By Trace Williams
I grew up in the restaurant business, with my Master Chef “Papa” as the father figure in my life, which is much like growing up in a circus family. While most of my friends would go home to their stay-at-home mums’ dinners, I would go to Il Topic, work as a pastry cook and then sit down to a glorious five-star staff meal just about every night. My dinner time family included chefs from Portugal, Spain and Italy, and our “family time” consisted of colorful tales of conquests and passionate arguments over the best way to prepare an exquisite dish. On our days off, Papa would cook at his home (next door to ours) or we would drive an hour to my grandmother’s house for a very proper English Sunday dinner – succulent roasts, Yorkshire puddings, fresh vegetables and always a fabulous cake. Dinner was always a spectacular group event, made and enjoyed with gusto!
And so my love affair with dinner began – not in a traditional sense, but rather with the fascination of trying new things, eating perfect things and the joy of learning to cook them. When it was my turn to cook the staff meal, with every precious resource at my disposal in the vast five-star commercial kitchen, my only thought was pleasing these esteemed chefs. Dinner then was about approval, accomplishment and showing the utmost respect for the ingredients. It didn’t occur to me that it was a social foundation. At that time in my life, dinner was all about winning!
I met my future husband, in a bar in Berkeley nonetheless. He courted me by whisking me away to dinner at a mediocre chain restaurant. I always joke that he had no idea who he was dealing with. As I poked the food around on my plate, I told him that I could cook the dish better. Of course that led to a second date, where I did just that. He tells almost everyone he meets that this is how I won his heart (I thought it was my boobs, but no). After all, he grew up in a household of three Southern women who doted on him and cooked him whatever his little heart desired. He had just found a girl who could cook him whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it – jackpot! We soon moved in together and I cooked dinner every night, always thrilled to watch him enjoy the meal.
My only problem with this situation was that I had no ability to cook for only two people, I was used to cooking for a hundred. No matter what I did to scale it down, we always had a ton of food left. I had taken a break from working as a chef, but it felt like a piece of my soul was missing. This epic problem was solved when a group of eight teachers, straight out of college, moved in next door. One evening, one of them knocked on our door, conveniently around dinner time, to ask what he was smelling. In a flash, dinner time included a sea of men on my living room floor with plates of deliciousness, talking sports, women and music! We made a deal: they would show up with groceries and I would cook dinner. They were always happy and adored me. My life was back in order!
As time went on and my own family grew to five boys, dinner time became a time to connect, share the details of our days and laugh together. It was no longer about cooking to win hearts or earn respect. It was about time for bonding and sharing. Each of our boys takes a turn in choosing what they would like the family to have for dinner, either from our vast collection of cookery books or from a memory of a previous meal. Dinner for my family remains the center of the wheel and is the time I look forward to the most in my day.
As my boys grew older and their friends would visit, I learned that most of them did not have this experience with their families. Many of them ate fast or processed food almost every night. I had no idea that cooking and eating dinner together was not the norm. They were all missing out on a fundamental touchstone to health, family bonding and joy. I decided to join Chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation as an ambassador/evangelist and embarked on a journey to teach and encourage people to cook and enjoy meals together. I work with children and families to teach them where their food comes from and how to cook with ease. My hope is that dinner will once again become a regular part of family life.
In a country and time where obesity, diabetes, and disenfranchised family situations are prevalent, we have to get back to real food, cooking and eating together. Whether your family is comprised of a bunch of burly chefs, hungry friends or five boys and a husband, the experience of connecting, eating well and maybe even a few passionate debates can make a difference! I still aim to win, but now I have an entirely different perspective on the criteria for what winning means.