What I am about to reveal will not paint a flattering self-portrait. It will not give you the warm-fuzzies or make you want to become my new very best friend forever (v.b.f.f.). Yet, it’s a story that plays out daily in kitchens across the country and undoubtedly is the source of “complications” in many relationships. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m willing to own up to it, for you see:
I am an alpha cook.
There. I’ve said it. What’s an alpha cook, you ask? In a nutshell, it’s somebody who must. be. in. charge. in. the. kitchen. A dictator in an apron. A cleanliness- and order-obsessed bitch with a whisk. The person who’s not going to be nominated anytime soon for the Retro Haus Frau of the Year award. In short, me.
It wasn’t until I had to share my kitchen with a beta cook, we’ll call him B for short, that I became aware of my, shall we say, obsessive tendencies, over matters of the culinary variety. As B has learned, I will likely turn down any well-intended offers to help me put together a meal, but I will happily bask in your praise for my cooking and let you clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Somewhere out there, some of you will be nodding your head, chuckling in recognition in a slightly guilty, knowing way. Fellow alpha cooks, you know who you are. As for the rest of you, hopefully, I’ll still be able to look you in the eye after you read this.
Before B and I moved in together, I had many an opportunity to observe his bachelor-like ways in his own kitchen habitat. Allow me to elaborate. B’s idea of a home-cooked meal usually meant waiting until he got home to dive into the container of prepared food he’d just picked up from Whole Paycheck; sometimes, he would even go all out and put it on a real plate before eating it. His so-dull-they-couldn’t-slice-an-egg knives were haphazardly lying in a drawer together with all five other cooking utensils he owned, located across the way from the catch-all silverware drawer, where you could easily spend 10 minutes spelunking for a fork. His granite-topped counters camouflaged enough sticky food spills and crumbs to keep a pack of rats fat and happy for weeks. And attempting to use any of his low-grade, poorly-cared-for pots and pans was a certain exercise in frustration and futility, as anything and everything cooked in them would stick to the surface as if it had been super-glued in place. For B, dish washing generally meant filling the sink with lukewarm, slightly soapy water and letting dirty dishes pile up over several hours before finally pulling them out of the then-dingy, cold water for a quick rinse. No wonder, I often hesitated before accepting a glass of water, knowing where those glasses had been. And then there was the refrigerator, whose murky depths held many a science project in-the-making. Once something went in, it was promptly forgotten about until a) it funked up the fridge, b) it started growing fuzzy green hair that was impossible to ignore, or c) it was removed by me, with an accompanying sigh and roll of the eyes. Usually all of the above.
Over time, I managed to make incremental improvements to B’s pantry, like convincing him to buy a toaster instead of using the oven to toast (read: dry out) bread, giving him a sharp, new knife (which unfortunately quickly got tossed into the aforementioned catch-all drawer), and providing a few spices besides salt and pepper, mostly for those times I was forced to cook dinner in his kitchen and had gotten tired of packing my own mini-kitchen on wheels.
We laughed and joked about these things, until the day came when there would no longer be a “my kitchen” and “his kitchen” but “our kitchen.” For my own sanity (and let’s be honest, his safety), I knew I had to lay down some rules.
As most smart beta cooks have figured out, it’s easiest and most harmonious to just humor their alpha cook and play by the kitchen rules. In our case, it doesn’t mean B always falls into lockstep and certainly doesn’t mean he’s not in need of some “helpful” reminders and guidance along the way, but overall, we’ve reached a kitchen détente that generally works, as long as he follows the rules, that is (insert evil laugh).
Rule #1: nobody but me uses my knives. If you were to ask chefs about their most prized and indispensable kitchen tools, I am pretty certain they’d agree that sharp, high-quality knives are at the top of the list. Many a time, I have cooked in someone else’s kitchen and nearly cut a finger off after having been forced to use a knife that had clearly never met a sharpener. I meticulously care for my knives and unless I’m absolutely convinced that someone else has the same exacting standards, their mitts will never touch my cold, German steel. So far, B has wisely complied with this rule.
Rule #2: if you use it, wash it and put it back where you found it. In culinary school, and in restaurants everywhere, the practice of mise en place (French for “everything in its place”) is practically pounded into you. It’s about being prepared, having all your ingredients and equipment prepped and at the ready, to maximize efficiency in the kitchen. Not only is this concept critical for cooking, it can usefully extend to the cooking space itself. In my kitchen, my knives are stored in an easily accessible knife block; my colanders and most-used tools are within reach of the stovetop; my prep bowls are always in the same cabinet on the same shelf; my offset spatula and mandoline are always in the same drawer; and so on. When I need it, I know where to find it, and I expect it to be there. Cooking is a lot easier when you don’t have to put out an APB to locate your tools and equipment.
Rule #3: clean up after yourself. Should be a given, right? To me, nothing’s worse than walking into a dirty kitchen. Who wants to cook when the sink is filled with dirty dishes or the countertops are covered in remnants from the last meal? (can you tell I don’t have kids?). Is it too much to ask to wipe up your coffee grounds after grinding beans in the morning? Or take a sponge to the food stains and crumbs on the stovetop? Or load the dishwasher right away after the meal, instead of letting the dishes languish in the sink? I think not. B and I are still negotiating this one. He’s come a long way from the bachelor pad of yore, but only with some regular, and sometimes vigorous, reminders.
Survival of the Beta
By now, you’re probably getting a pretty good idea of what it can be like to live with an alpha cook, particularly one who’s somewhat obsessed with cleanliness and order in the kitchen. While there are some advantages to living with an alpha, such as getting to enjoy complicated dishes that a beta wouldn’t dream of attempting to make on his own, it’s not always easy. As the New York Times pointed out in a piece on this very topic a few years back, it “can also mean putting up with small culinary humiliations and an unending patter of condescending remarks.” I try not to go to the bad place when B is cooking in the kitchen, but sometimes it’s hard for us alphas to just stand back and watch the betas operate on our turf. We see you doing things the hard way and want to share our shortcuts (or roll our eyes because you didn’t figure them out for yourself); we find it hard to modulate the exasperation in our voices when we watch you burn the garlic for the umpteenth time; we don’t bother to hide our irritation when yet again, we’re hunting around for the kitchen tool that you borrowed and didn’t put back where it belongs; and of course, we feel reassured about our decision not to let you use our chef’s knives when we see how you abuse your own. And then there are those non-endearing moments when you go into full dude mode and say things like “where do you keep the x” – recently, it was tupperware containers, because somehow, even after months of sharing the same kitchen, you hadn’t yet found the entire cabinet full of them.
I know, sometimes I make myself cringe too. (And if B’s family ends up reading this, I hope they remember I have some redeeming qualities…)
While it can sometimes be challenging for an alpha cook to peacefully coexist with a beta cook (and surely vice versa), I think there’s probably some yin and yang to the arrangement as well. Hopefully, in time, this alpha will learn how to be better at sharing and playing nice in the culinary sandbox; and perhaps her beta will come to appreciate the benefits of keeping a clean, mostly spotless kitchen.