Cooking at Home
I am a bad cook who can make delicious food. Yes, I’m a chef, but I’ve long felt that cooking doesn’t come naturally to me. It took me a while to realize, though, that what “cooking” meant had long been defined for
me, by others. First, by culinary school, where I was taught that there is a “right” way to cook and a “wrong” way to cook, whether it’s braising meats or saucing pasta. Then, early in my career, I worked primarily in European-fixated restaurants, where the whole point is to make the same thing, the same painstaking way, again and again. You have to follow the rules. You can’t just make stuff up. And so I forced myself to learn the rules.
Meanwhile, I never used to cook at home. In fact, I bragged in interviews about how my fridge was mostly just filled with beer. I lived in my restaurants. My apartment was a place to crash, so restaurant cooking was all the cooking I knew.
But that’s all changed now. I have a wife, a baby, and in-laws, and most of the time, it’s my job to feed them. I’ve had to learn to become a home cook for the first time in my life, and it’s entirely different from how I cook at restaurants. Now I make stuff up out of necessity, with my new guiding principles: to create something as delicious as possible, in the least amount of time possible, while making as little mess as possible.
At home, I am flying by the seat of my pants: I play fast and loose with my microwave, throw aesthetics out the window, and generally don’t adhere to any particular style or cuisine. When you’re busy and you have a family and you need to put food on the table, you do what you have to do. As I’m writing this, I am in the kitchen of a rental house, where my family has been quarantining because of the coronavirus pandemic. When we arrived, the cabinets had dried thyme and bouillon cubes—and that was it. I diluted a bouillon cube in water, mixed it with crushed tomatoes, and added some sugar, salt, and fish sauce that we brought with us. I served it over pasta. It was great.
And it was only after I started cooking at home that I realized that most of the rules you hear about cooking exist simply because someone made them up once. In our country, those rules are very often from a European perspective. They could be genius, rooted in science, or they could be totally arbitrary. But if all you’re taught is to just follow the rules, there’s no way to tell which is which. These ingredients only go with these ingredients. You don’t mix this with this. This recipe is a “project” while this recipe is “easy.”
The fixation on rules means we’ve created generations of people who rely on recipes and can’t actually cook a dish without one.
But cooking is really simple if you do it the way I do now: a little sandbagging, a little food science, and a little intuition. Forget the “right” way to do things. Just learn to make it up as you go. Giving you the tools to do that, along with a whole bunch of dishes and ideas that work for me, is what this book is about. Hi, it’s me—Priya.
I’m switching to my perspective for a minute. This is how co-authorships work: I write as if I am Dave. In a lot of cases, I am literally just transcribing things Dave said to me. In others, I’m channeling my inner Dave Chang. But I wanted to interject as myself here, because maybe by the time you’ve gotten to this point you’ve realized you just purchased a cookbook
by a famous chef with no recipes and you’re confused. Or disappointed. Or panicked. Let me reassure you by saying that I felt all of that when I first sat down to write this book with Dave.
I kept it together for most of the meeting, but when I walked home, I was sweating. How the hell was I supposed to take the ramblings of this man who spoke mostly in philosophical ideas and sports metaphors and David Foster Wallace speeches and turn them into an actually useful cookbook?
The first few months, I just watched Dave cook. I took notes. I transcribed the rants. I tried to get him to abide by a rough recipe list we had put together, to no avail. I’d ask him how much fish sauce he put into the chicken stew and he would have already forgotten. I’d ask him to slow down on the flatbread so I could watch his technique and he’d accidentally go faster. I’d ask him to walk me through how to make galbi tang and he’d give me career advice that inevitably involved Game of Thrones references.
Once we had cooked together about a dozen times, I started to take what minimal bread crumbs he gave me and make sense of them at home, following the measurements I had estimated and written down just by watching him. For the dishes I had made some version of before (pasta cacio e pepe, eggplant parmesan) everything worked the first time; for the ones I hadn’t (frankly, anything involving large hunks of meat), there were a lot of disasters. I’d go back to Dave’s apartment, complain about how the recipe didn’t work, and the answer was always the same.
It works. You’ve just got to stop expecting to have instructions to blindly follow. You need to understand what makes the dish work, and go from there.
What he wanted me to do was to sandbag. If you spend any time with Dave Chang, that’s a word you will hear often—sandbagging. It’s a golf term for when athletes pretend to be bad in order to play with a higher handicap. It’s also used in kitchens, referring to the necessary evil of sometimes having to cook dishes ahead of time to keep up with a busy service. Sandbagging is about being clever and judicious—getting ahead so you can win—but too much of it can feel hackish.
In home cooking, sandbagging means you take whatever you’ve got, even if it’s not the top-shelf stuff, and find creative, resourceful ways to turn it into something delicious. When Dave first described this concept to me, I was a little confused. He shook his head and told me I already knew how to sandbag, pointing me to my first cookbook, Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks
, which teaches college kids how to make amazing meals from an unexpected source: cafeteria food.
After some assorted failures, I gave in. Okay, Dave, I’ll play your game. I stopped writing down measurements. I added fish sauce to my salad dressing, tasting as I went, until I thought it was delicious. I added a little rice vinegar to the ginger-scallion sauce because it tasted to me like it needed acid. I boiled meat until it seemed done, and then took it out and cooked the broth until it reduced and tasted good. I was trusting my own instincts.
Little by little, I was doing my own version of sandbagging. I was making short ribs, and I had movie plans in an hour, so I put the lid on and cranked the heat up to get it done faster. I was making sukiyaki and I way overcooked the brisket, but instead of discarding it, I let the meat stew in the broth for a few more hours to make an extra-flavorful soup. I had leftover squash soup and
a ton of rice, and I remembered that Dave made this delicious dish where he cooked rice in coconut milk and herbs. I realized that the squash soup could act as a cooking liquid. I simmered the rice in the soup and ended up with this unbelievable risotto-porridge hybrid.
Let me preface all this by saying that I have written an actual cookbook with recipes. They’re in the title, in fact (Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Famil
y. Available wherever books are sold!!!). I am a food writer. I probably know more about food and cooking than the average person. At the same time, before working on this book, I cooked mainly Indian American food at home. I don’t buy a ton of meat (out of habit, I guess—I was raised vegetarian). I eat out a lot for my job (or rather, I used to; as I’m writing this, we are in month eight of the coronavirus pandemic), so it’s rare that I get to cook for myself and others. When working on this book, I blocked out certain weeknights and Sundays and invited friends over to eat (a special thanks to Lauren Vespoli and Kate Taylor, who happily taste-tested all my Dave Chang food experiments). I knew something in me had changed the other day when I casually made gomtang—a richly flavored Korean oxtail soup. Was it gomtang I would confidently bring to a Korean restaurant and present as the best version of that dish? Of course not. But it was delicious and nourishing to me and I can’t wait to thaw the leftovers for dinner this weekend.
You’ll see me pop up again throughout the cookbook—maybe offering my two cents about the process of learning a particular Chang technique, or being a voice of reason. I’m here for you. You’re going to come out of this at least a marginally better cook. You might, in fact, become a much better cook. But Dave’s whole philosophy is underpromising and overdelivering, so let’s go with “marginally” for now.