We have friends who come over, enjoy Le Duc's exuberant, expert cooking, and then say, "We'd love to have you over, but how could we possibly cook for you?"
A few weeks back, it happened yet again, uttered by a well-meaning fellow who later said, in the same conversation, "I consider myself a pretty good cook." This is what the Brits call dropping a brick; that excuse fell flatter than a fork-pricked soufflé.
Le Duc replied affably, "Then take me out." And that's what happened; we enjoyed a leisurely, delicious bistro lunch with him and his conjointe.
But not everyone can or wishes to reciprocate with a restaurant outing, and the experience is different from convivial dining at someone's home.
Our friend Bob is an acclaimed chef. When people trot out the how-could-I-ever-cook-for-you gambit, Bob says, "Hey, I eat at MacDonald's!" Though it's been years since he took his kids for Happy Meals, he wants to put prospective hosts at ease. Chefs love to be cooked for!
When I confessed that every time I knew he was coming over, I about fainted with apprehension, Bob told me how the occasional cook can receive a chef (amateur or pro) without turning into Julia Child overnight.
1. Serve a generous platter of hors d'oeuvres, no-cook fare like olives and nuts, slices of cured sausage or cold cuts, crudités-and-dip.
Have the nibblies ready to serve as soon as the coats are off; guests will immediately enter an aura of hospitality. (Bob: "A good restaurant will immediately welcome you with something—fresh bread and olive oil, a little paté, or an amuse guele. It sets the mood.")
If willing to do basic prep, Mark Bittman's 101 Simple Appetizers in 20 Minutes or Less is brilliant. (The host could keep those coming, renaming them "tapas" and there's dinner.)
2. For a first course, serve takeout soup or doctor one from a can, and be sure to garnish. If he can make toast, he can make real croutons, grate cheese, or chop a few scallions. As Bob says, "People eat with their eyes."
3. For the main course, serve straight-ahead comfort food.
Bob says occasional cooks over-research menu ideas and think
that they can impress by making something "interesting" when a classic
spaghetti supper would be so much better. The principle: familiar dishes made with quality ingredients. One difference between dedicated cooks and reluctant ones is
that the latter buy things like those
nasty pitted black olives packed in turgid water.
Given basic skills, it's hard to blow stewed dishes, like Rachel Ray's Sirloin Beef Burgundy, which features labour-saving moves (no peeling pesky pearl onions—this recipe uses frozen) and contains the ingredient many males will gnaw through concrete for, bacon—but can be made without it. Or they could also make pizza at home; the smell alone makes Le Duc weep with joy.
I'm linking to Rachel Ray recipes because she creates flavourful dishes with easy-to-find ingredients. No one should attempt Ottolenghi entrées if he rarely ties on an apron.
Bonnie, whose expert-cook partner was out for the evening, served me an ambrosial plate of fresh figs with curls of Parmesan; she had chosen perfectly ripe figs and Parmesan so flavourful that a small shard satisfied. We then ate a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket and a green salad—so good.
4. Let the serious-cook friend relax. And lighten up yourself!
From Bob: "If your sauce separates, do. not. apologize. I don't care; I'm there to be with you. And don't hand me the whisk and ask me to fix it." (I actually did that, and he said, "NO. Just turn down the lights.")
Don't ask the chef friend if he knows a better version of your recipe. Don't discuss the many things you thought of making and ask if he would have liked that better. If you can help it, don't announce that you forgot to buy the ice cream—just serve the pie without it.
Occasionally, the chef friend can be asked to come early to deliver a mini-lesson, as in, "Louise, can you come early and show me how make your béchamel?" But do not ask her to do basic scut work; Chef does not peel turnips at her resto.
The occasional cook is often desperate to avoid criticism. Good luck with that. Chefs, whether pros or amateurs, tear apart each other's cooking all the time, but are usually gentle with beginners.
If you ask for feedback and are told the harsh truth, don't take it personally. Too much nutmeg in your kale sauté: no biggie. Absolute disaster? As long as you can get takeout or delivery, no one goes hungry. I once incinerated six shriekingly expensive racks of lamb, so we ate takeout souvlaki from around the block. (I was busy piping three different purées onto the plates, and lost track of the lamb. I should have made a veggie stir-fry.)
Given the choice between fine food in a public setting and a decent meal in someone's home, I'll vote for home, though I respect a host's preferences. The main thing is taking time to enjoy one another's company.
But there is also a deep pleasure in learning to cook; Mark Bittman says the ability to serve a meal made with your own hands is a life skill everyone should have, whether essaying a simple omelette or devoting a weekend to produce a Chez Panisse Three-Day Twice-Cooked Pork Roast.
And one more terrific resource: my neighbour Kathleen MacDonald (who also rents a terrific Montréal apartment via Air BnB) has just opened Cooks from Home, a company that pairs nearby cooks with hosts who wish to order home-cooked meals or single dishes.
coconut vegetable curry.)
Look for a similar service where you live; it's a recent addition to the "sharing" model of community businesses, and just might save your bacon, regardless of your love of cooking.