When Creating the Perfect Dish Gets in the Way of Having Fun

Last week was a crushing one, food wise. After a few fancy food fails, I’m feeling like I need to take a break, stop pretending I’m a secret vegetarian chef, and serve up PB&Js and bags of chips for a while.

I can be a really competitive person. At least over things I feel that I’m good at, such as playing word-themed board games and cooking. This past weekend, I participated in Top Chef-type event here in Madrid at Mr. Dame in Spain’s place of work. The event was hosted by a real live chef, in a real live industrial kitchen. For the first warm-up challenge, the chef showed us a bowl of salmorejo, a typical Spanish cold soup that is made of tomatoes, white bread, garlic and little olive oil. Us competitors were tasked with replicating the chef’s bowl, in consistency and taste. I stood in front of a $1,000 blender and made my first mistake by throwing in a whole clove of garlic. We were only allowed two tomatoes each and once I gave my mixture the first taste, holy garlic, I knew I didn’t have a chance of winning. And accordingly, I did not. Hours, later at the end of the second challenge, the chef declared my lentils woefully undercooked. I suppose I live a pretty charmed life if that’s the worst thing someone has said to me lately, but, I’m embarrassed to say, his words stung. For like a week. I cook lentils all the time, and here I thought they were supposed to have a bite to them. I went home feeling deflated from an event that was supposed to be fun. And disappointed at myself that I allowed my competitive side to overcome my fun-loving side.

A few days later, I hosted a little birthday dinner for an American friend. I decided I’d make mushroom and ricotta ravioli in a rich mushroom broth. This, of course, involved me making homemade ricotta, and homemade pasta. Because I don’t like things to be easy and it’s a bonus if the preparation and cooking processes are so sweaty and messy that I essentially burn off all the calories that I am about to consume. (Actually, I enjoyed all the ravioli making, and I love making Smitten Kitchen’s rich homemade ricotta). By the time the guests arrived, I had dozens of cute little ravioli laid out on a floured cookie sheet, ready for a quick boiling water bath. When I went into the kitchen at 9:30 pm to start cooking them (it’s Spain, ya’ll, we eat late here) I saw they were essentially melted. Putting them in the fridge for a half hour didn’t work.  When I peeled the foil off the top of the cookie sheet the semi-perfect little raviolis lost part of their dough and burst open. Julia Child famously said “No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize.” I wish I could have channeled that attitude and confidently served my guests “deconstructed ravioli” rather than saying sorry for the ravioli carnage I hoist before them at 10:45pm.

But while I was getting mad at myself for leaving doughy squares sitting out for hours in my warm kitchen, all of our guests were having a good time. There was a lot of wine consumed, a lot of laughing, and even a Remix to Ignition sing-a-long. Most importantly, the birthday girl was having a blast. A neighbor from downstairs came up and asked us to keep it down. “I like to party as well,” he said in broken English, “but it’s Monday.” An R. Kelly group sing and a noise complaint, I mean, that’s a good party, amiright? And there I was worried that my food wasn’t up to restaurant quality.

One time in college, my boyfriend and I hosted a big dinner party. He liked to make complicated recipes even more than me, so he went to work on a crock pot brisket (Food Network difficulty rating of five stars) that required one to make dough just to seal the lid of the crock pot. Then you throw the dough away! Everything took so ridiculously long, that we didn’t serve dinner until after 1am. Such a food disaster, but a really great party and a lovely memory.

So when did my cooking obsession get in the way of having fun? After last week’s party while I was picking dried pasta bits out of everything in the kitchen, Mr. Dame in Spain told me to remember that dinner party guests likely won’t remember what food was served, but rather, if they had a good time. I argued that the food is at least a little important, otherwise why call it a “dinner party” it could just be a “fun party,” or to simplify things, a “party.” Then he sent me a New York Times column the next day called In the End, It’s Not About the Food  in which the author argues that having dinner ready on time, making guests feel welcome and a little special is much more important than trying to wow with a new cooking technique being used by top chefs in Japan or whatever.

Now um, usually, I don’t do this, but, uh…

I vow to not let kitchen disasters get in the way of a good time.

The Dame in Spain


These ravioli held so much promise when they were just a thin sheet of dough.
These ravioli held so much promise when they were just a thin sheet of dough.
A dollop of homemade ricotta atop mushrooms.
A dollop of homemade ricotta atop mushrooms.
I will be picking bits of flour out of every crevice in my kitchen for months to come.
I will be picking bits of flour out of every crevice in my kitchen for months to come.
A pretty little bite of what the final dish was supposed to look like. Instead, they were like decapitated versions of this.
A pretty little bite of what the final dish was supposed to look like. Instead, they were decapitated versions of this.




  1. I love being an adventurous chef, but it can be a tightrope to walk haha I have been successful with gnocchi and sushi, but this week I am trying tamales!

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