The Cook’s Tale: A Journey to Culinary Competence

It pains me to say it, but I think my culinary skills may well have peaked thirty seven years ago.

Back then I knew my way around a slow cooker. I was au fait with a béchamel sauce and I could squeeze a lemon like a pro.

These days I sit around with my girlfriends listening to them swap recipes and cooking tips and I’m mesmerised and awed.

Somewhere between childhood and Executive Youth, I lost my way (or should that be whey?).

I can do the basics; I know how to make onions go brown and mushrooms go grey. My scrambled eggs are more than passable and my Macaroni Cheese borders on the sublime but beyond that, I know I’m no good.

Hard to believe that I was once Junior Cook of the Year 1980 regional finalist (East Anglia).

Cooking has never really been my thing though.  My mum did try to teach me all she knew. She’d buy the Family Circle magazine every week and we’d have a go at the recipes.

Most of these recipes started with a tin of Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup and ended with a glass of Andrews Liver Salts.

It was thanks to my mum’s determination for me to succeed at something – anything! – that I was invited to those heats in Norwich. She’d filled in the application.

The whole family trooped up the A12, our Triumph Herald packed to the gunnels with our pots, baking tins and best floral pyrex dishes.

The competition took place in a nondescript hotel. Each contestant had his (not many of those) or her (quite a lot more of these) own stand with a Tricity cooker, a sink and a worktop.

I was the second youngest contestant at ten years old. Most of the others were at catering college and wore chefs whites.

I wore dungarees.

Nouvelle Cuisine was the fad of the day. I overheard the others mention Anton Mosimann as they spoke to the judges about their dishes.

By the sounds of things, Anton Mosimann wouldn’t be wildly impressed with my Frankfurter Special: a high salt, processed frankfurter with a sliver of cheddar inserted into its belly and wrapped in bacon. 

Scallops, whatever they were, and tofu, whatever that was, seemed to be the ingredients du jour.

Nevertheless, I pressed on with my spectacular main course: Chicken Pie with Cheese Scone Topping. It was not nouvelle. On occasions it was barely cuisine.

Mum had heard the chicken pie recipe on the Jimmy Young show on Radio 2 and added the cheese to make it original.

I had cooked it twice weekly in the run up to the competition.

You’d have thought, with all that practice, I couldn’t have gone wrong. But, in spite of my mother’s insistence to the contrary, I was not, indeed am not, a natural cook.

I left out the cheese.

My mum, sitting on the front row of the assembled audience, gesticulated wildly until an official, suspecting she was having a seizure, went to her aid.

Where I thought she’d been playing the air ukulele, she was actually playing the air cheese grater.

The official came over to me to relay the urgent news that my dish was lacking its star ingredient.

The bloody pie thing was all ready to go in the oven, its scone mix patently free of cheese.

I came last. Some tiny souffle with a jewel coloured ‘jus’ won the day, but the starving judges all agreed that my plate was the ‘most filling.’

The experience put me off cooking and I determined to shack up with someone who could take responsibility in the kitchen.

This summer, that someone went on a work trip to South Africa leaving me in charge of my first ever Sunday roast.

With the help of Jamie Oliver’s Youtube Food Tube channel and the cheerful, no-nonsense Kerryann, who fronts the roast chicken episode, I got through the ordeal.

Hurrah for the internet tutorial! It is the twenty-first century equivalent of having your mum on the front row playing the air cheese grater and miming each step of the process.

My breasts were deliciously succulent. My spuds an instant legend.

I always knew I liked Jamie Oliver.

I wonder if I could talk him into a Frankfurter Special?

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1 comment

  1. Your Frankfurter Special reminds me of the”Cheese Bites” and “Pork Sausages Wrapped in Bacon” I used to buy at 7 Eleven.

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