The stay-at-home and safer-at-home age has brought out the Martha Stewarts and Alton Browns in many of us, drawing us into our kitchens with visions of perfectly plated roast chickens, pillowy breads and patisserie-worthy French pastries. While we haven't been able to host dinner parties (social distancing has taken precedence over socializing), our families have been our test-kitchen subjects, witnessing our successes and failures — and being the lucky recipients and victims of both.
Chefs and other food-service professionals are cooking more at home, too, either because their own businesses are currently closed or because their favorite haunts for post-shift meals are temporarily shuttered. And some of them are experiencing a little schadenfreude by turning the tables, offering Yelp-style reviews of home cooks' Instagram and Facebook food photos.
Inspired by chef Carrie Baird, I attempted my own "fancy toast" with homemade bread, Greek yogurt, orange slices and other toppings, then posted a photo on Facebook, challenging professional chef friends to offer up their critiques. "The orange supremes could certainly use some work," one of them responded. "The Greek yogurt was a good idea, though personally I would have mixed the honey and zest into ricotta. If you want Yelp style, here you go: Absolutely delicious, no complaints, but too expensive for what I got. The lighting was dim and the atmosphere was a bit too 'quarantine-y.' Only street parking. Server was rude. Two stars, won't be back."
The constant emotional roller coaster of worrying about our friends and loved ones, monitoring our bank accounts and listening to the news sometimes fuels our need for comfort food, and sometimes defeats us entirely. I've made my own fried chicken sandwiches that rivaled last summer's Popeye's frenzy (how long ago that now seems!). But I've also had mornings when I could muster little more than a cold flour tortilla wrapped around a banana.
Here are some high and low points from the culinary adventures of a few folks in or adjacent to the hospitality industry:
If you've been a fan of Denver's music scene for the past couple of decades, you've probably heard of Suburban Home Records, which Virgil Dickerson founded in 1995. While he's moved on from that project, he's worked in marketing for restaurants and other local businesses around town for the past several years, and currently runs his own company, KREAM Consulting. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Denver, he's been making big batches of kimchi at home and delivering jars to friends and colleagues around the city, often covering miles by bicycle with a delivery bag slung over his shoulder. He learned how to make kimchi from his mother, but he loves all kinds of cooking, and has recently been experimenting with restaurant copycat recipes.
Dickerson says that his biggest recent success was replicating the double cheeseburger from Chicago's Au Cheval. "The key is either frying them in tallow or bone marrow, and I happened to have some marrow," he explains. The burgers are smashed thin and cooked until the crust turns deep brown, and each patty is topped with a Kraft single. It's a simply recipe otherwise, he notes, with just diced red onions, a brioche bun and a sauce made with Dijon mustard and mayonnaise. He was also a fan of Hamburger Helper as a kid, so he found a recipe online to replicate it, and he said it came out pretty close to what he remembers. But he won't be making the real thing from the box anytime soon. "I don't want to ruin those childhood memories," he notes.
"The worst thing I've made is biscuits from scratch," Dickerson adds. "When it comes to baking, I'm pretty intimidated."
Lucy Beaugard is a professional photographer specializing in food and restaurants, and she normally travels all over the world on assignments, as well as shooting some of Denver's top restaurants. She's been home far more than usual, though, as many of her regular clients are closed; cooking was already something she'd turn to for relieving stress and staying centered. "I love to host and cook," Beaugard says. "I love something that's challenging or that I have never made before or want to improve."
She says her most triumphant quarantine baking endeavor was a batch of chocolate croissants. "They just take forever, but they turned out really good," she says of the two-day process that involved the repeated rolling out and chilling of dough and butter before the final bake. "My first three attempts at sourdough bread tasted good but were too dense. But then I got a Dutch oven and that was a game-changer."
Celebrating with wine has become a profession for Maia Parish; she's an event coordinator and sommelier who was the force behind last summer's Night in Wakanda, a food, fashion and wine event with an African theme. She's had to postpone this year's version, but hopes she can bring it back in 2021. "I cook a lot anyway, but this is a whole ’nother level," Parish says of the last two month of staying at home. "I've been craving seafood, definitely sushi. I consider myself an advanced cook, and I used to be a caterer."
On the comfort-food side, Parish has been making pickles with her daughters (spicy for her and sweet for her kids), and she satisfied her seafood craving with a batch of lobster pho. "I couldn't find any recipes," she says, "but I found one YouTube video, so I followed that and it turned out excellent!"
Not so excellent was a batch of hummus and a Middle Eastern garlic sauce called toum. "The hummus was not good; the consistency was too thin, and the toum came out wrong, too," she admits. "I give myself a B-minus because it was my first time." But the kofta kebabs she made to go with the meal were a bigger hit with her family.
The kitchen at Lola Coastal Cuisine was Jamey Fader's home base for fifteen years, before he started a new job as the culinary director at Marczyk Fine Foods last year. The switch afforded the chef more evenings with his family, and since March, the stay-at-home directive has led to more home cooking than ever. But twenty years as a professional chef gives Fader a leg up on the rest of us, so his meal-planning agenda definitely looks more like a high-end restaurant menu than a standard grocery-store shopping list.
"We eat mainly vegetarian, but with some fish here and there," he says. "I've nailed down some killer recipes." Among them: musubi (which is most often associated with Spam, not fresh shellfish) with scallops and trout roe that he cured himself; shiitake biryani with basil, dates, figs, chiles and cashews; and vegan quiche made with chickpea flour, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. "And we make tons of bowls like taco, vegetable curry...[and] lots of toppings," he adds. "That's the theme here."
No doubt Fader has had his share of kitchen mishaps over the years — dropped plates, lost tickets, plenty of burns and scars — but if anything's gone wrong with his home projects, he's keeping mum about it.
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Ian and Stacy Kleinman
The couple that runs the Inventing Room Dessert Shop and a catering company of the same name is currently making plans to reopen their Sloan's Lake parlor with some ideas to keep service fun and fresh while remaining safe. And Ian says he has had plenty of time to experiment with both sweet and savory dishes for both sides of the business. But he's not pulling out the liquid nitrogen for weeknight dinners. "Ian's been cooking a lot — he just broke out the grill, so we've had some good burgers," Stacy says, adding that he's also made lots of Bolognese, and they've both been making tacos using duck-fat tortillas from Caramelo Sonoran Style Tortillas in Lawrence, Kansas.
But even professional cooks have their bad moments. "I used to bake a lot, so I've been doing more of that again," Stacy explains. "I was making a chocolate-cinnamon braided bread, and I had to redo it four times because [it] wouldn't rise."
Cooking for some is a chore, and it's easy to see how seemingly endless days at home can lead to kitchen drudgery — especially when the pots and pans start to stack up. But hope, inspiration and maybe even a little mischievous delight in the minor disasters of other home cooks can help carry us through.