‘You’re doing WHAT?! Better get the Rennies ready!’ That was the standard response of friends when I told them I was doing a cookery course. After all, I’m known for having an oven that’s been broken since December 2014 and I’ve made do with a convection microwave ever since. And I can’t remember the last time I had a dinner party.
In my defence, cooking meals for one since divorce and catering for my extremely fussy son means food has taken on a functional rather than a joyful quality. But if I’m honest, I was anxious about cooking before that and have always found it overwhelming. These life events just further cemented my desire to avoid cooking wherever possible.
There is such a thing as mageirocophobia, or the fear of cooking, and I feel I have a form of this (I often wonder if it’s connected to my depression and general anxiety levels). Experts say that like other phobias, it can definitely impact quality of life. In my case I’d say it has. I feel massively guilty that my son doesn’t see me cook much, especially as we are all supposed to be promoting healthy eating in kids. Don’t get me wrong – he’s not malnourished and loves good food but I certainly feel sad at times that he hasn’t had the whole ‘mother in apron cooking at the stove’ experience.
It’s impacted me in other ways, too. Not so long ago I was in a relationship where my partner did all the cooking. At first this was fine but eventually he started to resent it (he once said he felt like my wife!). I know that avoiding cooking can come across as laziness but it really wasn’t this; I was genuinely anxious about cooking. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a perfectionist and was deeply concerned it would all go wrong or that he’d hate what I made him. Whatever it was, it was stopping me from cooking and I wouldn’t want to get into that situation again in any future relationships.
Experts say that treatment for mageirocophobia should begin with education. That made sense – tapping in to someone else’s expertise and enthusiasm might help to get my fears under control. That’s when I decided to attend a kitchen confidence course at London’s Food at 52 cookery school.
I turned up at the first session already worrying. I worried that people might laugh at my inability to know how to properly chop an onion and would end up lopping the top off a finger. I worried that I’d put too much salt in a dish - or too little. I worried that I’d cook for someone and they’d end up hating it (or even being unwell).
I explained I was here for my ‘culinary ineptitude’ but I didn’t reveal the depth of my anxiety. However, I was able to convince myself that this was an opportunity to tackle my fears and I should seize it. Besides, it soon became clear that other people were there because they were nervous cooks, too, and we were all in it together.
The first thing I saw was the menu written on the gold-framed mirror in Food at 52’s kitchen, telling us we’d be starting with cod with fennel broth followed by braised shoulder of lamb with mint pistou and potato dauphinoise, and finally a desert of tarte tatin. As everyone chatted about how delicious it sounded, my thoughts were dominated by rising panic at how I’d even begin to tackle this gargantuan list of recipes.
Oh, and embarrassment that I couldn’t use a kitchen knife like I’d seen Gordon Ramsay do on TV (I’m not sure celebrity chefs do much to help anxious amateurs like me!). Part of me was excited at the thought of expanding my roast repertoire by one-third (I’ve previously cooked Sunday roast chickens and Christmas turkeys but I’m of the opinion that those pretty much cook themselves). But most of all, despite the fantastic crowd and the fabulous welcome from our tutors John and Rachel, I was wondering if I could actually leave!
However, as the hours passed, I found myself following Rachel and John, and starting to feel slightly less anxious about what I’d previously seen as a mammoth task. From the very start, I was learning new things, from why certain cuts of meat are good for slow-cooking (shoulders and muscular parts of the animal that work hard need time to become tender) to what umami (the ‘fifth’ taste) is. And I began to understand the meaning of the phrase, ‘Knowledge is power.’ In this case, it was giving me the power to challenge my anxiety about ingredients, kitchen implements and oven temperatures.
This learning process happened throughout the evening. I felt comfortable asking questions. Not only that but after we’d eaten the fruits of our labour, I felt a buzz of excitement that I had been part of this. I wasn’t just a diner – I was a cook, too.
Even after one session, I could feel my anxiety starting to abate. However, in the back of my mind was still the thought, ‘Yes, but what happens when I try to replicate these dishes at home?’ You can’t just switch off decades of habit with one cookery lesson.
During the week in between the first and second lessons, I didn’t try any of the recipes. I think at that stage, my anxiety was still dominant. The only thing I did was cast my eye over the recipes I’d been emailed to try and prove to myself that they weren’t as intimidating as they seemed. At that point, that seemed enough to be getting on with.
But by the time I’d finished the second lesson where we cooked pork wellington and Normandy pear tart, I definitely began to feel more confident, so much so that I tried not just one but two of the recipes at home. One of the unexpected things I discovered was that shopping with a list that contains ingredients to make ‘real’ food - fish stock and fennel bulbs as opposed to fish fingers and bread - was a phobia-fighting joy. It felt like I was going to be engaging in a nourishing act to create something meaningful. I was also able to go back to Food at 52 and tell them how I’d successfully recreated two of the dishes and even had photographic proof.
By lesson three (twice baked thyme and goat’s cheese soufflé, risotto negra with squid followed by profiteroles with orange and cardamom cream filling), I felt that although I was still a bit anxious about it I was also becoming someone who embraced cooking.
I now know how to make braised shoulder of lamb - something I would only ever have attempted before in my wildest dreams – and tarte tatin that in the past, I’d have sourced from a patisserie. Having tackled soufflés, fresh pasta, choux pastry and learned how to prepare a squid, I’ve embarked upon cooking tasks I would never have attempted before. And there’s nothing like eating food you’ve cooked from scratch – I’m sure it tastes better for having had effort put into it.
As well as giving me recipes to try out on my friends (they particularly love the fennel broth with cod and the Normandy pear tart), the course has given me the confidence to venture out on my own. I recently dusted down a cookbook and made two new dishes for a friend and I have several others planned for a dinner party I’m organising.
I’ve become one of those people who reads Sunday newspaper cookery supplements rather than throwing them straight into the recycling bin (I’ve even been known to tear out recipes and set them aside to make later). I also have enthusiastic conversations about cookery techniques, how to tweak recipes and what my favourite new kitchen implement is (a tarte maison flan dish, since you ask).
Tackling my phobia is still work in progress. I’ve discovered that the key is to keep on challenging it while accepting that an inherent part of trying and practicing anything is occasionally getting it wrong. But that is fine – even top chefs occasionally have to throw a dish in the bin and start again.
I would also recommend going on a course; having professional guidance dished out in a relaxed and fun environment, like I experienced at Food at 52, is a great way to kick-start things.
I’m feeling reconnected and empowered with each dish I cook and I’m really proud of that. I’ve learned to cut an onion and I still have all my fingers. I’m planning to get a new oven. Oh, and no one I’ve cooked for has asked for Rennies yet. Now that is progress…
To find out more about cookery courses at Food at 52, visit foodat52.co.uk.
Martha Roberts is an award-winning UK health writer and mental-health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com