Learn to Cook (in 21 Easy Steps)


  1. Stock: She was dark, smallish, slash-haired. I met her at junior college. She didn’t belong there, and moved on quickly. From a rich LA canyon. But heroin. We’d drive bright twisted roads to her family’s house. Her Renault Le Car, her Patti Smith, her unfiltered Parliaments, her plush-curtained room. We spooned to G-l-o-r-i-a. In her kitchen she’d tiptoe over huge stock pots to skim the schmaltz she’d save for livers, latkes. She knew things I didn’t.
  1. Nose: The grove was between my new house and my middle school. I chose it every day. Michael walked home through it with me once. We stopped. Sunk to dark sinky soil. Half-rotted oranges all around. A smell I could still eat.
  1. Experiment: At what point of adolescence did I secretly roll Wonder bread into balls, hand-sweat sticky, then eat them in the closet? How long did this phase last?
  1. Fat is Flavor: I made a cream cheese-melted onion omelette for my bewildered parents, the one I’d order over and over at Dolores’s diner with my new pals at 14. It read as high-living to me in the way that warm fatted things against sweet acid did early on. learn to cook 2Though I didn’t know how, I made it. It was sun-stuffed, animate. I had to.
  1. Pan-Sear: Her family took me to my first Thai food. They all knew what to order.
  1. Hunger: Tall Terry of the tightest jeans ate raw red pepper strips every lunch hour of high school. Said when she got hungry she just thought of something else.
  1. Appetite: Hamid wore shirtsleeves in opalescent colors, had great legs. But the mind-bending crust of his Persian rice was passion. Wendy was a cool, no-nonsense butch (but with a boyfriend). We met in junior high. She accused me once of going to her house after school for the tuna melts she’d make on wheat, which were exceptional.
  1. Innovate: At first, canned spinach with butter and soy sauce was something I could make myself with instant rice, and I did. Imagine when I first realized fresh vegetables.
  1. Keep Your Knives Against Your Knuckles: If my father, who’d come occasionally for us on weekends, won at the horse track he’d take us to, we’d get steakhouse dinners (I loved the melty grey chain of meat around the prime rib most), if not, we’d get his hot silence the whole ride home.
  1. Texture: Once she broiled a two-inch salmon steak, bone in, with oil and salt. The crack of blistered skin between my teeth kept sounding.
  1. Memorize: She wrote me long notes on the back of car wash flyers from Sarah Lawrence. Her burrito-stained pages.
  1. Mise en Place: My Swedish great-aunt Karin has set her table with rows of heavy crystal glasses.learn to cook 3 At her direction, sixteen of us stand and do one vast icy vodka shot to start the many-coursed meal. I will want to do this every dinner after.
  1. Technique: So young to be a nurse. So serious. She made small, bold African prints in our college etching class. I made Chinese chicken salad for us once, a first real recipe that melted sugar into hot vinegar, had you crisp noodles in deep-oil, poach chicken, slice fresh hot chilies wicked thin. My kitchen was chaos. The dish, superb. It made the sun do bouncy shapes on the walls. The nurse looked lost so many ways in front of her plate. I kept eating that salad all day in wonder.
  1. Go Regional: At cooking school we pumped out obligatory Euro-classics under Chef Albert’s tutelage for the school’s buffets: heavily glazed meats, wan pastry, vegetable afterthoughts. But in demo class, where he had more leeway, Albert made the room hum once with fat cut peppers, fistfuls of garlic, sherry, and stemmy thyme: his beloved Basque Chicken. This gave me such hope.
  1. Heat: My brother and I would wait shoulder to shoulder for canned chili to boil, then top it with Velveeta cheese, red onions. It fed us. Why do I feel all hot-faced to tell it?
  1. Seconds: A smart crush watches me open a can of Hormel’s in the freeway-lit kitchen of my first apartment and says, ‘You eat that?’
  1. Fricassée: At some tented SF fundraiser, over strange catered food and too much wine, Alice Waters circles the tables, stops at me, says the name of my restaurant and then, ‘Oh, yes…’ expectantly. My head is stewed. I can’t think of one proper thing to say. 
  1. Instinct: The champagne and the heat and the warm gougères at the party loosen us. The updo’d older woman with huge painted eyes leans in and confides that one big loss of age for her is pubic hair. Where has hers gone? I remember a moment, my first job, at a bookstore, standing at the register feeling every follicle of hair push hard against my linen skirt. It felt a lot like power. learn to cook 4On lunch hour we’d suss out cheap real food I hadn’t known before: falafel, pastrami rye, noodle bowls. This felt a lot like power, too.
  1. Lingo: The word for not always desiring that correct sit-down meal, for wanting to scavenge mindlessly instead. And the word for how you learned that.
  1. Surprise: I land with my mother, daughter, and girlfriend at a cottage in Italy ravaged by the long trip. I’m the first to wake, mid-night, and in the rooty must of a stone kitchen I heat a huge black pan to blazing, add olive oil, bolted bitter greens from the garden, garlic, onion, sink water, a can of white beans, dried chilies, rough-knifed ham: the few things the owner has stocked for our arrival. My family rises like the summoned, rings the table silently; they eat and keep eating. It’s dark out still, some holding nether-hour. At 44, twenty years after cooking school, fifteen years into running my own restaurant, I think to myself for the first time, I know how to cook.
  1. Sharp Knives: When I say I’m hungry, I mean I need to eat.



Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.

Dana Tommasino’s essays have appeared in Narrative, Brevity, and Seneca Review. She is the chef/owner of Gardenias, a floating restaurant/pop-up in San Francisco, and the former chef/owner—for 22 years—of Woodward’s Garden, the first restaurant of its kind in SF’s now hot Mission District. She also curates and hosts readings. She received her Master’s degree in literature from Mills College and holds a culinary degree from the California Culinary Academy. She lives in San Francisco with her family and her fierce terrier, Chickpea. She’s on the Twitter and Instagram as @figmentspot. More from this author →