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I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the Bravo show Top Chef, hosted by Padma Lakshmi and with head Italiano judge Tom Colicchio. It’s been a reality-series-mainstay for five years, with chefs in constant competition over the quality of their dishes and the ambiance with which they present them. When I do watch — it’s one of my wife’s shows, not so much mine — I find myself thinking, “I can out-cook most of these people, no problem!”

But as the mafioso-like Colicchio has said numerous times, “the show’s called Top Chef, not Top Cook.” Given the fact that most of the contestants don’t even bother to taste what they cook, I don’t think that they should be in competition for either title. I should know. I have twenty-five years of experience to prove it.
One of the consequences of my youngest brother Eri’s birth in the spring of ’84 was that I learned how to cook, at least enough to make sure that seven people actually gained weight and enjoyed eating my food for the next two months. It was a time of irony and hypocrisy (as if any other time during my Boy At The Window years wasn’t), putting another nail in the Hebrew-Israelite coffin in which my stepfather was prepared to bury himself. It also gave me the opportunity to see myself as an adult beyond my academic abilities. It provided a level of confidence that would be helpful in my Pitt years.
My conversion to Christianity and my developing interests in sports, music and girls in the spring of ’84 couldn’t have come at a better time. The week before Memorial Day ’84 was when my mother gave birth to my baby brother Eri. The little porker came in at just under seven pounds. Two weeks before that, my stupid stepfather invited his Hebrew-Israelite matriarch “Balkis Makeda” (she believed that she was the reincarnation of the Queen of Sheba, the one who would marry King Solomon of ancient Israel) to stay with us. She was moved in before my mother could seriously object. What a situation! Six kids, including me, plus Mom, Maurice, and an old woman living together in a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. We now needed to behave like good little Hebrew-Israelites with this woman in our house, so as to not embarrass my stepfather.
One of the wonderful rules of our absurdly orthodox practice was that my mother couldn’t cook or do any familial tasks for the next three months. She was “unclean” because she’d just given birth to Eri. This might’ve made sense in the deserts of ancient Canaan, with no antibiotics and drugs to deal with unclean “issues of blood” and other bodily fluids. It didn’t now. Plus I didn’t remember my mother not cooking for three months after Yiscoc and Sarai were born. This was suck-up time, plain and simple.Maurice made what was an abyss-of-bad even worse by cooking dinner for three days. Three straight nights of overboiled and under-ripened cabbage drenched in its own juices and seasoned to high heaven with red and black pepper. My stepfather could’ve been the founder of the cabbage soup diet if he’d actually eaten his own cooking. Man, a week of cabbage like his would’ve left skinny me in an emergency room in need of an IV. As it was, my younger siblings couldn’t even eat a mouthful of the gruel. We needed someone else to cook, and soon. My mother knew just who to ask.So from the end of May until mid-July, I cooked dinner night after night for my family of eight. Makeda refused to eat my food on principle — the man of the house or a female servant was supposed to cook, not me. Before this crisis, I’d only cooked a few things, like baked chicken leg quarters, fried and boiled eggs, sticky-bad grits, and toast with butter. I immediately learned to control temperatures on our gas stove to fry chicken Southern-style, started making spaghetti and meat sauce, and figured out how to season meats and the difference between that and seasoning veggies. All while still doing my other chores, helping out with my siblings and getting ready for Regents and final exams.

I learned how to make the five-dollar-spaghetti meal for eight. For that amount of money, I’d shop at C-Town, buy a pound of ground beef (two dollars), a box of Ronzoni spaghetti (eighty-nine cents, often on sale for fifty cents), a can of Hunt’s spaghetti sauce (ninety-nine cents), and a box of frozen chopped broccoli (fifty-nine cents). With the fifty-four cents left over, I could buy two packs of grape and lemon Kool-Aid or a pack of Wise Crunchy Cheese Doodles as payment for my shopping expertise and culinary services. Sometimes I’d even squeeze a Twix candy bar out of the remaining change.

It was a sharp learning curve, but I wanted to learn. I’d been asking my mother to teach me how to cook since I was nine or ten. Now I was learning under a bit of pressure. Our health and my continued psychological wellness depended on me making food we not only could eat but enjoy as well. By the middle of my second week as 616’s master chef, even Maurice was complimenting me on my skills at the stove and oven. My mother was the only holdout, constantly saying that my food was only “okay,” or “It needs more seasoning,” or that my gravy was “oily and lumpy.”

I did the best I could under these difficult circumstances. My grades remained consistent all year and remained that way even through Regents and finals the third week in June. I managed an 86 on the Geometry Regents despite seeing too many proofs, a 91 on the Biology Regents, and scores in the high-80s and 90s on my Literature and History exams. I got a 73 on my Italian final, a sure sign of things to come with me and Romance languages. My fourth semester GPA was a 4.48, and for the year it was a 4.26. If I could keep this pace up, Humanities in high school would be “as smooth as a milkshake,” as a former classmate would’ve said.

I’ve added quite a few dishes to my repertoire since ’84. I can make everything from broiled salmon to  veal stew, from wine-drenched pork tenderloin to wok-cooked vegetable fried rice. The most important thing I’ve learned as a cook is the ability to walk in a kitchen, look at a bunch of raw ingredients, and come up with something to cook, without a recipe or without it being something I normally make. I figured out how to make good gravy from scratch one time in ’93 when the only thing I had to work with was water, oil, flour and seasoning. I combined ketchup, soy sauce and chili sauce to make barbeque sauce one day in ’99 when we had only $10 to work with while living in Pittsburgh. Learning this, and that my palate is pretty good in discerning seasonings and tastes, is what makes me as good a cook as I am.
None of this would’ve likely happened, though, without going through those years of malnourishment and wanting for food. None of my ability to cook would’ve been converted to actual cooking without those weeks of cooking in volume for hungry mouths at the end of my freshman year of high school. I likely wouldn’t have finished college or grad school without the ability to cook my own food — it would’ve been too expensive to go to school otherwise. Like reading, critical thinking and creativity, cooking to the point of chef-like ability is a skill that always comes in handy, that makes the most boring of meals worth eating. It also revealed a lot about my character and my sense of initiative than I knew before, especially outside of the classroom.