I am a self-taught home cook who started experimenting almost 20 years ago in a dorm room, using emailed instructions from my mom, an (forbidden) electric cooktop, and a supportive roommate who was eager to do everything from being the official taster to sending her boyfriend to the cafeteria to steal plates and utensils.
Moving to New York really upped my game, because of the exposure to amazing restaurants, new flavors/ingredients and friends who are great chefs and restaurant owners. I collected hundreds of coffee-table cookbooks and read them cover to cover. I insisted on living in Union Square so I could be within walking distance of the farmers' market. Before leaving for Los Angeles, David and I were hosts of Cave Kitchen, an underground Paleo supper club with 250 members, only by referral. We charged $65/pp, not including drinks, and our dinners were always sold out the minute the email went out. There was even an article written about us on Clean Plates at some point.
Here are some photos from our supper club:
In LA, I continue to cook but my food now is not as "adventurous" or elaborate as it was in New York. I am now more focused on ingredients than techniques. I still host dinners (mostly at my social club YEM Home) but they are more like elevated family meals than fancy five-course culinary experiences. The food I serve now is closer to rustic home-cooking than experimental fine-dining.
My food and cooking philosophy, however, remains the same.
And here are a few of them:
You can have it all with home cooking: food that tastes good, makes you feel good, and saves you money while not taking up a lot of time.
Cook from the heart. Only do it if it gives you joy. Don't do it because you think you have to. When a friend invites me over for dinner but seems stressed out over cooking, I always suggest ordering in because the stress is never worth it, for both the host and the guest.
Food is medicine. You are what you eat, so feed yourself nourishing foods that do more than just keeping you alive. I buy ingredients that are fresh, natural, organic when possible, local when possible and in season. My pantry does not have refined sugar, refined all-purpose flour or items that contain chemicals. I am also a big believer in choosing what to eat out of love, not out of fear or guilt. Recently, I decided to cut out meat because I realized eating meat made me feel guilty, mostly on the subconscious level because of my love for animals (but I still cook meat for David and for my guests).
Minimize waste. There are many reasons why I love Vietnamese culture, one of which is the "no waste" mentality. When you have an ingredient, try to find ways to use all or most of it, not just the best part. If the recipe calls for egg yolk, save the egg white to make an omelette. If you have a lot of herbs that are about to go bad, throw them into the blender to make a sauce and freeze it. If the carrots come with greens, make a carrot green pesto or throw the greens into a stew. If the meat is too fatty, cut off the fat and cook it on low to make rendered fat for future cooking and use the cooked-down crispy fat pieces as salad toppings.
Minimize time and effort while maximizing flavors by keeping it to a few simple ingredients and playing around with spices and herbs, unless it's a dinner party and you want to show off. Be creative and use what you have in the fridge and pantry before spending time at the grocery store. These days, I spend no more than 20-30 minutes to make lunch, and I will show you how in my next posts.
Keep it fun and enjoyable in whatever ways that work for you. I used to always use my cooking time to catch up on movies and some TV shows, especially when I had to spend hours on simple repetitive tasks like chopping and peeling. Sometimes I turn on 80's music and dance around while I prep and cook. Other times I listen to a podcast or an audiobook. These days I enjoy cooking in silence and love using cooking for mindfulness training.
Start off with a neat and tidy kitchen, and clean up along the way. There's nothing more discouraging and mood-killing than having to clean up a big mess after cooking. And looking at a pretty and clean kitchen throughout the process is very therapeutic too.
Don't freak out if something goes wrong. Keep calm and try to figure out what can be added to fix the situation. This is usually the time when genius inventions happen. The more you mess up, the more practice you get and the better you are at responding. Mistakes and disasters only speed up the learning process.
Don't get overly fixated on the recipe. A missing ingredient is not the end of the world. If anything it might even be a blessing because it forces you to be creative in finding a substitute, which sometimes actually turns out to be better. Because I am very bad at following instructions, I never cook from recipes, so I am a little bias here.
Spend some effort on plating but don't turn it into a project. Edible flowers, herbs, chili powder...always add colors and can elevate almost any dish, favor-wise and esthetic-wise.