Picture this: You’ve just finished an excellent meal at a great restaurant. You say to the person next to you, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have this chef cook for us at home every night?” You imagine succulent crab cakes and truffle risotto. Thick, juicy rib-eyes and duck confit.
The reality? You’d probably get chicken, pizza, grilled cheese – and even leftovers.
This culinary quirk holds true whether the chef is an international celebrity or your hometown favorite. Anthony Bourdain explained in a 2016 TV demo, “Most of the menu in my home revolves around the tastes of a nine-year-old girl.” Asked his favorite dish to make, he replied, “I like making pasta. It’s so much fun.”
Recently we asked some Charlotte chefs what they cook at home, and it turns out it’s not a lot different from the go-to meals regular people prepare. But these professionals did have some insights to share.
Like all of us, they’re pressed for time: Caterer and culinary instructor Alyssa Wilen says, “I spend so much time in my work kitchen, so when I’m home my goals are quick and healthy.” She and her husband enjoy cooking together. “My ‘plan of attack’ is to make a few great condiments and dressing when I have more time, and keep things really simple.” She turns up the flavor of roasted okra, broccoli, and zucchini with lemon or chimichurri sauce. Other favorites include white balsamic vinaigrette and a smoked chili rosemary mustard sauce she makes ahead of time and that’s perfect for fish. Wilen notes that learning some knife skills will save meal-prep time as well. “It makes a weeknight meal so much easier.”
They get bored and like a change of pace: Restaurateur William S. Dissen reduces tedium with outdoor cookery. “When I’m off the clock I love to cook simply…to build a fire in our back yard at home to enjoy the cool evenings. When it burns down to coals I enjoy breaking out my cast iron pans and cooking a roasted chicken in the pan with other vegetables simply tossed in olive oil and salt and cooked in aluminum foil until roasted and tender.” Best of all, “It’s a fun way to enjoy the outdoors and makes for a super easy clean-up.” Think about it: An ordinary meal in a different setting becomes more special.
Also, having good-quality ingredients on hand keeps things fresh. Chef and mushroom hunter Clark Barlowe says, “My partner and I have a sprouted pizza recipe from [bread-book author] Peter Reinhardt that we love to do. It’s on regular rotation about every week. The dough freezes well also so it’s easy to stock up and whip up a quick dinner when needed.”
They get stuck with leftovers, too: Paella is a mainstay dish for baking and pastry expert Laney Jahkel-Parrish, who explains, “It lets us use up leftovers and can go in the oven easily if I don’t want to babysit it.” Marc Jacksina, who co-created and hosts the video series “Order Fire” agrees. “I like to cook simply, and utilize whatever my wife has forgotten about so it doesn’t go to waste. He relies often on “Lots of local veggies and rice; grain bowls of any kind.” Chef Julia Simon gets a lot of mileage out of her leftover produce and a wok. “It could be eggplant-tomato curry over coconut rice, or cauliflower-chickpea cacciatore but made with rice noodles and all at once in the wok, so it comes out some sort of tomato-ey, sticky, caper-studded pad-Thai-like mess.” This frugality is a great reminder that chefs don’t like to waste food any more than we do.
They like to keep things simple: Chris Coleman, a chef-partner in the planning stages of opening a new restaurant, is a self-proclaimed one-pot-meal guy at home. “I have an Instant Pot that I love: stews, braises, sugos. Anything I can do a little prep work on, then put in the pot and let it go.” He’s the only chef we spoke to who mentioned breakfast. “It gives me a chance to get my kids involved in the kitchen. They love helping me make pancakes because they get to crack the eggs, gather the dry ingredients, and help me flip the pancakes on the griddle,” he says.
Chef Duang Athid Lao specializes in creating vegan versions of traditional dishes from Laos and Thailand. After doing pop-ups and deliveries of kua mee noodles, nam khao rice, and mango sticky rice, she craves food that is ultimately unfussy. She says, “I like to get fresh vegetables and stir fry them with tofu; I just use tamari or soy sauce, and different spices depending on what I have. And of course garlic and onions.”
Donnie Simmons is a barbecue purveyor who recently launched a food truck. He’s proof that even for a chef, perfection is elusive. At home he craves “Grilled cheese (American) with ruffled potato chips. It’s quick and easy…still, to this day I strive to make the perfect grilled cheese.” His latest upgrade is “adding Duke’s mayo to the outside for the crust.”
When acclaimed food writer Ruth Reichl visited Charlotte in 2014, she said in an interview for WFAEats, “What happens around the table is more important than the food. If you throw a chicken in the oven and bake a potato, you can’t go wrong.”
These revelations are actually a little startling when you think about them as a whole. With all their expertise and fancy equipment, chefs feed their families pretty much the same foods – cooked in pretty much the same ways – as the rest of us. They don’t expect perfection. They like the basics. That probably ruins the fantasy of luring away your favorite restaurant chef for your own endlessly elegant home dining experience. But really, wouldn’t you really rather have a savory, home-made stew or a nearly-perfect grilled cheese sandwich anyway?
Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.