A Fresh Start – Finding Joy in Cooking

Tip: you always need more tomatoes than you think when making pasta sauce from scratch.

One year ago I started cooking. I began earnestly after returning from the Cannes Film Festival, inspired by discussions with friends, and now a year later I go to the market every other day, cooking fresh almost every night. This may not seem like much of an achievement, since most people cook and everyone eats, but for me this is a huge change. Just five years ago when I was living in Los Angeles, I was ordering Papa John’s pizzas by the double almost every other night, complimented by Taco Bell, Subway, P.F. Chang’s, Baja Fresh, Chili’s and anything else nearby I could find that I enjoyed. It made me happy at the time, as tasty food does, but of course it was not healthy. I was seriously overweight. Eventually I realized I needed a drastic change and as much as I wanted to cook, I never got the courage to do so until I finally had a nice place (a good kitchen) to cook in, and inspiration to make dishes that appealed to me, and made me happy, and healthy. It all started once I moved into a new apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and fell in love with the Greenmarket Farmer’s Markets located around the city.

Now cooking is one of my top motivations every day. I know I’m eating healthy (or healthier), I’m in control of the food I put inside of me, and I know all of it is good for me. Plus I get to prepare food the way I like, which has allowed me to expand my taste immensely. I’ve tried more varieties of food in the last year than I have the rest of my life, and realized I’m a fan of that thing I’ve never had before. I’ve even found a great deal of peace and joy in the process of cooking. It’s a meditative experience, as many others will attest, even if repetitive. Focusing on preparation as a process, and the act of starting something from scratch and completing it to satisfaction in one evening, is hugely rewarding. It doesn’t matter if it’s making something for myself or for another person to enjoy, I feel such relief when I complete a meal. I know that I used the best ingredients that I could find, cooked everything fresh using what I wanted and nothing else, and put in the labor to make a dish that makes my tongue happy, too. And while it may take a few hours of work, during that time I can shut out everything else, forget about the worries of the day plaguing my mind, and focus solely on the food.

Red Amaranth from Lani’s Farm
Red Amaranth from Lani’s Farm

The other day at the market I bought a small bag of Red Amaranth leaves. I’ve never had them, but they looked appealing, I couldn’t help getting a few of them to toss into a creation. I thought I’d try them out, only $1 for a small bag. The other night I made a terrible dinner that I couldn’t even finish eating it was so bad. I had to throw out most of it and it really hurt. But I learned my lesson, and figured out the big mistake. These little moments of happiness, discovery, plus the chance to learn, to grow, to experience, to figure things out on my own terms, are why I’ve found so much joy in cooking. It’s a combination of the act of sourcing my food (I love going to the Farmer’s Markets around New York City); the act of deciding what and how to cook (I don’t like onions much, so I prefer shallots and always chop them up finely to my taste); the act of creating and completing a minor work of art within a few hours (using the right set of ingredients from scratch to build a satisfying dish in the end is deeply gratifying on an existential level).

I have no training, no background in cooking, no connection to any chefs, or any interest in food beyond the satisfaction it brings me. I learned from watching my parents, my brother, and videos online. I’ve grown to be a “foodie” in the last few years because I’ve really focused on what I’m eating, and focused on appreciating the freshness/complexity of what I’m eating (not just the temporary satisfaction of it). I do things my way, which is refreshing considering how daunting classic culinary practices are (you must know your five mother sauces or else!), and I make food that makes me happy, while keeping me healthy. I’ll twist a favorite dish (fried rice gets turned into fried quinoa) and improve upon it, or alter it to my liking, and the results are usually amazing. It tastes even better than it could at a restaurant, and when you achieve that kind of success in your own kitchen, it’s exhilarating. And it’s kind of addicting (and it spoils your appetite because some restaurants just aren’t up to par on preparation anymore).

This article was originally written by Alex Billington and appeared on Medium on June 3, 2015. You can read the rest of the article on Medium.

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