The Joy of Cooking (for Friends & Family)

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Butter. Garlic. Heavy Cream.  Shallot. Basil. Thyme. These are words of affection, as far as I’m concerned. Because when these ingredients are properly prepared – chopped, sauteed, simmered, braised, garnished – they’re one of the greatest ways on this planet to say “I love you.”

“The Joy of Cooking” is one of the most popular cookbooks ever and it’s true, cooking can bring you so much joy, but never more – to me, at least – than when it’s done for those closest to you.

At its most basic, cooking is a utilitarian chore that simply serves to provide sustenance. At its most romantic – which is honestly how I approach most things in life thanks to a poet for a father – it’s an artform that creates a kaleidoscope for the senses as both a means and an end. And when the beneficiaries of your artistry are the people in the world you care most about – allowing you to nourish them with flavors that provide sublime pleasure – it verges on the sacred.

As hyperbolic as that might seem, isn’t religion all about acts of service toward others?  I can think of few acts of service I appreciate more than a delicious, thoughtfully made meal, so forgive me (again, a romantic) for finding a bit of God in my pasta.

Whether you’re cooking for your mother, your brother, your spouse or even a friend-of-a-friend, the meal becomes so much more meaningful because of the person you’re feeding. These are the meals that fill not only our bodies but our lives with moments and memories worth savoring.

And these are the meals to maximize deliciousness, comfort, and flavor (save the salads and the low-fat options for Tuesday lunches solo). Your loved ones deserve the pancetta, the full-fat burrata and always a bit more butter and Parmigiano Reggiano in dishes like spaghetti carbonara or rigatoni with spicy tomato cream sauce. There’s also generally a direct correlation between the amount of time the meal takes to make, the amount of flavor packed into said meal and the level of pleasure your guests will walk away with. Dishes like boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin are perfect for this, braising for hours on end, filling your space with a comforting aroma of anticipation that’s the best welcome you could provide your guests.

Don’t forget to enjoy the process. Preparation is key and mise en place not only streamlines the cooking, but also showcases your ingredients as a beautiful array of components that will be combined with your artistry into a sum greater than its parts. This is also a great moment to enjoy cocktail hour with your guests, warming up the conversation while working up an appetite.

And, as with anything worth remembering, mood is important here, too. Take care to ensure there’s some twinkling jazz or Frank Sinatra serenading your meal and that your lighting is dimmed and preferably romanticized with candlelight (there’s nothing like overhead lights to sterilize an otherwise sensual meal).  Just add a bottle of wine (or two) to the table, and I think you have all the ingredients to say, in any language, “I love you.”

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