It’s a lazy evening after work. My tired body is sprawled out on my couch and for pleasure, I tune the television to a food channel where the host is animated as he describes the browned and promisingly succulent ribs on the plate before him. The sides of my lips turn up in a smile. I envy his palpable love for food, something I have never had, not even during the one year and six months I spent in culinary school.
My first day in culinary school, I tasted a foreign delicacy for the first time. Welcoming new intakes to the sensory delights of food, the chef had prepared an intercontinental spread with different proteins and sauces: sushi, chicken lollipop, wasabi, a vegetarian cream soup, and white wine. Up until that moment, I had only ever heard about sushi and had lots of reservations about it. I didn’t understand why it was so well-liked or why anyone would enjoy uncooked fish. The second I took my first bite of sushi, I understood why it had its appeal.
Unlike the bland chewiness of raw fish that I expected, what I tasted was the pleasant surprise of a well-seasoned and well-cooked protein. It turns out that we had been served lamb sushi.
I remember looking at the spread before me and renewing the silent vow I’d made months before that I would love food. In fact, standing before a buffet that made a hungry mouth salivate, I knew I would love food. And I did for the next one year, cooking and tasting delicacies like Indian Naan, Algerian couscous, German Spätzle and Schnitzel, Italian Meringue, Greek Salad, the classic American Apple Pie, and far too many others to name. In hindsight, it wasn’t the food I was excited about but the opportunity to experience different cultures in my mouth.
These days, with nothing new to try; I mean, with no curiosity to experiment with my food, eating has become an unimaginative cycle of the same taste.
For breakfast this morning, I had rice, fish, plantain, and egg, the same thing I have eaten for breakfast for over a year now. It’s predictable, filling, and nourishing — all I want from a plate of food. It doesn’t matter if the sliced pieces of plantain in my food sits awkwardly on the side or the fish, drenched in too much stew, slides off the center of my plate. The only thing that matters to me is eating for sustenance. Here’s the thing though, it’s boring.
Something you quickly learn in culinary school is the subliminal art of dinning which holds a peculiar type of delight for a chef and his diner. While the chef delights in making a fine presentation of his carefully curated flavors, balancing his dish (usually) in a trio of protein, vegetable, and side, a diner’s delight is in the burst of flavor that travels throughout his mouth.
Even so, eating is never just eating in the culinary industry; it’s a tantalizing dance that starts in the kitchen and ends with lavish praise for the chef.
Step 1: the chef’s menu
Step 2: mise en place
Step 3: a frantic hour-long (or more) affair of sizzling, burbling, whirling, clanking, and — when the chef is manic — curses. That and the constant reappearance of immaculately dressed waiters who call out diners’ orders in the order that they should be served.
Step 4: diners who eats with the eyes first, taking pictures for Instagram before finally putting out a cutlery to savor every bite (or not).
The activity inside a professional kitchen is dizzyingly exciting; dizzying because of its frantic energy and exciting because, well, the aroma of freshly cooked food will do that to anyone.
Amidst this, seeing a passionate — even if erratic — chef bent over a plate of steak and risotto as she delicately garnishes it inspires in me a deep appreciation for food. And I come to a recurring realization that people do care about food! It’s just, I am none of those people, which is why I had the same quartet for breakfast this morning.
After numerous failed attempts to replicate the enthusiasm I saw my colleagues demonstrate towards food in culinary school, I interrogated my disinterest. Surely, something must’ve been responsible for it, especially after growing up in a household where my mum often delighted my siblings and I with everything from local delicacies to fresh, home-made pastries. I half-expected this interrogation to reveal some long-forgotten food-related trauma, but it didn’t. What it revealed instead, was a deep-seated desire for convenience — I imagine my chef doubling over in disbelief at the news that one of her protégées seek convenience from food.
In my defense, it’s not convenience food, as in a ridiculous amount of fries and unhealthy carbs. As a matter of fact, I think convenience food has been misrepresented because to a large extent, its convenience is in its accessibility, kind of like my breakfast. It’s a balance of carb, protein, and the occasional fruit I introduce to the mix. Regardless, I am making peace with my indifference, happy just to watch chefs as they create appetizing art under the heat, stress, and pulsating sensuousness of the kitchen.
And if the extent of my excitement for food is my desire to at least eat healthy, I think I’m okay with that.
*This article has been published on The Best of Africa.