What it's really like when you marry a chef

I adore my husband but a relationship with a professional cook brings its own unexpected set of issues

Published August 18, 2011 7:01PM (EDT)

Whenever people find out I'm married to a chef, they always say just about the same thing: "Oh, lucky!" Well, I feel extraordinarily lucky to be married to Danny, the man who makes me laugh all morning. Danny? Oh yes.

But a chef?

Generally, this is how "Oh, lucky!" is supposed to translate: "It must be luxurious to have a professional in the house to cook for you all the time." And well, it's true that Danny loves to cook. Loves isn't even the word. I think of Woody Allen in "Annie Hall": He lurves it; he loffs it. He breathes it. By the end of a very rare day where he hasn't cooked anything, his hands twitch with the urge to chop onions and sweat them in a sauté pan. He needs to use his hands to understand the world. This is what makes sense to him. But after prepping and chopping and standing and feeling the heat rise to his face when the wine hits the pan for 12 hours straight, he doesn't actually feel the need to cook at home.

Granted, breakfast is amazing on his days off. Roasted sweet potato hash, homemade chorizo, perfectly poached eggs. But then come the evenings, and dinner parties.

We have an agreement about those. He only has to sit still at the table for 30 minutes before he can get up and start pacing. You see, the chef never sits down. When he works, he gets out of his car and does not sit down once before he goes back to the car. He walks and chops and never once stops. Whenever we're in situations that call for polite conversation at the table well into the evening, he can't do it. He needs to move. If people think he's being rude, I explain: He's a chef. He never sits still. (Neither does our daughter. She watches him and moves like him.)

And then there is the after-dinner, and I'm not talking about drinks and coffee. No matter how many times I ask, Danny cannot move the dirty skillets from the stove to the sink to clean them. Since he's also incapable of cooking a dish with just one skillet, the stovetop is a field of crusted, overheated pans after we eat. Always. For the first year we were together, I cleaned up after him, dutifully. Then, the remnants of the feminist I used to be rose up and demanded that I leave them. Why am I still cleaning up after him? Come on.

Lately, however, I have resigned myself to the fact that that I will always have that cleanup duty, because this is who he is. For more than 20 years, Danny has cooked in a commercial kitchen, where a dishwasher swoops in to grab the handles of the dirty pans and replace them with a clean stack. It must be muscle memory for him, a magical non-thinking that lets the dirty pans stay there until they disappear and clean themselves.

And really, most of the time, I'm making the meals anyway.

But don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. I adore him, and I adore cooking. When we go to friends' houses, when I walk into the kitchen and see they are behind on dinner, I'm the one who starts mashing the avocados for guacamole, shredding the pulled pork, heating the tortillas over a flame. When we first met, I would have asked Danny to do it. These days, I know my way around the kitchen, too. He taught me.

And it's the daily cooking -- the breakfast on the table, fast, before the kid goes to preschool, the lunch I make for the two of us after we have been working all morning on our new cookbook, the baking I experiment with every afternoon, the kid dinner at 5:30, the adult dinner at 11 -- that has made me a confident cook. It's a confidence that I've turned into a career of writing about cooking. It's a confidence that's rooted in the fact that he's my favorite, my most honest, my most supportive taste tester. It's a confidence rooted in him inspiring me.

Now, five years after I fell in love with the man who came into my kitchen and made me elaborate meals at midnight, I'm still grateful, even for all the quirks that come from him being a chef. His favorite thing to do at the restaurant, and maybe in the world, is to scrub out the walk-in before his staff restocks it. If this means that he attacks the laundry with the same vigor, doing five to seven loads in one day, but not putting any of them away? Hey, at least we're halfway there. If he argues with me at the grocery store about what we can include in one of our cookbook recipes ("Doesn't everyone know what galangal is?"), and I have to talk him down with some common sense ("Think a Safeway in Kansas, hon") at least I'm learning about galangal in the process.

And the thing is, we're lucky because we know how to give each other what we need. Writers need to sit as much as chefs need to move. In order to craft sentences, I have to ... procrastinate and look out the window. This doesn't make sense to my chef husband -- when you have a dish to cook, you just start cooking -- but he reads every one of my pieces for me and then looks at me as if in awe. He never begrudges me my silence and stillness.

Like just now. He came home a few minutes ago, wired from work, itching to talk and chat and play. He saw me typing this, came over to kiss me, and then he gave me the space to finish. And soon, we'll have dinner together. The dinner I already have on the stove.

Shauna James Ahern's first book, "Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back and How You Can Too" is now out in paperback.

By Shauna James Ahern

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