How One Chef Created a Dialogue Around Home Cooking
Magic only looks like magic until you learn the tricks.
December 19, 2017 ● 3 min read
Our partners at PAM Cooking Spray are all about giving you the confidence to find your voice in the kitchen. With the right tools and the best ingredients, there’s no limit to what you can create—and for most, the inspiration that gets us to that first step probably comes from a chef.
Not many of us walk around thinking about ideal fermentation conditions for kimchi, or the sugar content of potatoes, but chefs do. Their lives are consumed by their craft in a way that only great artists' or athletes' can be. Whether it’s a life-altering dish at your favorite restaurant, a cookbook or on social media, chefs provide us with a never-ending flow of possibilities—all of which reminded of us our friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chef Michael Scelfo, whose posts virtually close the gap between his kitchen and yours.
By Richie Nakano | Photograph by Huge Galdones
Why do we go to restaurants?
No, really. What do we get from it?
Food, yes. Okay. We go to restaurants to celebrate, to indulge, not to get schooled. From a chef’s perspective, eating out can be research or a visit to see old friends—but what do they teach the average person about ourselves, and our palates? What do we bring back to our own kitchens as a result? Does the meal you had Saturday night have an impact on what you whip up at home on Tuesday?
The line separating home cooks and professional chefs can feel vastly larger than it actually is. The food created in restaurant kitchens comes with degrees of difficulty not usually taken on at home; and one could argue that home cooking has a warmth that professional kitchens struggle to translate. Despite countless food blogs, cooking videos, and meal kits designed to take out the guesswork, the divide remains. Calmly cooking up a storm has become shorthand for having your life together, but how can one be expected to come home after work and create what an entire kitchen of cooks achieves across two different shifts?
This is what makes chef Michael Scelfo so interesting. As a father of three who also runs two of Cambridge's busiest restaurants [Alden & Harlow, Waypoint] with another on the way [Longfellow], one wouldn’t immediately assume that he had a lot of free time to cook at home. His Instagram tells a different story.
While waiting for Alden & Harlow to open, he began using the hashtag #dinnerathome to chronicle the dish testing process in his personal kitchen. The posts were refreshingly intimate; bright vegetables heaped on family-style platters, step-by-step meat breakdowns, grinning kids gathering around him. It was like being invited to the Scelfo house every night for dinner, and eventually, it eclipsed a mere hashtag and became something people talked about. Conversations began to spark in the comments, erasing the mystical divide between this chef and the people who would become his guests.
Scelfo’s dishes are, and always have been, an effortless blend of aspirational and humble. Nothing too flashy or out of reach, but featuring the kinds of quiet finesse and flavors that belie his years of experience. Grilled carrots are simply really good carrots from the market—but then they happen to be grilled and seasoned perfectly. Eating them doesn’t make you think, I should rip this off. It makes you think, I should eat more carrots like this. He’s managed to separate ego from the ingredients.
“It’s not really about how many weird things I can get on the plate or how much I can tweak the ingredients,” he says. “I think there’s something really authentic about cooking food that’s rooted in connections with people.”
The approach gives Scelfo a unique voice in an industry crammed with chefs trying to tell their stories all at once. The beauty of it is that no family palate is replicable; by experiencing their rituals and favorites through dishes, you’re encouraged not to mimic it, but to form your own repertoire. The secret is being different—it wouldn’t make sense to make Alinea’s edible balloon for dessert on a weeknight (unless that’s how you roll, in which case: whoa).
“Cooking is very personal for me. The meals I cook at home, or that I have at the holidays, or when traveling with friends, those meals often become new menu items,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, when something goes on the menu, it comes with a story about a barbecue I did at home or something that I ate with my family.”
When asked what advice he would give to a home cook aching to achieve #dinnerathome heights, he kept it simple.
“Don’t be afraid of seasoning. Season early and often,” he says. “What separates good food from great food is knowing how to season, when to season, and making sure every aspect of a dish is seasoned. More than anything, knowing how to layer and create depth is the most important skill. It’ll help you get the most out of your ingredients and give you the best opportunities to make your best food.”
Home cooking is always about more than the meal—but when that’s on point, you’ve already won.