Dinner SOS is the podcast where Bon Appétit answers your highly specific cooking conundrums, thanks to host and food director Chris Morocco and a rotating cast of cooking experts. Here, Chris goes deeper into this week’s kitchen emergency, which you can listen to here.
No, seriously—stop trying to impress your friends in the kitchen.
Whitney, a recent caller on Dinner SOS, had a vision of entertaining a large group of friends but felt she lacked the culinary skills to make it a reality. Even worse, as an avowed food obsessive who lives in the phenomenal food city Victoria, British Columbia, she knows just how high the bar gets when it comes to eating well. Her love of food inspired visions of serving an equally elevated meal to her friends.
I too once wanted to impress people with my cooking. My culinary training at the French Culinary Institute was like a drug to me. I was finally doing something I loved, and the pleasure of immersing myself in the codified language of French cuisine was intoxicating. It made me do some crazy shit. I set up my kitchen at home to be a mini brigade de cuisine, with myself as the cook in charge of every station, firing off Pommes Anna for my bewildered wife, and once labored to produce a perfect roast chicken with spinach purée for my aunt and uncle (who promptly removed all the skin before digging in).
The harder I worked to feed people, the less I enjoyed feeding people. I spent sweaty afternoons at the stove and didn’t get a chance to see my friends until well into the night, and those were my days off. Instagram seethes with examples of people showing off with food, and it is only natural to have great expectations when it comes to one’s own culinary ambition, to recreate the high-level of execution that so many people now consume with their eyes as well as mouths.
For Whitney, the instinct to manifest her love for her friends through an intricately wrought home-cooked meal was palpable. And familiar. So much so that I ignored some warning signs. Did I ask what was currently in her pantry, fridge door, or what the last thing she cooked at home was? Dear listener, I did not. I tried to give her what she wanted, which was something splashy and instagrammable. I suggested a modern take on Beef Wellington, along with Dutchess Baked Potatoes, thinking she was a home cook just looking to level up. It turns out Whitney didn’t even own salt. I sent her into a fusillade of hand-chopped maitake mushrooms, puff-pastry (in my defense, store-bought), and photo-worthy mashed potatoes.
My co-host Shilpa Uskokovic read the situation much better than I did. Her suggestions: Shaved Pears and Radishes With Gorgonzola and Nori, which might look fancy, but is wildly simple to assemble. Roast Chicken With Turmeric-Lime Salsa and Pepitas is a dish anyone could make and love. You could go into the kitchen to make both and be back in about an hour. But that isn’t what happened.
Instead I let Whitney cave in to that familiar nemesis: kitchen ambition. In her own words, “nobody died” (though my own heart broke when I heard she pulled off the meal only to have her friends cancel at the last minute). But these days, when I entertain, I make a simple main and go big on cheese, wine, and a store-bought dessert. It means I can spend the day out and about with my family and still have braise-y meatballs or a roast chicken on the table in an hour or so. Never dessert, though: Somehow I just can never pull off making a dessert as well as cooking dinner. Whatever I can find at a local bakery and throw some ice cream on top of is about my speed. I’m not trying to impress anybody.