When guys cook for fun, a meal is both chemistry experiment and performance art
"Woman accepted cooking as a chore," Emily Post declared in her 1922 bible, Etiquette. "But man has made of it a recreation."
At the end of the century, men are still having more fun in the kitchen. Watch me in my kitchen and see a woman cooking to get dinner on the table with the smallest number of dirty pots. Watch a guy and see performance art. His kitchen is a giant chemistry set where he creates exciting formulas with choice ingredients, lots of gadgets and a fine disregard for recipes.
Or so I discovered when I began combing the country for men who cook. I wasn't looking for professional chefs, just standout recreational food fanatics like my brother-in-law Bob Farrish. "It's all performance," says Bob, a sales manager for DuPont Automotive in Troy, Michigan. "When I prepare that meal, I'm not gonna be criticized by any man and I don't care what it costs." He tells me proudly about an appetizer he made for his cooking club. "I had to buy beluga caviar--$80 an ounce, and I got four ounces. If I had bought salmon eggs, the guys would have laughed me out of there: 'What, why didn't you just go to the bait shop?'"
A guy could go broke cooking like that every night. But the epicurean male doesn't perform nightly; that would be too much like work. "I have no way of knowing whether the stove in my apartment works at the moment," says Wilder Fulford, an investment banker who recently decamped to London. But last summer he made ambitious dinners almost every weekend at his house in the Hamptons. "I did a seviche of sea bass and scallops as a starter, and the main course was a big roast beef done on the rotisserie with an herb crust," he says, recalling one party for 14. "String bean and cabbage salad with citrus dressing, tzatziki, steamed corn, oven-roasted tomatoes with herbs, mixed potatoes." And he did it all without a cookbook. "I usually disagree with recipes," he sniffs. Indeed, for most of these men, following a recipe is the gastronomic equivalent of stopping the car and asking for directions. But the chemistry of cooking holds a fascination for Wilder--a legacy of his Ph.D. in molecular biology. "I understand what happens to protein when you heat it," he says. "I understand what happens when egg whites are beaten. I think knowing that makes me not particularly intimidated by ingredients." Unbeaten by egg whites, he is also undaunted by mechanical setbacks. When a power failure hit before he could bake his pies for dessert, he just popped them inside his Weber grill. "Heat is heat," he shrugs.
That's true to form, according to Julia Child. "Most men can fix things," she muses. "I don't know why women are so afraid of failure. It doesn't seem to bother men much at all. If they're big, outgoing he-man types, they bluff right through."
Take Larry Mufson, a New York City architect with his own firm, who admits to planning menus during meetings. He invites me over to his town house for a lusty if "a little too late-Eighties" dinner of penne with sausages and rosemary, mesclun salad and grilled goat cheese with figs. Then he realizes his housekeeper forgot to buy the figs. "I'm doing a little improvising," he declares as he slathers the goat cheese on slices of bread, adds sun-dried tomatoes and pops it all under the broiler.
Watching Larry work in the gorgeous kitchen he designed for himself, I can tell that a big part of his fun is--to use his term--the toys. He shows off his marble-topped island, his six-burner Viking stove ("It's my second one: my first was my 40th-birthday present to myself"), his Sub-Zero refrigerator, his bread machine and his pasta maker. The pièce de résistance? A wood-burning hearth for cooking. "I want to buy one of those rotisseries you wind up," he says enthusiastically. "I want to learn how to grill pizzas."
Find a man who cooks, and you will find tools--lots of them. Mike Locascio, an insurance salesman, has 137 knives. Why? "Any good chef will tell you that the most important weapon in his kitchen is his knife," Mike begins, but he soon admits, "You really don't need more than four or five. I use them all. Golfers have two and three putters," he adds, somewhat defensively. Cathy Kaufman, Mike's teacher at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School and a professional chef, has just seven knives "including the chestnut knife he gave me," she says. "I wonder if it's a sort of primal thing--guys are hunters, and he's gone for these knives."
She should meet George Gebhardt, a greenhouse owner in Southampton, Massachusetts, who is famous for his lamb burgers and lamb tenderloin. In fact, George loves cooking with lamb so much that one summer he bought two baby lambs, "raised 'em...and slaughtered 'em."
The local supermarket just doesn't cut it for cooks like this. Gary Peese, a partner in Gardens, a nursery and landscape-design firm in Austin, Texas, loves cooking with exotic ingredients such as green zebra tomatoes, purple plum radishes and kaffir lime leaves--so he grows his own. He cooks with vinegar made from the grapes in his arbor, and he once tied liquor bottles over the buds on his pear tree to make his own Poire Gary.
You could say Gary takes things to extremes. He has a kitchen most cooks would kill for, with three ovens (one convection, two regular) and more gadgets than you could shake a lemon reamer at. So what did he do? He built another one--outside. Inspired by the cookbook author Diana Kennedy's outdoor kitchen in Mexico, it features a comal for tortillas, a grill and a smoker ("I did a picnic ham the other evening"). Gary recently prepared salmon smoked over pecan wood and grilled chicken and vegetables for a crowd of 25. Come another night and pizza might be on the menu: "The pizza oven's off the back porch."
Any cook could make a great dinner in Gary's kitchen(s). But could he do the same in mine? My brother-in-law Bob was ready to fly to New York to meet the challenge. He proposed a menu: poached salmon with a cucumber-caper-dill sauce; arugula salad with roasted pine nuts, shaved fennel and Parmesan; pan-roasted chicken with veal demiglace on a bed of fingerling potatoes and wild mushrooms; and, for dessert, crème caramel (it would have been crème brûlée, but Bob worried that airport security would confiscate his blowtorch).
On the big day, Bob arrives at my apartment lugging soufflé dishes, an electric mixer and a huge, guillotinelike mandoline ("to cut the fennel paper thin and to remove part of my thumb"). Then he winces. "I forgot the veal demiglace!" he cries, remembering the tub of homemade demiglace still in his hotel minibar. Unfazed, he whips up a new glaze with a withered carrot from my vegetable bin, herbs and a bottle of fine red Burgundy ("When in doubt, add wine to it!") without even glancing at a cookbook. My kitchen displeases him. "This is sawdust!" he cries, as he roots through my spice basket. He pauses while slicing the salmon fillet to glare at my knives: "These aren't dangerous." Even my poor can opener fails to pass muster. "This," says Bob, holding it as though it were a dead mouse, "should be put in the Smithsonian."
But in spite of these culinary trip wires, a few hours later he serves up the most amazing dinner I've ever eaten in my own home. Of course, it isn't good enough for him. "With pure vanilla," Bob declares, tasting the crème caramel, "this would have been even better."
Amy Gamerman is a feature writer for the Leisure & Arts page of The Wall Street Journal. She lives in Brooklyn.