I am not a cook. I am, in fact, the only person I know who’s as passionate about food as I am who doesn’t cook. Oh, I can broil a piece of meat or fish or chicken and -- like any red-blooded American male -- I can grill on the barbecue. Because I’m the first one up in the morning, I’m also the de facto Mr. Breakfast in our household. But I’ve never baked, roasted, stuffed or sauteed anything, never made a sauce, never followed a recipe.
So when my wife decided that instead of going to a restaurant for her birthday, she wanted a home-cooked meal, she didn’t have much choice in the chef department.
She turned to Lucas, our 13-year-old son, and said, “How would you like to cook my birthday dinner?”
Undaunted -- well, maybe a little daunted -- Lucas immediately smiled and said, “OK, Mom.”
I realize that stories and personal columns about kids cooking can be a bit precious. In some high-end homes, the Cuisinart has replaced the Xbox as the adolescent toy of choice. Lucas even has a 14-year-old male friend who’s going to France with his mother this summer to spend a week studying French in the morning and taking cooking lessons in the afternoon.
Lucas? He’ll probably spend a good part of his summer playing tennis and basketball -- and Xbox and War Hammer (if you don’t know, don’t ask) -- and when I told him I was writing this column, he said, “All I did was make dinner for Mom on her birthday. Don’t make it seem like I’m a serious chef.”
OK. But great enthusiasm for food -- at home, in a restaurant, on a picnic, wherever -- has always been a big part of our family’s daily life. Both Lucy and I thoroughly enjoy the dining experience -- I’ve even been accused of being a bit obsessive about it -- and Lucy is a superb cook.
Not surprisingly, we introduced Lucas to the pleasures of the table (gastronomic and social) at a very early age.
He was on the floor -- in a baby seat, adjacent to the dinner table -- while we ate dinner on his very first night home from the hospital as a newborn, and we’ve eaten dinner together when we’re all home virtually every night since, no matter how late Lucy and I work.
Lucas had his first serious restaurant meal -- complete with seafood sausage and foie gras -- at the now-defunct Citrus when he was 9 months old, and he’s since eaten in the best restaurants here and wherever we’ve traveled, from Napa to New York to Europe.
But being a kid, Lucas also likes hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza -- not to mention candy, ice cream and doughnuts -- and for his own birthday, he’s more likely to pick a Dodger game or an amusement park than a nice restaurant.
Over the last year or so, though, he’s shown a growing interest in cooking; he’s baked cookies and brownies for various school and sports events -- both alone and with his mother’s help -- and for our last several grown-up dinner parties, he’s made the desserts and helped with a few other dishes, at his request.
So Lucy’s suggestion that he cook her entire birthday dinner didn’t come completely out of left field. On the other hand, he’d never actually made anything all by himself other than dessert, salad dressing (balsamic vinegar and oil) and a few simple pastas.
The day before his mother’s birthday, Lucas started poring through her cookbooks, much as Lucy does before a dinner party.
“How does this sound?” he’d suddenly ask me while I was reading or writing or paying bills. Again, it was much like his mother’s questions when she’s narrowing the field of choices for our about-to-be guests.
“Just don’t pick anything too complicated,” I said, repeatedly. “You want to have fun with this, not turn it into an ordeal.”
I also reminded him that, on the big night, he would be on his own.
“That’s OK, Dad,” he said. “You can be my sous-chef.”
Because he’d never attempted anything so ambitious, Lucas decided on a few ground rules: “I can ask Mom a question and she can tell me how to do something, but she can’t actually do anything herself.”
As it turned out, except for “How do you mince an onion?” and “How do you know when the potatoes are done?” his only questions were more along the lines of “Do we have any red wine vinegar?” and “Where are the canned whole tomatoes?”
The night before Lucy’s birthday, Lucas made the garlic and caper marinade for the pork chops.
On the afternoon of her birthday, he went shopping with her for the other ingredients, except for the pork chops, which I was dispatched to the butcher shop to pick up. Lucas did most of the preparation and cooking in the late afternoon and early evening of her birthday.
The pork chops took a little longer to cook than he’d expected -- my fault, no doubt, since I bought slightly thicker chops than the recipe called for -- and Lucas had a little trouble getting the chocolate cake out of the pan. But he didn’t panic when his announced dinner hour of 7 came and went. In fact, when we sat down to eat at 7:30, he seemed a lot more relaxed than several dinner party hostesses of my acquaintance.
That’s probably osmosis. Friends have often commented on how calm Lucy always seems, even while in the final stages of preparing a multi-course dinner for demanding guests.
Lucas’ dinner was delicious -- and I think Lucy enjoyed it a lot more than she would have if we’d gone to yet another fancy restaurant. Smiling happily, she toasted Lucas with her first glass of wine and again with her last -- at which point it was Lucas’ turn to smile.
His daily chores include washing the dishes, but on this night, he told me, “Since I did the cooking, you have to do the dishes.”
So last week, I asked if he’d like to make Mother’s Day dinner.
“Sure,” he said.
On Saturday, he’ll probably start looking through Lucy’s cookbooks again. And on Sunday, I’ll probably have to do the dishes. Again.