Five weeks into a six-month study exchange in Europe, coronavirus sent my 20-year-old son back to Melbourne. He moved into his first share house, with three friends. Because restrictions meant I couldn’t go inside, we went for a socially distanced walk to catch up.
“What do you think of my haircut?” he asked, taking his beanie off to reveal a shaved head. With his beard and height, I told him he looked like the Melbourne AFL ruckman Max Gawn.
“He looks like Max Gaunt,” my wife said when she saw the photo of her stepson. “He’ll get the virus, he’s looking so skinny. What’s he eating?”
I walked to the supermarket with him that day and watched him buy jarred sauces, despite what the anti-jar sauce YouTube campaigner Nats What I Reckon was expletively telling everyone.
“He’s got to learn to cook!” my wife implored me. As though I could just wave a wand or shoot a YouTube clip.
I messaged my son and told him of my wife’s radical idea, but he wasn’t interested. Until I told him cooking would be cheaper than buying jarred stuff. I said I’d teach him, then remembered I couldn’t go into his house.
I taught him over video calls. First, spaghetti bolognese, the fast-food you make at home. He needed to feed himself and three male housemates, who were just as tall and Max Gaunt. There were several beards. I told him to double the recipe – two kilos of beef, 100 tomatoes, maybe an ox.
The lesson started and he had ear buds in but no ingredients out, not even a pot. Blokes wandered in and out of the kitchen, fascinated.
“Let’s start with the garlic and onion,” I suggested and, half an hour later, he finished chopping them. It sounded like a road crew working, with a Bluetooth speaker pumping dance music and blokes off-camera laughing and horse-playing like actual horses.
Another 45 minutes later, we both tossed mince in our pots. Then, two hours later, a photo from my son arrived: his three, 20-year-old mates sitting around a table eating the bolognese my son had cooked. Every horse happy, and the caption “Loving the pasta!”
His confidence was high. I put him through the same routine for butter chicken. Several photos were exchanged while he was at the supermarket, figuring out which spices to buy. He was worried, too, that it was getting expensive. I reminded him that part of the cooking lesson deal was that I’d pay him back for his ingredients. He messaged back “forgot” and reached for the top shelves.
Wok measurements were sent and confirmed and, once he was happy his had the right dimensions, he got the butter chicken plated up to the same grins from his horse-mates.
Then, due to a combination of revised restrictions, someone coming back to live at his house, someone else needing a room in a house in another state (or something), he moved back to his mum’s for a while.
“Do you still want to learn to cook?” I messaged him. He said he did. I thought for sure his mum would take over. But, because restrictions then allowed it, she took off to her beach house with her husband to work, so my son ended up cooking for himself and his older sister. To her amazement, he nailed a beef and broccoli stir fry.
Then came his biggest test: Dad’s Chicken Dish.
I was excited. It was a recipe I’d mastered from my signed copy of Stefano de Pieri’s Modern Italian Food, now a family institution. I was grateful that, even during coronavirus separation, my son and I were set to have a moment of intimacy.
But I could have told the kid to get his chicken chopped at the butchers.
“This is it, I’m not doing any more cooking,” he told me on screen, his sister laughing in the background. His stare sent her out for her daily walk.
“Have you got kitchen scissors?” I asked him.
“This knife’s all I’ve got,” he said through gritted teeth. I called my wife to the screen.
“He’s struggling with the bird,” I said, stating the clucking obvious.
“Keep going,” she encouraged him. “Yep, it’s hard … No scissors? Yeah, your Dad should have told you to get it done at the butcher … ”
Somewhere in the clatter of knives, expletives, chicken dangling, carrots and garlic chopped and olives de-pipped, I forgot to tell him to chop up the potatoes.
“Oh, I’m never cooking again.”
Later, with his sister, he ate his first Dad’s Chicken Dish not in Dad’s house. A success – the picture and caption said so.
“Very yummy! Sorry for getting so stressed about it.”
He’s in another share house now, where he has to cook once a week. He served his crew butter chicken first time round. It’ll likely be a while before Dad’s Chicken Dish comes out, but at least Dad’s in his cooking somewhere.
Dad’s spag bol
Advice for my son in his share house: Throw all this in a pot while pretending to be Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.
As many tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil as it takes to really cover the base of that big, heavy-based pan.
500g of mince – for four people. Double mince and everything below if more than four. Why not?
Two tins of whole tomatoes (one’s stingy) and chop up any scraps of tomato in the fridge.
Three cloves of garlic, chopped up itty bitty.
One onion, red or white, chopped up small.
Two tablespoons of tomato paste.
Fresh basil, chopped up small or in there whole.
Fresh oregano if you’ve got it, otherwise, the dried stuff.
Diced carrots, diced zucchini, diced celery. Diced but, son, it doesn’t have to be an exact dice shape. Any of those veggies or none. Up to you.
A splash of red wine is essential. Not really, but why not?
When I’m feeling extra Liotta, I whack in a tablespoon of sugar. Please consider.
Top it with fresh chopped up parsley and parmesan.
The trick is to simmer it for as long as you can without burning. To ensure there are leftovers, use more beef. Make sure there are leftovers because the sauce will taste twice as good the next day. Put your name on the tub of leftovers.