Drawing of a woman cutting broccoli

The Accidental Cook

For years, learning my mother’s recipes wasn’t on the menu. When I finally braved the kitchen, it became about more than just delicious dishes.

Whenever I fly home for the holidays, my mom always prepares a table full of dishes: salty Nanking-style duck and chicken broth and stir-fry everything. Whenever I ask for the stir-fry recipe, she’ll say, “It’s easy,” and tell me to use a wok and high heat and oil and soy sauce and ginger and Lao Gan Ma chili oil and throw in some frog legs and peppers and voilà, it’s done. When I try to replicate this, I inevitably fail.

My mom likes to boast that she never learned to cook until after she got married. There was always someone else to do it for her. Her hands are delicate and preserved, not cut and blistered from knives and oil and scrubbing stains off spoons. Cooking makes you happy, she says, especially when you’re doing it out of love, not like a servant, slaving away for someone else.

Although I grew up eating elaborate home-cooked meals, I was never interested in learning how to cook myself. Part of this I blame on New York. I’ve lived in tiny apartments with tiny kitchens shared with up to five roommates, and I’ve always had an abundance of cheap food within walking distance: dollar slices, $2 pork-and-chive dumplings, $5 halal lamb over rice, and the best pad kee mao in Brooklyn, delivered for $12 with tip. I did try cooking some things. Most notably, ramen with an egg stirred in. (I graduated to ramen with spring onions and a poached egg and sometimes even some small-leafed greens, which makes me feel more accomplished than boiling water and throwing in baby bok choy should probably make anyone feel.) I also made fried rice, pasta, and occasionally soup. Once, I even baked a loaf of bread.

Mostly, though, I learned to love the food I was eating in restaurants.

My friend Adrian is a foodie who prefers the term “food conscious.” Some of my earliest memories of New York are of the two of us going to fancy restaurants together. We’d take the 4 train uptown for late night walks in Central Park, and then we’d eat spicy spaghetti amatriciana at Nicola’s on 84th Street, or cross Washington Square Park to get to Panca, a small Peruvian restaurant in the West Village. Eight years later, I still remember delighting over their quarter roast chicken. Going to restaurants I couldn’t afford made me view eating differently. Unlike the home-cooked meals I took for granted, this was a pleasure defined as much by the company and the environment as it was by the food itself.

Adrian now works as a butcher at Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, a fancy, locally grown-everything grocery store where you get to sample kumquats before you buy them and products come with hand-drawn labels. When I visit, we usually go to marvelous restaurants and spend way too much money, but one time, he cooked. He’d been downcast about his job or a relationship or some other burden of life, and I’d recently returned from months of traveling, unsure about my own place in the world. I watched Adrian chop asparagus and grate the zest of a fresh Meyer lemon to make fettuccine, and grill a New York strip steak medium rare. We ate outside on the fire escape and drank wine in the afternoon sun.

On that visit, I happened upon Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal on Adrian’s bookshelf. Tamar was an editor at Harper’s before working at several recognizable restaurants: Prune and Blue Hill in New York, Farm 255 in Georgia, Chez Panisse in California. “When we cook things, we transform them,” she writes. “And any small acts of transformation are among the most human things we do.” An Everlasting Meal is a love letter to cooking, not as a tedious chore or an impossible skill, but as something alive and beautiful. There were tips for what to do with the ends and stems of vegetables and how to fry tiny fish, and chapters titled “How to Paint Without Brushes” and “How to Light a Room.” The possibilities bewitched me.

I moved to Vancouver in 2014, and for months I was miserable, missing New York and thinking that I’d made a terrible mistake. But there was one glimmer of brightness: For the first time, I had access to a good kitchen. There were grocery stores close by, with shiny tomatoes and Fuji apples grown right in British Columbia. I started by making breakfast.

I studied a recipe and bought organic eggs with sun-bright yolks. I scrambled and cooked them just enough, soft and lovely, and sprinkled them with salt, freshly cracked pepper, and tiny sprigs of thyme. Then I scooped them atop thick buttered toast and ate them on a pretty plate in the dining room of a house that was finally starting to feel like my own.

My ambitions grew. I bought a bag of fresh pepper leaves at the grocery store and had no idea what to do with them, so I invited a few new friends over to make chicken tinola, a ginger-based Filipino soup. I do not want to tell you how many trips to how many grocery stores I went on to find every ingredient (like the elusive green papaya, which I could have easily substituted), or how I finally got everything else but forgot the ginger. In the end, none of it mattered. My friends arrived, and we drank wine and ate chestnuts and took forever to cook a soup that should have been very simple. It was a wonderful night.

A year after the tinola, I watched chef Tony Minichiello’s demonstration at the front of cooking class. I loved Chef Tony: his joy as he held up a peeled Walla Walla onion under the light; the exuberance with which he described grilling a cob of corn and rubbing it with butter, lime, and chili oil; how he refused to tell us how long or at what temperature to cook anything (“You cook it until it’s done.”); how you should toss a salad with your hands (“And if you find that icky, grow up!”); and how, watching him meditatively chop carrots without the dreary chop chop chop of a cook who doesn’t know better, I believed that I might learn to do the same.

Chef Tony’s class was for “serious amateurs.” He was delighted that none of us took offense at the term “amateur”—in French, after all, it just means “lover of.” We each received an apron, and many of us had bought brand new knives. For me it was an eight-inch Victorinox Fibrox chef’s knife, a Wusthof paring knife, and a pastry scraper. I was thrilled when the lady at the store asked if it was for home use, and that I could answer, “I’m going to cooking school!”

Watching Chef Tony felt like watching a cooking show in real life. He didn’t use measuring cups or timers. When faced with a decision like which part of the chicken bone to throw into the soup, he asked himself, What would Grandma do? We learned about mirepoix and bouquet garni, pretty French terms for the base note and seasonings of a broth. We practiced the roll cut on celery (successfully) and carrots (a little less successfully). We learned how big or small to cut things by asking, “What do I want in my mouth?”

We made a chicken broth and added salt in five-finger pinches. We made a salad by throwing together walnuts, watermelon, leaves, and quinoa in little plastic tubs and topping that with a vinaigrette made out of lemon, olive oil, and a sprinkling of fennel seeds. (In my enthusiasm for chopping things up, I accidentally minced the leaves of our salad.) We made an Azteca soup. We tasted a tiny piece of jalapeño to decide how much of it to add. We took the drumsticks out of the stock, unpeeled the skin, and tossed strips of chicken into the pot. We topped the soup with crumbled red tortilla chips, avocado, and cheese. We did not use a single measuring spoon. I sent my mom a picture of every dish I made in class, and she was thrilled. Hope you come back home soon so we can try all dishes you made, she texted.

The truth is, I’m still not exactly a great cook. Sometimes I attempt cooking class meals at home and end up with mildly (to wildly) disappointing dishes that I do not photograph. But I do send my mom pictures of the pumpkin cheesecake pie I bake for a friend’s birthday, or my replica of the salad she always makes, with a dressing made from soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and, yes, Lao Gan Ma chili oil. Each time, she responds with delight. I don’t think she’ll mind my mistakes the next time I visit. After all, I’m learning how to cook with love, and that makes even a burnt steak—I hope—taste that much better.

Laura Yan has written for Pacific Standard, GQ, and Longreads. She lives in Vancouver.

Illustration by Laura Yan

Originally Published January 2017