My Journey into Cooking
Our idea for Brownble initially came from my desire to teach people how to cook vegan food, and the fact that we live far enough away from the city that starting with a small group of "in person" classes was a bit complicated. That's when Carlos came along with his high tech ideas and placed the first grain of sand into what Brownble is today, not only our new site and this blog, but also our online vegan cooking classes as part of our cooking membership program. What I realized the other day was that this has actually been a huge metaphor for what my journey into cooking has been like, and now I'm looking at Brownble in a whole new different light. Today I'm sharing a bit of that story with you. By the end of this post you'll know all about the strange way my mom influenced my cooking, what I used to do as a teen every single day after school, my obsession with the French, how veganism completely changed my experience in the kitchen, and why cooking scrambled eggs under a tree made me into the vegan cook I am today. Yes, I said scrambled eggs!
As you probably know by now, I was born into a one-parent household, and my mother who raised me all by herself had a serious physical illness that for most of her life impeded her movements, especially with her hands, neck and legs. We went through years of her walking relatively well, to months of complete bed rest, to years of her being in a wheel chair, to what I saw most of my life, her collection of crutches and canes, the latter of which could just as well have belonged to an English count - they were famous! This is a long way of saying, it was through my mom that I partly found my love of cooking, but she rarely was able to stand next to a stove. We had some help in the house, a wonderful short, chubby, beautiful, and strong woman by the name of Esther who was practically part of the family, and who would follow all the step by step instructions my mom would give her.
Here's the thing, my mom could make the best baked alaska, eggs benedict, and cheese soufflé, without ever actually holding the spatula. The only memories I actually have of her cooking something for me, were her world famous omelettes. She had that Julia Child flipping technique down!
Every week we would sit down together and plan our meals for the entire week. We would actually sit around our wooden dining room table with tons of cookbooks scattered all over the place and we would plan out meals for the next few days. According to my mom, meal planning had to include a protein, a starchy side, a raw vegetable dish and a cooked vegetable. Sauces and soups were also included sometimes, and so was dessert, and bread was served at every single meal! This made me an expert on meal and menu planning since I did this every single week from the age of 14 until she passed when I was 21. Every week we would gather the books, grab a sheet of paper and make our list of meals.
I teach you so much about meal planning in our online program, and we talk about it frequently here, but I had never stopped to think that this process of planning got me so interested in food and cooking that I quickly started to try cooking out for myself. It's where it all started.
My mom had a vast collection of cookbooks from around the world, she had endless rows of handwritten notebooks and boxes filled with notecards that would have made you think she was Martha Stewart's sister. She wrote down everything from traditional French sauce and protein pairings to diagrams of how our holiday dinner tables would be set. I still find these handwritten note cards in old books sometimes and they have diagrams, and drawings of food plating. So yeah... big shoes to fill and I started to try really really early.
At age 15 I took the first steps into what I now clearly see was my long life journey into creating Brownble: I became a student of cooking shows. Every day, without fail, after I came home from school, I would sit down to watch cooking shows (don't worry I did normal teenage stuff too!). I didn't even watch them to be able to make the dish the next day, I studied the "whys". Why you warmed up a non-stick pan with oil but a stainless steel one without any oil. When you added garlic and why you couldn't let it brown, why some baked goods worked better with baking powder and some with baking soda. I had countless recipe books and notebooks of my own, and it was video, that really made me the cook I am today. So as I sit down every week to test my recipes and plan our video shoots, film, edit and then post new videos for our members, I wonder if perhaps someone is watching and beginning their journey into cooking with me which makes my heart burst with joy! It's funny how without noticing, things really come full circle.
I can't believe I'm about to confess this, but even as a little kid, (I loved performing and speaking in accents in my school's theater productions), when I made the only dish I knew how to prepare (brownies), I would stand on my stool in the kitchen and pretend I was the host of a cooking show, explaining why the chocolate needed to be melted in a double boiler and not directly on the pot. That must have been a funny sight for my mom to see, and I'm so glad there weren't any iPhones with cameras back then! Still, here I am, doing exactly that at Brownble, every single week of my life.
The power of video was so huge for me and my cooking journey. We are such visual learners, that even in the lack of immediate practice, our brain, and even our hands, start picking up on techniques and tricks way before we've even set foot in the kitchen. Of course no journey will ever be complete if you don't turn on those burners, but it is the understanding of why we do things in the kitchen that will make us great cooks and help us be recipe free as well as avid students of good recipes. That's been our mission all along at Brownble! That you become great cooks through the power of practice and learning through video.
Enter "The French Lady"
Many years after I started watching cooking videos relentlessly, I found one voice that would teach me so much. For the life of me I cannot remember the name of the cook, or the show, probably because my mother-in-law and I simply called her "the French lady".
She was sweet, eloquent, and her recipes were so warm, cozy and down to Earth, Not the traditional and super elevated French style of cooking, but a rustic combination of ingredients, textures and a way of plating that always reminded me of being in the country with friends over a large wooden table, filled with delicious food. Now that I think of it, her style and recipes were probably all about Provençal cuisine, which is much more homey in nature.
I fell in love with this way of cooking and serving food, where it's all about the flavors, colors and textures, and much of the formality of dining is just tossed out the window, and what you're left with is a friendly way of cooking and enjoying the food.
I had watched countless videos and shows, and I'm still a fan of many of them, but I distinctly remember setting an alarm on my phone to watch "the French lady". The reason I'm telling you about her is that in order to find your way back into the kitchen and love it, you sometimes need a little guidance, but that voice you choose is so important. It should resonate with who you are and the way you want your time in the kitchen to be. In our videos at brownble, I want to show you my way of loving the time you spend in the kitchen, how simple, delicious vegan food really is, and how homey and comforting you can make it. I want to teach you how to do it, the way I learned to do it, but if my style isn't your style, by all means, I want you to find the voice that makes you want to jump off the couch and into the kitchen with mere excitement.
Part of the reason why we've gotten so disconnected from food, how our bodies feel when we eat and enjoy it, and how it's not only about the food itself but how we relate to it, is the fact that we've started using our oven for storage, and we've stepped out of the kitchen and out of the pleasure and mindfulness that comes with preparing our food. My dream for all of you is that we find a way to get back in there, and whip up our favorites, whether that is through my videos or your very own "French lady".
Enter scrambled eggs under a tree
If I think about that rustic country style way of cooking, I have to tell you about the man that really made a huge impact in my cooking and in my life, my uncle (and best friend/kind of dad figure/big brother), Aly Sujo. Aly was the best cook I've ever met. He made the best gravy and mashed potatoes, and the most unbelievable potato latkes (recipe is in our online program). He would rock anything he made, and he would cook in the craziest most disorganized and fun way. None of his plates matched and we usually grabbed the food right from the stove, plopped it on a plate and headed outside to eat sitting on a tree stump, or by a fire.
He passed away when he was way too young, but the last time I saw him, he made me scrambled eggs (this was in my pre-vegan days) in a huge cast iron pan, straight over a fire in the middle of the woods.
Food is so much more than the high-end ingredients or fancy kitchen gadgets you own. Food to me is also not about the animal-based ingredients that I once used to cook and don't anymore. Food is about the time shared with people. Those small glimpses of magical moments like making breakfast on a fire under a tree, or dumping fire-roasted veggies on a huge serving platter and have everyone dig in forgetting all etiquette but with a huge smile on their faces. It's not about the bacon, or the kobe beef, and it's not about the brussels sprouts or the veggie burgers either. It's about injecting who you are into a meal shared together. Vegetables however, have this very special way of injecting life and color into the table. All you need to do to see this, is go to a farmer's market and feel the smile creep up with the endless possibilities around you, so no matter where you are on your journey, whether you're vegan or not, pile those on, learn how to make them shine.
I cannot end this post without mentioning two of the incredible mentors that really helped me take my cooking to a whole other level after becoming vegan. Non other than the incredibly talented Heather Bell and Jenny Engel of Spork Foods. Suffice it to say their cooking inspires me daily, partly because of their beautiful way of teaching and talking about food. I of course also need to mention my teachers and mentors at Rouxbe cooking school, who really pushed me hard into understanding advanced techniques, and inspired me to practice every single day until my little fingers were numb from chopping. To them, my mother, the French lady, Aly, the cooking shows that have inspired me, and all the cookbook authors that "sit" on my shelves, I owe everything!
I hope my journey inspires you to start your very own adventures in the kitchen. It's such a magical place!