When I’m at my restaurants, I instinctively cook to impress. I’m an Indian chef making Indian street food, and I can’t help but let Western-centric technique and aesthetic creep into my preparation and plating. I feel the all-seeing social media eye that’s endlessly judging, commenting, and reposting, knowing that its approval can make or break my restaurant. That reflex you have to ooh when a dish is placed before you and thumb Instagram open on your phone? Well, I see you doing that from the kitchen and it confirms that what my food looks like is just as important as what it tastes like.
It took a global pandemic and being stuck at home for me to cook for flavor not fanfare. It happened when I decided to do a weekly live cooking show on, of all places, Instagram. For the first one I picked a simple curry recipe to demo since that’s what I was making for dinner. As my wife held the iPhone and my teenage daughter looked on, it dawned on me that neither they nor anyone at home were looking for someone to wow them with culinary virtuosity. All they wanted from me was a delicious meal—and the confidence to recreate it themselves.
In the outpouring of comments, what struck me was how people loved the fun I was having, that I wasn’t trying to “chef up” dishes, and that I was dealing with the same challenges as them. As I continued to cook and post online, making crispy onion pakoras and spicy Goan fish curry, I found myself doing it not for likes but to bring comfort to others. The pressure to impress, which felt so crucial as a chef, now seemed meaningless as a dad, a husband, and a home cook.
When my restaurants reopen, I don’t want to cook like a chef anymore. I realize that the way a dish is reviewed or photographed isn’t supposed to make you feel a certain way—the act of cooking is. And I had forgotten what that felt like.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit