What My Nana Taught Me

The old adage that things skip a generation can apply to something different in every family – twins etc. In my family it was definitely cooking.

Neither my Mom nor my Aunt, despite having mothers that were great cooks, had much interest or aptitude in the culinary arts. Growing up in New York, this was not a huge problem as there were a multitude of restaurants to eat at or take out from most nights of the week. And eating a smattering of Italian, Japanese, Indian, Mexican, and many other cuisines on a weekly basis certainly opened my horizons and palate from an early age. But in terms of cooking talent and inspiration in my childhood, that certainly came from my Nana.

Nana’s given name was Eleanor Isobel, but she had decided early on that the Eleanor didn’t suit her and had swapped them. She never legally changed her name, but somehow through sheer will and insistence over the years she had even convinced the U.S. Government of the fact, and by the time I was born she was called Isobel on every government I.D. and legal document.

Although Nana was American, she was born to Scottish parents who had immigrated to New York with their young daughters in the 1920s. Her parents hailed from Glasgow (“Which was why they left,” as Nana always said) and there was always an element of Scottishness to her personality, her cooking, and even to her accent after a few glasses of wine. New Years was always the best for that – after all the champagne and some celebratory whisky, her accent was in full force for the singing of Auld Lang Syne.

On the surface, she wasn’t necessarily what you would picture when you think of the stereotypical kindly, soft-cheeked grandmother baking cookies for her grandchildren. Nana weighed scarcely 90 pounds, always had her hair done, and generally preferred a glass of chardonnay and a cigarette in the evenings to baking cookies. But appearances can be deceiving, and she was a great cook and the most amazing grandmother. My grandfather worked in the oil/energy industry and before working and retiring to Washington DC, he and Nana had moved over 30 times, lived overseas for years, mostly in London, and had travelled the world with four children in tow. Nana had the best stories, always told nonchalantly, and nothing ever really phased her.

She never forgot what it was like to be young, and by the time her children and grandchildren were teenagers she treated us as individuals, not as children. She even encouraged our little teenage rebellions, in her way.

I’ll never forget one Christmas morning at her house, while we are all sitting around opening presents and having coffee. Nana suddenly looked over at the table next to her, picked up the heavy ashtray, made of a bronzed lion’s paw print she had gotten in Africa, and handed it to my 15 year old brother saying “Merry Christmas.”  She knew that my brother smoked (and that my dad hated it) but she also knew he was going to do it regardless of anyone’s approval, so he might as well have a cool ashtray.

Even my uncle, now nearly 40 years later, has a teenage memento from Nana. While he was in high school in London, he had been dared by some friends to steal the wooden sign from outside their favorite pub. Having gone to accomplish this deed, he found a dilemma in that the sign was too big to fit inside of his tiny car. His solution was to call his mother. And after telling her the situation, Nana was very understanding of the importance of teenage pacts, she came to pick him and the wooden sign up and act as his pseudo getaway driver.

Having had Lyme disease in my teenage years, I didn’t get up to many acts of rebellion.  Apart from school, I spent much of my free time in the kitchen. I learned many of my greatest lessons about cooking, entertaining, and just life in general from Nana in those years. Nana had entertained many friends for years in many different cities and countries. The bulk of the entertaining she did was probably in the old Victorian house in Hampstead they lived in during the 1970s and 1980s. Cooking from a very tiny kitchen, she hosted dinners for 20 people somehow, including a big Thanksgiving party every year.

When I would ask her what she had made for most of these dinners, she might recall a roast here, or a dessert there but a lot of the dinner menus had blended together over time. Overall, she said that the food didn’t really matter – she had her few favorite dishes, and their variations, of course- but what she really remembered was the company and whether everyone had fun.

And therein lies the greatest wisdom when it comes to entertaining: the food is important but not nearly as much as the people you enjoy it with. Which will you have lasting memories of in forty years?

That doesn’t mean I advocate not caring about the food – quite the opposite – but realizing that at the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether you tried to make sole meuniere or did a simple roasted chicken, the experience is the lasting impression.  And that really takes a huge amount of pressure off. Why stress getting every detail perfect when that isn’t what anyone is going to remember?

Entertaining seems sort of old fashioned these days. Particularly in New York, it is so common to eat out or order in nearly every night (and afternoon) of the week. But I truly feel that it is due for a comeback.

For my generation, millenials if you will, they often seem not to know how to cook or not to have the time for it. And why bother with the hassle of grocery shopping, cooking and then cleaning, when you can simply press a few buttons on your phone, and through the ever-increasing number of delivery apps have every restaurant in the city literally at your fingertips?

It’s a tempting proposition and one even I, a chef, have fallen into the habit of using after a long day. But despite how convenient it may be, there is always something dissatisfying about the experience. The food is never as good as it is in the restaurant, it is often cold, and sometimes can take hours to arrive. It makes eating into purely a function rather than an experience to be savored.  Eating has historically been a communal activity, and in giving that aspect of it up, we lose something much more important.

Eating by yourself on the couch, even eating sitting next to someone wordlessly, watching tv, on that same couch while having delivered food out of plastic containers is a lonely, clinical experience. In the midst of all of this easy delivery, our kitchens become ghost towns – glorified garbage centers and water fountains.

Entertaining, even if it is just for a friend or two, immediately brings life to the kitchen and throughout the whole home.

In my family, the kitchen has always been center of the house, no matter whose house we are at. It is the hub where everyone gathers to talk, snack, listen to music, and sometimes to cook. And when you create that environment – a lively kitchen with food cooking, people talking, snacking and helping, it becomes so immersive and interactive that everyone becomes unglued from their phones for the moment.

I think people often shy away from entertaining because it can be intimidating. They don’t know what to make, who to invite, or are worried it wont be any good. And I want to share the most lasting and important lessons I learned from my grandmother, to make the experience as easy and stress-free as possible.  So much of it comes down to planning and feeling comfortable in what you are making.

Find a repertoire that works for you and stick to it. 

A lot of my grandmother’s dinners that she would entertain with were either roasts or stews.   And that is another lesson that I would advocate.  Particularly when cooking for more than four people, it is much easier to have your protein dish and meal centerpiece be a single cut of meat that serves everyone and can be thrown into the oven with minimal guidance.  Or a braised or stewed dish, like shortrib or beef bouguignon that can be made even a day ahead- and taste even better- and simply warm up in the oven while you get ready for guests to arrive.  Finding a repertoire that you are comfortable with, and one where you don’t overextend yourself, is key.  What is the point when you are stressed and stuck slaving away in the kitchen and unable to relax and have fun with your guests?

Probably the most important thing I learned about cooking from Nana was to feel comfortable in the kitchen, and to not be afraid to make mistakes.  We all make mistakes cooking sometimes! Some of my most memorable kitchen experiences are the blunders.  And you know what, those are some of my favorite memories because they are so absurd and hilarious looking back at them.  After all, what is the worst that could happen? Everything is a disaster? No one likes your food? That’s literally the worst case scenario.  And that isn’t something to be afraid of.  As hard as it may seem, you really shouldn’t care if someone doesn’t like your food.  Don’t be offended or take it personally.  Everyone has different tastes and some things are just not for some people.  Don’t let that stop you from making the foods you like and enjoy.

The other major lessons were really about practicality and logistics- equally important pieces to remove as much of the burdens as possible from the equation.

Some things are worth making, buy the rest. 

Not every single thing has to be made from scratch.  There are so many high quality products out there that can take such a weight off of your shoulders.  Whether its simply buying cheese, crackers, and grapes and having a cheese plate as an appetizer, or using storebought ice cream with an easy roasted fruit for dessert, definitely take some short cuts.  Will anyone ever know or care that you used pre grated carrots in your carrot cake or that the mushrooms were pre sliced?

Roast or stew

Don’t try and master some crazy new dish, or make perfectly cooked sea bass for ten people.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

They can always be rectified – normally by a quick Google search if you’re not au fait with culinary tricks.

Open a bottle of wine and enjoy yourself

Let the tension melt away after you’re over the biggest cooking hurdles of the evening. If you’re relaxed and having fun, your guests will follow suit.

Try not to spread out your workspace all over the kitchen

My grandmother learned this from cooking in a very small, very old kitchen in her Victorian house in Hampstead in the 70s. Somehow she managed to entertain from there.

If the meal is for more than 10 people, get help for the cleaning.

Whether that means you hire someone to clean, or simply confirm beforehand with a couple of friends or family that are coming, that they are cool with helping to clean up.  Most people are! But often when cooking a dinner and hosting, we feel like we have to do everything and that is what leads to being overwhelmed. After you’ve cooked for double-digits worth of people, the last thing you want to do is clean all the dishes they’ve produced. Knowing before you are faced with the aftermath that you have some help makes the situation so much more manageable and takes a huge, dreaded weight, off of your mind.

After years of feeding four children and numerous guests on a regular basis, cooking had become a job for her. And when my grandfather retired, and so did the entertaining that accompanied his job, Nana took a retirement of her own, one from cooking. That’s not to say she never cooked, simply that the daily drudgery of it was no longer a part of her life. I think it made her cooking even more special in its way. As a child, I always knew that whatever Nana was making, it was going to be good and was excited to eat it, whatever it might be. Even the least appetizing dish became a must-try because Nana made it.

One of the recipes that reminds me of her the most, is Lamb Barley Soup. Hardly glamorous, and definitely Scottish, it was the most warming and delicious winter soup that I still get cravings for. After making a roast leg of lamb for either Christmas or Easter, Nana would use the leftover bones and meat to make this soup.  Sadly after going gluten-free, I had to give up barley. But I’ve found that using either buckwheat in its place, or an interesting Chinese grain called Job’s tears, gives the same toothsome, nutty bite to this perfect winter dish.

I always loved to watch my grandmother in the kitchen.  There was an ease of movement and air of complete comfort that I had never seen before. With my Mom, there was always a hint of unease in the air; pans clattered, things got burnt and new recipes felt more like unsuccessful experiments than special treats. Even my own fledgling forays in baking and cooking, which I loved and which gave me such a sense of satisfaction, were also accompanied by a trail of dirty dishes and an undercurrent of stress- I was always apprehensive that something would go wrong.

Nana made everything seem effortless, something that now after attending culinary school and cooking professionally I recognize as, in its way, the highest level of skill and one I still struggle to attain. All the things I had been taught in culinary school – clean as you go, don’t waste food, move quickly, keep a small and tidy workspace – came naturally from her: she had learnt all these lessons I tried to absorb in six months over decades of practice.

As much as I loved staying with my grandparents at their house in DC, watching Nana cook with her well-worn Le Creuset pans, drinking tea in the garden on her English China, my favorite times spent with her in the kitchen were when she would come and stay with us in Connecticut. Perhaps somewhat perversely, as children my cousins and I always looked forward to our parents going away because that meant that our grandparents would come to take care of us, and that Nana would cook for us.

Unlike with my parents, Nana didn’t particularly care what we had for dinner, or whether we finished our plates and ate our veggies. Whether we ate what she made, or wanted breakfast for dinner – and dessert on top of that – she was completely un-phased and as long as no one complained or went to bed hungry, we could eat what we liked. This sort of culinary freedom and indulgence- coupled with Nana’s great food- was exhilarating as a child.

As I got older and started cooking on my own, I loved having Nana stay just so that I could watch her in the kitchen. It was amazing to me how her presence seemed to transform the very same normally hectic kitchen into a serene environment, one where food calmly emerged, with no mess of piled up pans or other evidence of chaos to be found.

I’ll always remember one time, when I was about 13 or 14, and my parents were away and Nana was looking after us in Connecticut. It was just an ordinary week, but one day after school Nana decided to make apple pie. It was Autumn, we had lots of apples, so why not? It may sound simple, but this sort of impromptu pie-making was unprecedented in my family. My Mom, and sometimes even my Dad, would make homemade apple pies, but only a couple times a year for Thanksgiving or Christmas. And even the infrequent making of these pies was fraught with difficulty and disaster. Like the time my Dad made one, but forgot the sugar rendering it inedibly tart. Or the time the foil covering the outside edge of the crust fell off onto the bottom of the oven, caught on fire, and infused the entire pie (and kitchen) with its putrid smoke. Or the time the perfect, beautifully baked pie was dropped and smashed onto the floor while being taken out of the oven. Apple pie was a serious and risky dessert only for special occasions and one that involved lots of preparation, grocery shopping, and plenty of dirtied dishes. It seemed to me then that it was the opposite of a dish you spontaneously decide to make on a Wednesday afternoon.

Yet watching Nana make that pie, it seemed like the most simple thing in the world. No trip to the grocery store, no fuss, and virtually no equipment needed. Rather than sullying a peeler, bowl, cutting board, and whatever other ancillary equipment I had thought was necessary, Nana simply used a paring knife. Both for peeling the apples and then deftly cutting them into thin slices straight into the pie crust. I remember being almost in awe of the simplicity of it and of how adroitly her fingers moved with the knife and each apple. I asked her how she could possibly peel and slice them like that and not cut herself. Knives were still a bit scary for me then. And she answered, “Well, I’ve had 40 years of practice. Someday it will be just as easy for you”. Those words have always stuck with me – cooking is largely a matter of practice and of trial and error. The more you do it, the better you get.  And despite there being endless numbers of trendy, exotic, and seemingly complicated dishes, the most simple of foods are often the best and are in anyone’s reach. To this day, apple pie is one of my favorite desserts to make for my family and for the holidays. And even those times when the crust rips and doesn’t come out perfectly, I still feel a sense of calm as I patch it up. It doesn’t matter after all. It’s just apple pie.

I’d love to hear who or what inspires your cooking – tweet me and tell me your stories.