|This mandarin orange took one look at me and ran, but not without a kind word first.|
I’m not a chef. At most I could call myself a cook, albeit a former professional cook, but a cook nonetheless.
Regardless of my lack of titles, training and presumptions, cooking has always been something that has guided me in my moments of most intense stress, contentment, and euphoria. It has been the joy and consolation that I have turned to throughout the years as a way of easing my pain, celebrating accomplishments, relaxing after a hard day, or conveying my love for my friends and family – old and new.
Cooking for me has always meant solace, tranquility and yes, confidence. It was the medium that I used to connect to my grandmother, and now my parents and brother. I also used it as a tool for seduction (...a promise of homemade Vietnamese spring rolls...), to set the scene for first dates, meetings with friends, holiday celebrations, or even just as a way to acknowledge the joy of being at home with someone I love.
So now, many months after my life was turned upside-down and my existence uprooted, I naturally expected that when the time came for me to regain my strength and confidence, I would return to my love of cooking where I would find the same solace, peace and rebirth that I always have.
Imagine my surprise upon discovering that this is not the case. Yes, it seems that I have lost my mojo. Everything I now cook is a disaster. Even dishes that I have prepared time and time again – without a recipe, without a thought, without even counting on the same ingredients or amounts – have come out of the oven or off the stove in the form of one sloppy or ill-flavored mess after another.
So I thought, maybe I’m asking too much? Maybe I need to go back to basics, starting with the comfort food that has enduringly accompanied me since childhood? Let’s see how that turned out:
Enchiladas, my father’s recipe that I used to throw together at the drop of a hat: a mealy, destroyed casserole where I forgot the fresh cilantro, lime and tomatoes; bought the wrong cheese and the corn tortillas slowly mocked me one by one as they cracked willy-nilly under the strain of rolling.
Clam chowder: leaden, with a texture that fluctuated between gritty and sandy.
Thai green curry: I bought coconut cream instead of coconut milk; it was sweet like a dessert, tasted terrible and the box of rice in my cupboard turned out to be full of packets of tea (thanks Mom) so I had to eat it with a couple of broken corn tortillas from the enchilada fiasco.
Individual quiches for the first business brunch for my new company: wrong kind of pastry, damp on the bottom, bland on the top, and as sweaty as a debutante wearing wool in July.
Apple pie for the new parents living next door (I made two a day for nearly five years in my restaurant): soggy, flavorless, mealy apples, overcooked topping, and undercooked crust... the list goes on and on.
So, here I am, sobbing over reheating a slice of three-euro pizza from the local take-out place because the Jambalaya that I’ve made a million times has decided to burn and take vengeance on me, when I wonder what it means for a chef, or anyone else for that matter, to loose his or her mojo. And more importantly, how do you get it back, and how the hell do I explain this anomaly to the friends and family that are arriving any minute for what they expect to be at least a semi-decent meal?
I mentioned this issue to my friend K. on her recent visit from the States. She owned a fantastic restaurant in Madrid for several years and is truly one of the most talented chefs I know. Now the proud owner of a recently opened, locally sourced butcher shop / restaurant in the USA, I was surprised when she confessed that, in the past, her own personal upheaval also resulted in her “losing her mojo”. To be honest, I didn’t expect this from such a consummate chef, but I feel immeasurably relieved to know that I’m not the only person that this has happened to.
So what? Are we sensitive Midwesterners? Is mojo our own invention and therefore our own loss? Is it vain to think that there is some special magical charm attached to my hand and flowing into my spatula (I don’t really believe that anyway)? Did I somehow get overconfident, or tip the Karmic scale that I have been trying so hard to keep tilted in my favor? And if my cooking mojo is gone, what on earth can I do to get it back? And perhaps most importantly, how am I ever going to seduce Alexander Skarsgård without it?