Fashion

Quarantine Helped Me Remember Why I Love Cooking

I used to carry a 36.7-pound Imperia electric pasta machine round-trip across two city blocks every single day. This was back in 2015, when I was working as a pastry chef for a pair of Brooklyn restaurants. It’s a common practice to have a single pastry chef manage multiple spots; having a pastry team at all is an expense most places can’t afford these days. So when I found not one, but two places that’d let me spend my days scooping mini negroni snow cones, nothing was going to scare me off. I was going to make it work.

Between the two restaurants, I needed to hire and train five pastry cooks. The plan was to hold down the fort at the busier location five nights a week and have my strongest cook do the same at the other; another two would work morning prep, and the last one would swing between shifts. But throughout my entire year there, I only managed to hire one full-time cook.

I ate a lot of streusel in those days. And stale breadsticks from last night’s service. And the parmesan gougères that failed to properly puff. The line cooks would put out family meal—aka dinner for the staff—every day at 4:30 p.m., but this was the same time I’d be trudging from one restaurant to another, taking the mise en place I prepped from location A to location B, hauling that 36.7-pound Imperia with me.

If I did end up having a meal, it’d be after midnight, from a bodega or a Taco Bell Cantina or a 24-hour McDonald’s. My fridge contained eggs, beer, leftover takeout, and a bunch of old condiments (from Taco Bell Cantina). My husband, Ham, and I were both working in kitchens, so while I was hand-painting vanilla paste eyes onto mini homemade Peeps for an Easter special, he was layering masa between copper dowels for crisps to serve alongside sous vide shrimp and sea urchin mousse. We just didn’t have it in us to make dinner for us, too.

The two of us first met in culinary school in 2008, and when we weren’t in class, we were either planning or cooking a meal together. Back then, our hot date nights revolved around trips to the local grocery store, Adams Fairacre Farms. They had a great selection of cheese, and we wanted to know them all. We’d have tapas nights, breading and frying pucks of frozen bechamel for molten ham and cheese croquettes, and Peter Luger-inspired dinners with creamed lamb’s quarters and crisp wedge salads. We even went through a three-month-long mole negro exploration, conducting side-by-side taste tests of all the recipes we could find.

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After graduating and getting into professional kitchens, we cooked even more, but rarely side by side. The hours were long, and our schedules didn’t always align. Some weeks he’d have Sunday/Monday off, some weeks I’d have Tuesday/Wednesday off, and for the year I worked at those two restaurants with one pasta machine, I had no days off.

Eventually, I got a job with both weekends and vacation days. I started work at 10 a.m. and was home by 6 p.m. I invested in loungewear, started to floss regularly, and named a ponytail palm Phyllis. But I didn’t know what to do at mealtimes. Ham was still living the chef life, working through weekends and getting home after midnight, so more often than not, I’d wallow in popcorn until he returned.

Suddenly, we went from having one day a week together to every day—and every meal.

This meant getting extremely close with my Whirley Pop, a fully-loaded popcorn pot. A Whirley Pop is fitted with a crank that turns a spindle, keeping every kernel in constant motion for even heating, and a vented lid to release steam—making it the best piece of culinary engineering around. Every night, I’d pop enough corn to fill the Whirley Pop’s six-quart capacity, always in a mixture of organic, refined coconut oil and homemade, grass-fed ghee. Then I’d spend the rest of the evening scrubbing it clean with Bar Keepers Friend so it sparkled on my countertop. By last March, when the restaurant Ham was working at closed and I began working from home, I was already years deep into my popcorn habit. Then, suddenly, we went from having one day a week together to every day—and every meal.

The first few weeks of quarantine were dedicated to panic-baking. The apartment needed to perpetually smell like bread in order to feel any calm. How many bundts worth of monkey bread could one couple eat? We worked our hardest to find out. When Whole Foods ran out of bread flour and yeast, we found a bodega that was fully stocked with King Arthur, Charmin toilet paper, and the entire Bob’s Red Mill collection. Trips to that bodega became our only excursions. It felt like our date nights at the supermarket back in culinary school, but instead of cheese, we were picking up packets of active dry yeast and getting insider info from the owner about when the next shipment of hand sanitizer would arrive.

In the summer, we’d walk to the Union Square farmers market with our dogs. Vendors hung up plastic shields and drew chalk numbers on the ground indicating where to stand in line to stay six feet apart. Once I picked up a jar of honey without noticing the sign, “Please do not touch the market products.” Groping a melon became a public offense as all the stands became full-service, with clerks filling up baskets for us. I’d hang back so as not to crowd other customers, so Ham was on his own at the counter, always buying too many tomatoes.

We made the most of being on our own last Thanksgiving and used the money that would have been spent flying home on a fancy fried chicken dinner instead. Ham dry-brined a Poulet Rouge poussin in shichimi togarashi for two days before dredging it in Caputo 00 flour (a super-fine Italian flour usually reserved for the best fresh pasta, but it makes anything extra crispy) for our skillet-fried chicken. We shaved an entire black truffle into the mac and cheese. We spread uni butter onto fluffy biscuits made with White Lily flour. And throughout the day, we snacked on Jamon Iberico wrapped around spoonfuls of golden osetra caviar. Even though we couldn’t be with family, this meal made me rediscover how much I love cooking (and eating), regardless of how many are at the table.

While working in restaurants all those years, I forgot the reason why I got into all this in the first place—to cook something that’ll bring people together.

It’s been a week since I last had popcorn. I made a bowl when we watched the episode of WandaVision where Wanda Maximoff from The Avengers holds a small town in New Jersey hostage. I had to dig the Whirley Pop out from the back of the cabinets, where it was still greasy from the last use. Now I’m eating popcorn the way it’s meant to be eaten, as a snack, and not as my only sustenance.

While working in restaurants all those years, I forgot the reason why I got into all this in the first place—to cook something that’ll bring people together. I never would have thought that something as devastating as a global pandemic would help me rediscover my passion for playing in the kitchen and creating a meal for myself and my family, not just for work. With nothing but time, I’ve remembered what’s always been most important to me: sharing delicious meals with the people I care about, pasta machine sometimes included.

This story is part of ELLE’s Lost and Found: One Year in Quarantine. Click here to read all the stories in this package.

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