I used to love cooking. The ultimate performance act.
Imagine a meal, picture the setting, prep, cook and serve. Sit down at the table, tuck in and cast a quick eye around everyone else sat there with me to see whether the guests are enjoying what they’re eating.
But in recent months, I’ve noticed a few things changing when it comes to me in the kitchen.
First, I’ve become obsessed with timings. Everything has to be piping hot when the food comes to the table. And in order to achieve that, I need to maintain multiple dishes at various different stages in creation whilst at the same time topping up people’s drinks and catching up with the friends I’ve invited to savour these kitchen feats.
Second, the success of the meal is directly proportional to the amount of time I’ve also managed to socialise within those friends congregating in the lounge. In my head, the ultimate host is one who can juggle all sorts of kitchen tasks whilst at the same being calm, collected and relaxed on the sofa prior to the meal. What is the point of inviting friends round to dinner if you spend all the time in the kitchen preparing the meal? You won’t be in the mood to chat after the meal. Surely I should be able to manage both, shouldn’t I?
Don’t for God’s sake think you can socialise with me when I’m in the kitchen, that really isn’t going to work. Because – thirdly – I’ve recently begun noticing how easy it is for me to get distracted by the simplest of questions like, ‘How are you?’
This happened again today when, shortly after the arrival of today’s poor unfortunate souls, the opening welcoming questions led to me forgetting that the pre-heating oven had successfully risen in temperature so much that the grill pan used for last week’s bacon sandwiches had hotted up so much that smoke was billowing out of the oven. This is not what I especially want newly arrived guests to be greeted with prior to dinner.
“Put it out in the garden Jon!” advised my friend urgently. I was already on the case, but felt hugely embarrassed by this schoolboy of errors. Damn the grill pan. Damn the oven. Damn my refusal to check the oven when I turned the damn thing on in the first place.
So now, the pan remains outside. Even now. Perched on an old flower pot, the charred grill pan is a monument to forgetfulness, bad timing and ultimately humiliation. Such things in themselves are not going to bring on the end of the world, but they do chip away at the confidence of the wannabee domestic dinner party host.
Hosting is – as far as I can make out – nothing short of performance. Everything has to be just ‘so’. The table laid, the food piping hot (where directed so in the recipe) and the plate beautifully laid out. This – like a tidy looking kitchen worktop when the food is being served – is what contributes to a the perfect ambience. Anything that happens which isn’t planned or anticipated threatens that very ambience and risks leaving the host wondering why on earth he or she bothered when the guests have kissed, hugged and said goodbye at the end of the event.
Previous events – a handful over Christmas – have seen other minor disappointments in the kitchen in the crucial final stages of meal creation. Bill Grainger’s Butterscotch and Banana Pudding wasn’t the spongy offering it appeared in Rachel Allen’s cookbook; Nigella’s ham cooked in Coke requires full-fat Coca-Cola – Diet Coke won’t do; and yes, steamed vegetables are better than those boiled to a slop, but there’s crunchy and there’s raw and everyone knows that ‘warm raw’ is evidence of a serious mistiming.
These aren’t massive errors in the grand scheme of things. Just the statistical reality of what happens when one follows a series of steps in the creation of multiple dishes. Just like any other project, risk is involved. The more dishes there are, the more risks. Factor in other people (like guests) and then the stakes get higher. And, when you’ve had a run of similar issues occur during a series of meals, you can see I’m sure how the joy of cooking slowly turns into a mildly stressful process.
I don’t remember when I started thinking like this about throwing open the front door and welcoming friends for dinner. Maybe I’ve been watching too many overly-stylised cooking programmes on TV. Maybe there’s too much lifestyle and not enough reality in food presentation on TV. Maybe I’ve gone to too many restaurants where the presentation is top-notch to make me feel despondent when I look at the food on our plates.
Maybe I need to take a break from the kitchen. Retire the ‘cooking for friends’ thing and start with the basics again. Keep mealtimes for the two of us, I think. Keep the aspirations low. Eliminate risk wherever possible. I’d like to feel a bit more confident in the kitchen in future.
Otherwise, I fear I’ll risk turning into Jennifer Saunders …