The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Danger! Men Cooking!"

I’m not much for “cutesy” cooking apparel. My chef coats and aprons are basic white or black and, except for my name and business logo, completely unadorned. And I don’t usually don a chef’s coat when I’m cooking at home. I'm not that pretentious. A simple apron suffices. But sometimes when I need a little chuckle, I might slip on the one item of “funny” kitchen wear that I own; it’s a black toque embroidered with a yellow caution sign that reads, “Danger! Men Cooking!”

I found this innocuous-seeming item in a little shop in North Carolina and have since discovered that it is part of a whole product line being marketed by some hot sauce company. Be that as it may, the concept still kind of strikes a chord: “Danger! Men Cooking!”

As a man who cooks, I believe it is time we rise above the stereotype. There is no basis for the scurrilous lampooning of the male gender when it comes to matters culinary. The image of the incompetent Joe having to call in the fire department as a result of his attempt to boil water should be erased from popular culture.

That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that not all men can cook. My poor father could have been the poster boy for “Danger! Men Cooking!” Here was a man totally out of his element in the kitchen. Like most men, if you handed him a hunk of raw, red meat and stood him up outdoors in front of a glowing wood or charcoal fire, he was transformed. Give him an apron with some silly saying on it, hand him a can of lighter fluid and a match, and he became the King of Kingsford! But take him indoors, give him a frying pan and an egg, and he grew eight more thumbs. Now that I think about it, when it came to eggs, he might actually have had better luck with a frying pan.

We had a cooktop that featured a flat-top griddle in the center. There was an opening at the top of the griddle that allowed grease to run into the trap underneath. I remember as a very young boy trying to keep my sides from splitting while watching my hapless father chase one egg after another down the opening and into the grease trap. He just couldn’t get the hang of turning them over with a spatula. My mother finally thanked him for his “help” and took over the job before we ran out of eggs. I’m convinced that had my dad been in charge of feeding the family, we would have either starved or learned to like our eggs charcoal grilled.

Dad couldn’t cook, not because he was a man, but because he never learned how. Nobody comes into this world with a cookbook in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. I don’t think that either sex is “genetically predisposed” toward cooking. I’ve known more than a few women who couldn’t cook their way out of a wet paper bag, even if you took the bottom out of the bag. So why is it that the idea of “Danger! Men Cooking!” is so entrenched in our society?

Mostly, it’s because of society itself. As I said, nobody is born with cooking utensils in hand, but cultural prejudices place those tools in the hands of girls almost before they can walk. Face it; little girls get aprons and Easy Bake ovens for Christmas while little boys get tool belts and Tonka trucks. When they grow up, girls help Mom in the kitchen and boys help Dad in the garage. When you were in high school, how many girls took shop classes and how many boys took Home Economics? And when this kind of gender bending did take place, what did everybody say about the gender benders? Hmmm? So is it any wonder that when boys grow to be men, they have to find a woman to cook for them? Either that or they become really good customers at the local restaurants.

And, speaking of restaurants, therein lies an interesting dichotomy. Have you ever noticed that ninety percent of the eating establishments you go into these days, from the Waffle House on the highway to the upscale bistro downtown, have men in the kitchen? If men are such genetically inept cooks and so inherently incompetent in the kitchen, why, then, do they dominate the culinary world? If cooking is “woman’s work,” why aren’t more of them doing it on a professional level?

It’s interesting to note that a recent list of top ten celebrity chef earners includes only two women; Rachel Ray and Paula Deen. The other eight spots belong to Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa, Alain Ducasse, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Bobby Flay, and Anthony Bourdain. Not bad for a bunch of guys who were probably scorned on the playground as “sissies” for helping their mamas in the kitchen.

So, rather than laugh at the “danger” of men cooking, let’s examine a few reasons why men should be as proficient with a spoon and a spatula as they are with a hammer and a wrench.

Cooking is the ultimate survival skill. Men like to beat their chests about their abilities as survivalists. Okay. So you can bag a deer or land a fish. Then what? Do you wait for a woman to come around and cook it for you? Nahhhh! A man who can only bring home the bacon is not nearly so much of a man as the one who can bring home the bacon -- and then cook it.

A lot of men obsess about their bodies. Being lean and mean. Buff. Cut. Trim. It’s hard to stay that way when your breakfast comes from Dunkin’ Donuts, your lunch from McDonald’s and your supper from Domino’s. When you can cook for yourself, you have control over what goes into your body. You can make healthy choices in healthy proportions when you make it yourself.

Unless you’re Bill Gates, everybody needs to cut back on spending a little these days. If you’re a single guy and you’re eating out three meals a day, you’re taking a BIG bite out of your paycheck, even if you’re only frequenting the places I mentioned in the previous paragraph. If you can cook for yourself, you can save a lot of money. And it doesn’t have to be all gourmet stuff. I can take a can of tomatoes, a few cups of flour, a little cheese and a few spices and turn out three or four pizzas to every one you’re buying from Domino’s or Pizza Hut. And even if you don’t make everything from scratch, if you can just learn how to open a box or a can without screwing up the contents, you’ll be amazed at how much money you’ll save.

On the subject of money, there are great job opportunities for a guy who can cook. If you can flip a burger, you can work at McDonald’s. If you can create special dishes, plan a menu, manage expenses and supervise a staff, you can be an executive chef at a five-star restaurant. Cooking is a job skill, and like anything else, the better you are at it the more you get paid for it.

Finally, guys who can cook are chick magnets. Sure, women like to be surprised with things like flowers and candy and they like nice, romantic dinners. So when you can give a girl a bouquet of roses, a box of chocolates and then treat her to a nice, romantic, candlelight dinner that you made yourself especially for her – brother, you are just “in” like you wouldn’t believe. And it’s not just the dating scene, man. My wife hears it everywhere she goes; “You’re so lucky to have a man who can cook.” One woman even went so far as to tell her, “My husband is good in the bedroom but he’s lousy in the kitchen. Sometimes I wish it was the other way around.” Face it, women love guys who can cook – because it means they don’t have to!

And cooking can be a great way to expand your relationship with your significant other. If her eyes glaze over when you talk about carburetors and your eyes glaze over when she talks about bouillabaisse, try playing in each other’s sandbox. Teach her how to change a tire and let her teach you how to make a sauce. You’ll both learn something useful and have fun doing it. My wife and I take turns at being sous chef to each other. In my Italian kitchen, I usually handle the antipasti and the primi piatti, she does the contorni and the dolci, and we both kick in on the secondi. If you don’t know what any of that means, don’t worry about it. Basically, in American terms, we split the side courses and work together on the main dish. We have worked this way both professionally and at home and we love it.

Guys, it’s never too early or too late to learn. I started cooking when I was seven years old. But I know men who took up gourmet cooking as a retirement hobby. So if “Danger! Men Cooking!” applies to you, find a class. Look online or check out a community college. I’m not saying go for a degree in culinary arts, but take some evening classes. (Single guys, there’ll be girls there!) Stores like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table offer cooking classes on a regular basis. So do Whole Foods and other specialty grocers. Most of the stuff they teach is pretty basic, but I’ve been cooking for more than fifty years and I still pick up neat little tips and tricks at these places. You’re never too old to learn. And if formal classes aren’t your thing, there’s always your mom, your wife, your sister, your girlfriend – you know, one of those people who is “supposed to know how to cook.”

“Danger! Men Cooking!”? Nahh! The only danger is that you might find out you like it.

Buon appetito!

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