My family is historically good at many things. We’ve always been known to be quick thinkers, great drinkers, and fast runners.
In other words, we’ve always been known as a sarcastic, witty bunch who can swill whiskey or moonshine (or wine or gin or tequila) way past the point where a normal person would have passed out and still discuss the Chinese economy with you coherently and then we can run home afterwards to our farm (something else we’ve historically been good at: farming).
Something we’ve never been known for is our cooking. At least it isn’t something we talk about.
Let me restart here. When your average Joe Shmoe walking down the street finds out you’re in culinary school, you can bet your bottom dollar he will say at least one of the following things:
“That’s so cool! I was going to go to cooking school, but I went to school for nursing (or business, or accounting ect.) instead.”
“Oh. I have this great recipe for this chicken pasta with this cream sauce (this cauliflower with hollendaise, this awesome red wine vinaigrette ect.) that I should give you. Just remember me when you’re a top chef.”
“Wow! Some day I’m going to see you on the Food Network, I just know it!”
While those are all annoying, there is one question people ask that gets to me more than any of those statements:
“What made you want to be a chef (or want to start cooking)?”
The reason it gets to me so much is because I’ve heard other peoples answers and they’re great.
“my family owned a restaurant and it’s all I’ve ever known, I love it.”
“My grandma taught me how to cook when I was little. She’s my inspiration.”
“My whole family is Italian, all we’ve ever done is eat and cook, eat and cook.”
Usually when it is me, I just lie and say something like that even though it isn’t true. It’s just easier that way, it makes people feel good inside to hear things like that.
See, when I was younger my mom cooked, but she cooked the food she knew how to. It was a combination of Italian red sauce (her godmother was Italian), and “basic American foods” like pot roast, roasted chicken ect. So what I’m saying is I did really have a huge jumping off point there. And then she stopped cooking because she was working so much, and let me tell you Ramen Noodles and Hungry Man frozen dinners are not very helpful to someones future with food.
Sometimes I give people a slightly more truthful answer:
“I became a vegetarian when I was 14 and had to learn to cook for myself.”
That is true. Although I had already been cooking for myself mostly for the past 3-4 years at that point. When I became a vegetarian, I couldn’t eat ramen noodles and hungry man tv dinners anymore. I didn’t know what to do because until that point, I had always been what you would call a “picky eater.” I didn’t even like the majority of vegetables. I lived off of raw tofu and boxed spaghetti with jarred sauce for the first month. Then I got really sick and figured “hey I should probably figure out how not to die on this diet,” and I did. I started experimenting with different foods, and cooking for myself. But I always knew this wasn’t the answer.
The answer to why I cook, why I fell in love with and love food so much doesn’t have roots in a tragic or extremely happy past. It doesn’t have roots in fending for myself or with my families past much at all. All of those are offshoots of something much greater. All of those are offshoots of onions.
Two days ago when I was making that soup and bathing in the delicious aromas of pure onion it hit me. If not for onions, I would not be where I am.
You might ask “how can you say that your whole future derived from an onion?” and I will answer “read on dear reader, read on.”
My earliest and best memories of food growing up are all related to onions.
My mother never actively tried to teach me anything in the kitchen, I just wanted to be in there when she made sauce, or any other dish that required onions to be sauteed in butter. I loved the smell so much that even though I hated sticking my hands into the freezing cold bread crumb and ground beef mixture she made meatballs from, I would do it just to be near the onions.
I remember the magic the first time I ever got a bloomin’ onion at Chilis. The taste was so different from other onions I had, but yet so wondrously delicious none the less.
I remember being at the New York State Fair and walking past one of the sandwich tents and thinking “this is what steak smells like. It smells amazing.” but knowing now that I was actually smelling the sweet scent of onions caramelizing and slightly burning on a flat top griddle.
Several years later, I recall being at an aunts house for a party sounded by platters filled with stinky cheese (I would pay to go back in time now and enjoy those cheeses), and olives. I hovered over the shrimp cocktail platter, but I kept being shooed away because I was eating all of them. The out came this bread with cheese and some brown stuff on top. Caramelized onions. My 7 year old self thought “I can do this” and I ate it. And it was amazing. When we went back home and my parents were gone at work I tried endlessly to recreate it but couldn’t. I burned probably 4 pounds of onions and upwards of 10 baguettes in the process.
The first time I ever smelt wild onions/chives, picked them out of the ground, and ate them. Like delicious burning sulfur on the palate.
The first time I ever had french onions soup… my mouth is water just recalling the salty, umami deliciousness smothered in cheese and bread. My favorite soup (a big thing for a soup lover to proclaim).
And the way I felt when I was a vegetarian and I couldn’t eat it anymore.
And when as a vegetarian I did decide to start doing things for myself, to start cooking, the only thing I knew (my ONLY jumping off point into the world of cooking) was how to cut an onion, and that an onion should be the first part of any good dish, along with butter. How I ended up eating black beans with peppers, corn, onions, and garlic at least 5 times a week after I figured out the ratio of those things in the pan.
The first time I ever made vichyssoise and tasted the leek mingling playfully with the golden potato. And more on leeks, the first time I ever roasted them and devoured the whole sheet tray straight out of the oven before they even got to the plate, before the sauce ever touched their delicate greenish brown layers.
And my first culinary mentor teaching me how to PROPERLY brunoise an onion so when I got to culinary school, I wouldn’t be the slowest or be laughed out of class.
And even now, 18+ years after my earliest onion memory I still breath deeply and easily when I throw onion into a pan with melted butter.
I think of my favorite foods and 99% of them start with onions in one way or another.
Yes, I would say that my love of food and passion for food is firmly rooted in a strong love of all things onion. Without that basic love that has always urged me to carry on, to cook when I’m tired, to cook when I’m sad or hungry or bored. That love that makes me experiment to find other ways to use up the few ingredients my poor college self has left in my cupboard (always onions) at the end of a month when I didn’t work enough for groceries. That love that has always made me go into the strangest restaurants, order the strangest things on menus because they smells like or are served with or rooted in onions.
So now when people ask me why I cook, why I started cooking, and why I love food so much I can tell them what I think is now an entirely truthful answer. I cook because I love the idea that something so basic and so plain can be so many different things, give up so many different flavors. I cook because when I was young I fell in love with onions and my love affair has been going strong and will continue to grow stronger the longer I am alive. Life without butter, or bread seems pretty shitty. Life without onions is simply not possible.