I had been away from the restaurant for not quite a year, at a routine pediatrician appointment for my infant daughter, when I learned I would not be going back to work. 9-month-old Eleanor had symptoms of a neurological condition, hypotonia, or generalized low muscle tone. Hypotonia can be an indicator of other developmental delays. In her case, it was.
No longer scheduling cooks' shifts, soon I was arranging therapist visits. I logged infant exercises, rather than inventoried ingredients. I didn't cook; I could hardly muster the spirit to eat.
Chefs thrive in tight, intricate systems. When pregnant, I thought I could mise motherhood, the way I would the kitchen line. I was cocky — or deluded — enough to believe I could navigate the messy map of parenthood. But parenting can leave the most determined among us adrift. Mothering a kid with special needs left me particularly unmoored.
I felt most unanchored in my own kitchen. I had neither energy, enthusiasm, attention, nor patience to cook. I routinely burned or under-seasoned meals. We ate cold cereal often.
This new inability to cook had me in despair. Not only had my daughter's health prevented me from returning to my job, but caring for her had also made me unsure I possessed the skills to do it anymore.
Things changed when my daughter grew teeth and began to eat solid foods. I found sanity in the rhythm of stocking a refrigerator to feed her varied meals. Following parenting protocol, I introduced ingredients to her one at a time. My refrigerator quickly filled with simply, carefully prepared foods from the child's culinary canon: rice, beans, squash, yogurt, cheese, chicken. As she got older and took more of an interest in eating, I combined these ingredients into creative small plates. The way I fed my daughter, and then her sister to follow, became the foundation for our family's future meals.
I helped friends organize their own kitchens. They brought me menu plans for the week. These I inverted, scrapping the recipes but using the accompanying shopping lists to come up with kitchen tasks, some even unrelated to the original menu itself. Roast the chicken, I'd say. In fact, roast two! Slice those onions. Sauté them, if there's time; possibly quick-pickle the rest. Wash the greens, wedge the lemons, and peel some garlic. Do one thing to each ingredient, without any specific dish in mind. Amass a small collection of modest, but diligently prepared food. Then, with fewer steps and even no strict menu in mind, expand these into many meals.
Maybe because of my tight control over therapy schedules, I reveled in this exploratory approach. Friends made their kids quesadillas. I bought the same tortillas, but also stocked up with a full pot of deeply braised chicken and ears of roasted corn. I made the quesadillas, when I wanted, but a chicken corn soup, too, then corn salsa, never mind chicken salad. My chef sensibilities kicked back in to expand and elevate this rather nimble system.
I turned my tiny kitchen into a classroom; I discovered I loved to teach.
My classes shifted the paradigm of culinary instruction. I made improvisation teachable, even to novice home cooks. Truth is, the more I taught and cooked, the better cook I became. I grew uninhibited with my ingredients. I'd make chicken and corn into soup, softening the corn in the chicken drippings first. I'd use the fresh, milky cobs to start a broth for risotto, sprinkled at the end with crisped chicken skin.
I saw possibilities in all parts of every ingredient and, despite years in the professional kitchen, found for the first time consistent, confident expression in work. Loosening my tight grip over exacting dishes, I learned to let ingredients take the lead, and began to cook the best and most imaginative food of my career. I found that feeding an infant, and eventually a family of four, gave me the skill, confidence, and maturity the professional world did not.
Stuffing, then searing a boneless thigh is a simple preparation with a brilliant twist. I bone the thigh, but leave the skin on. This allows me to season the whole surface of the meat, fill it with fresh herbs or a condiment I have on hand, then fold it onto itself. The meat is encased entirely in its own skin, which I sear to a crisp.
Suddenly a pedestrian cut is turned into something restaurant-worthy, but made by and just for you.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: I learned more cooking for my daughter than I ever did as a chef.