How I Learned to cook again: A Culinary Tragedy

Bloomberg Businessweek|June 22, 2020

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How I Learned to cook again: A Culinary Tragedy
I ate at the best restaurants all the time. Then the pandemic happened, and I had to work my kitchen
By Howard Chua-Eoan

My long-lost friend Keith found me on Facebook in the middle of May. He’d retired from the U.S. post office and, with nothing to do in New Jersey during the lockdown, was surfing links and lists—and there I was. I hadn’t heard from him in almost 20 years. I could tell from a rush of likes that he’d clicked through scores of the hundreds of photos I’ve posted of my meals at some of the best restaurants in the world. Under the most recent one, he commented: “Who’s got it better than you.”

“You don’t understand,” I replied from isolation in London. “I used to have it better than me. I used to eat out every day. Every day! Now, I have to cook. And do the dishes. And complain about what I prepare.” Most of my best pictures were months old. He’d put the comment under one of my home-cooked meals from the day before: a microwaved sausage roll and a cup of tea. I was flabbergasted. Didn’t he get the irony? He replied with an emoji howling with laughter.

It’s a ridiculous situation. I’m one of those stereomythical city dwellers who use the kitchen to store shoes, books, and the odd tax form. When I lived in New York, I pulled the plug on my refrigerator—it was on only for ice and made this awful rattling sound that scared the neighbors. When I moved to London two years ago, the real estate agent showed me a lovely flat with a spectacular view but apologized that the fridge was barely bigger than half a dozen stacked shoeboxes. I took the apartment. The kitchen was my least concern. I lived alone. I ate out every day. Restaurants defined my existence.

The pandemic, of course, changed that. I’d just moved to a new flat in hipsterish Shoreditch, close to my favorite dining spots. It had a full-size fridge, which didn’t matter to me until it did: There were restaurants, restaurants everywhere, but not a place to eat. I hadn’t cooked since about the last time I saw Keith. So there I was, learning all over again with pots, pans, and cutlery hurriedly ordered from Amazon.com. I Instagrammed pictures of what I cooked at home or had delivered from the couple of takeaway services that met my criteria, interspersing them with nostalgic remembrances of the spectacular dishes of meals past. Sad emoji. With teardrop.

My sainted mother—the best cook in the family—had taught me a few basics ages ago, and, after my family moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in the early 1980s, I’d cooked for my parents and siblings, because I was usually the first one home from school and work. Once I was on my own, I liberated myself from the kitchen and lived off the culinary skills of others. Before Covid-19, it was possible in New York to have dinner in a different restaurant every day for more than 80 years. I chose to be a regular at about two dozen. I miss them still: the bar at Momofuku Ko and its crazy good daily specials, the deconstructed wine bar and gorgeous food at Wildair, the sumptuous nouvelle banchan at Atoboy, the empanaditas at Maite in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, brunch at Estela, pizza by the slice after midnight at Joe’s Pizza in the West Village …

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June 22, 2020