Originally published for the IBCoMagazine here
When I was five, I wrote my first recipe. With a pencil, I scratched in my colouring book: “teik eggg, ad solt and pepperr, fri” (something like this, but in Russian).
Even though I found my true professional passion in academia, cooking is a big part of my life and I would like to share with you why I think it’s important to develop this skill while you’re in college.
1. You can make friends and impress someone special
Ok, ok…you can also lose friends if you’re not cautious about what you’re doing. Most importantly, with solid cooking skills, you can ensure that you and your friends are eating well.
There are many ways we damage our health during college – sleep deprivation, intake of litres of coffee and other liquids, stress, irregular meals, junk food…You can ease the impact of these factors by cooking for yourself. Cooking is therapeutic and fun.
Don’t be afraid to experiment, explore different foods, get excited about new cultures, new recipes, and new ingredients. For me, a recipe is only a guide. There are things that people have tried before and they work well – some ‘ideal combinations’ like potatoes and rosemary, tomatoes and basil, mushrooms and garlic.
What’s more important is understanding what you are doing. Why you are cutting something and how. You should think about what ingredients you are going to cook first and for how long. While you are at it, develop a signature dish and try cooking it for others.
A shared meal has historically been a ceremony of trust, care, and unity.
When I met my wife for the first time, I happened to have been helping in the kitchen of the Academy where we both studied. I had the perfect conversation starter up my sleeve when I asked her if she liked the food. We are together ever since and she is my favourite ‘customer’ in the ‘home cafe’.
2. You can make money
At least, you can save some money by not paying others to cook for you. When I was a bachelor student in the United States, I was very limited in financial resources. To generate an income, I found a job at the university’s cafe, and my childhood passion for cooking echoed with rewards.
I loved working with food. It is a hard job, but no matter when I would have my shift, be it 5 AM or the late-night service stretching into midnight…I enjoyed it. It might be easy to romanticise about it now when years have passed, but I would come in, make a strong cup of coffee, start the ovens and the grill, smell the herbs and the spices, taste the first bread of the day, and I had the feeling that I am part of the magical machine that feeds the masses. The machine also paid.
3. You can overcome your fears, become a better writer…oh yeah, and survive!
One of the brightest memories from my professional cooking days is when the head-cook, Francisco Miro, asked me to prepare some beans for 700 people.
In shock, I asked, “how do you want me to cook the beans, Fran?” The response was brilliant, “make sure they taste good!”, he said.
Everyone was risking that day. Francisco Miro was risking his reputation, I was risking my job, students were risking their stomachs. At the end of the day, everyone was happy. For me, this was a big learning experience. I learnt to overcome my fears. In fact, I got so inspired by cooking that I even started a food blog. These were the early days of Blogspot and WordPress. Running the blog was a lot of fun and it helped me become a better writer…
Of course, all other reasons aside, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the very true value of developing solid cooking skills – when in lockdown, you can survive.