdough recipes from their own starters and then laboriously kneading it to life. It’s remarkable, and a testament to what we really hold important, that not all Americans cleared Publix shelves of frozen pizzas or corn chips. More of us seem to have bought flour and yeast. We stocked up on the most basic of ingredients, things that require true labor to turn into a meal made with care.
As Florida reopens and more people leave their kitchens to return to work (in an office perhaps), will we lose this golden era of the at-home cook? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think we learned some lesson about the importance of a carefully-executed Coq au Vin or loaf of sourdough or a hand-tossed, homemade pizza that can take the length of a workday to prepare. Perhaps now that we’ve had a chance to get dough on our hands and some pretty impressive ensembles on the table, the art and escape of cooking will remain, at least on some days, our priority.