by Bill Mehlman

A day together in the kitchen can be great couples therapy. Or a recipe for disaster.

Couples searching for something to do together frequently settle for spending a few hours at a nice restaurant. By definition, this serves the purpose—they’re doing something and they’re together. So why, after they pay the bill and argue about whether the tip was adequate (and was that last Sambuca really necessary?), does the sense of isolation remain?  Because
they haven’t really “done” anything; the experience was essentially passive. Now, if they were to cook the dinner together, they might enjoy being creative and productive, working toward a common, pleasurable goal. Assuming, of course, that no one gets sick afterward. First, let’s establish some ground rules. These evolve from my thirty years of marriage (no reprieve in sight) and almost that many years as a professional chef.

They don’t apply when one of the partners has serious cooking experience and the other doesn’t. Habits developed in restaurant kitchens die hard, and never remembering to turn off the burners can be a problem. Unless you both think liverwurst on rye with onions constitutes dinner, you should begin planning your menu at least a week ahead. Write it all down. No unilateral last minute changes. (“Uh, I thought we could throw a couple of habaneros in the stuffing.”) Start a notebook. Keep track of your meals à deux. If you’re really into it, take some pictures. Don’t keep insisting on foods that make him break out in hives. He may be a Neanderthal, but he’ll get the message eventually. Settle on how, as well as what, you want to make. “What? My mother always put cream of mushroom soup in the sauce. I suppose that’s not good enough for you?”

Avoid including Mom’s, or Nonna Esmeralda’s or Tanta Rifka’s specialties. Avoid tricky, last-minute preparations. No hollandaise, no soufflés, no deep-frying, no molten chocolate cakes. Pick a make-ahead first course. A salad or a soup would be perfect, and believe me, if you think making a great soup is too easy, you’ve never made one. Put together a platter of antipasto, and remember to take it out of the fridge an hour or two before you eat, so the cheese doesn’t taste like polystyrene.

For a main course, roast a leg of lamb, or do a baked pasta, or a casserole. Forget the veal piccata for now. And if neither of you can wield a carving knife properly, cook something that doesn’t require a surgeon’s touch. Watching him wrestle with a roast chicken, or, worse, a roast duck, will lead to merriment (yours) and resentment (his). If neither of you can bake…don’t bake. Baking is unforgiving. Many professional chefs dislike the weighing and measuring and fussing. Learn a foolproof recipe for tiramisu or a fruit cobbler and make it the day before. This isn’t a cooking show, and you don’t get extra points for creativity. Simple and successful is the goal. Just in case, have a couple of pints of ice cream in the freezer. Shop the day before, if possible.

Have some alternatives in mind, just in case all the asparagus is yellowish and limp, or your grocery is out of pancetta. Make sure you have all of the equipment you need. This is a good time to invest in a decent chef’s knife, or an enameled cast-iron casserole, or even a good pair of tongs. Looking for a pastry bag in the local drugstore on a Saturday night is a total bummer. Establish a timeline. Candles and cut flowers are optional, but leave enough time that you can shower and change. If one (or both) of you smells stronger than the cheese, you’re not going to enjoy dinner. Take it easy on the cocktails and keep them simple. A bottle of wine, maybe two, is fine. Three strawberry mojitos before dinner is just wrong. And don’t hurry. No one’s waiting for your table. Enjoy eating what you’ve cooked, and compliment each other’s efforts. Save the competitive juices for the tennis court. Is there one unbreakable rule? Yes, and it may not be an obvious one. Scrub the cookware; empty the dishwasher; wipe down the counters; take out the garbage. Before you eat.

The whole exercise is pointless if you come down for breakfast and there’s a heap of greasy pots in the sink and the house smells like garlic. The concept is to eat dinner and then follow your fancies. Or your fantasies. Ever met anyone whose fantasy life revolves around unclogging the garbage disposal the morning after? Many of us spend our days tapping away on lifeless little plastic squares. A day spent together in the kitchen provides contact with the textures and colors of nature. We get our hands dirty, and maintain the focus needed to work safely with hot pans and sharp knives. With a little forethought, you might have a pleasant afternoon followed by a memorable meal. After all, feeding and being fed by another person is an act of—almost—unrivaled intimacy.