Food: The Original Art Form

Roasted Pepper and Haloumi Sandwich

Food is an art form. I learnt this from my father at a young age. He's a professional chef (and a bloody good one!) and I wish I could say that I spent my childhood years watching him work...learning to prep vegetables at superspeed and how to handle knives with such ease and skill it would make a professional knife thrower green with envy. But I didn't. And it's one of my biggest regrets.

It was a Friday evening in Auckland, and I was watching him prepare ingredients for a soup. He'd laid out all the vegetables, spices and meats already, along with all the equipment he'd need. Before that, he'd put a pot on the stove to boil. Even though it would just take a couple of minutes for the water to start simmering, I knew the veggies and chicken would be chopped up lightning-fast, not a movement wasted, ready and waiting well before they were needed.

We'd been talking about a class that he was running at Otaua School, Waiuku as an community project, where he was teaching young kids how to cook healthy food. At school and at work (Wise Cicada in Newmarket, Auckland), he's known affectionately as "Chef G". He was gushing about Brooke, a little girl in Year 8 who cooks 3-course meals for her family and runs her own food blog.

"She should've been your daughter," I joked, half impressed and half envious.

We laughed about it together, and then I said, "Really though, I'm a terrible cook. You'd think I'd have some skill in the kitchen being your kid." My dad thought about it for a second, then shrugged. "Not really. Your talents just took you in a different direction." Then he added, "What you really need is to try and find joy in cooking. It's a fun process. Try and think of it as a way to relax and wind down from a tiring day."

It was food for thought. I've always naturally gravitated to things like writing and drawing to express my creativity, even as a kid. Cooking just held no appeal for me. I'd been a picky eater for the longest time, food was just a necessary evil and I'd just shovel my meals down to make my parents happy. I reckon I didn't actually develop an appreciation for good food until my late teens (what can I say? Living with a chef all my life, it just made me take good food for granted!). I felt it particularly when I moved out and my parents moved to Melbourne, and my schedule was so busy that setting aside time and energy to cook for myself just wasn't a priority. It was a bit of a rude awakening going to restaurants or ordering takeout when I'd be excited to try my favourite dishes and they fell waaaay short of my expectations. I blame my father, you know. He absolutely ruined my palate for all other cooking!

The other thing that's changed my perspective on food was travelling as an adult. I'm more willing to try new things, and like many people who love to travel, experiencing local food is pretty much the main way I can connect with local culture! SO many of my memories of the places we've been are associated with food. The first bite I had of my first proper margherita pizza in Naples, the first forkful of spicy and aromatic pad see ew I devoured at a tiny local restaurant in Bangkok, the first slurp of fresh, clear miso ramen in Kyoto...it's cliche, but I finally realised the truth of what my dad had been telling me for yonks; good food makes the senses sing.

The only way I could ensure the right flavours in the food I was eating on the regular was by attempting to cook for myself. I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit that even now, as a grown ass woman of 27, I still call my dad to ask him the stupidest questions about cooking. "What's the best way to steam broccoli?" or "Hey pops, I'm trying to make the veggie fried rice you used to make and it just doesn't taste the same as yours...any tips?". It's a long, uphill battle but nothing beats that joy you feel when you perfect a recipe! 

Now that I've had my epiphany about food, words can't describe how grateful and lucky I am to have the stupendously talented Chef G just a phone call away. Now that we're both adults, we squabble less in the kitchen and he's more patient (well...kinda) when trying to teach me how to do something the right way. I think it runs in the family though...I could really relate to the episode of Ugly Delicious where Chef Chang is being berated by his mother about small, stupid little things, mainly because my grandmother does exactly the same thing to my dad while he's cooking. She'll peer over his shoulder and tell him what he should do next to whatever dish he's got on the stove, and he'll just give her this look of complete and utter disbelief and say, "Ayi, I have been doing this for more than thirty years."

So maybe I'm no Brooke in Year 8 (and quite frankly the thought of preparing a 3-course meal for my entire family makes me break out in a cold sweat), but maybe that's because food wasn't my medium to start off with. It's not too late though - I can learn. I didn't think of it as an art form, I thought of it as a mundane necessity. But now that I've started to fall in love with the process, every new recipe I try is an adventure.