It was perfect: the Greek and Latin Roots of English textbook opened up with a chapter entitled, “A Polyglot Stew (or Food for Thought).” Even when we were given the first set of vocabulary for words that spanned the etymological roots of food items, I had no idea that the teacher was also a chef whose expertise involved not only the intangible workings of words, but also extended to the oh-so-tangible dexterity of working with the senses in the kitchen.

MJ McNamara is an adjunct in the Modern Languages Department at CUNY's City College of New York who does more than study words and their history; she works in the kitchen part-time and dreams up aromatic dishes. In a field of jumbled letters and intricately vague connotations, MJ has found stability and balance–her meat and potatoes–IN meat and potatoes, in cooking. In food. 

pizza, beer, coffee
Michele Hu

In this interview, we find out why cooking and food serve such a profound role in her life.

So, what’s your favorite thing to cook?

My favorite thing to cook is cassoulet because it has lots of flavors, and it takes a long time. It’s based on an old traditional French recipe that involves cooking things in oil, fat, and rendering amazing flavors from herbs, and it is ultimately pretty simple. It’s just like all good cooking; it takes time.

What is something everyone should know how to cook or do, like a technique or a recipe?

There’s a lot of things that everyone should know how to do. Everyone should know how to mince garlic; everyone should know how to cook an egg in a frying pan; everyone should know how to make tuna salad; everyone should know how to cook pasta.

Everyone should know how to make something from what’s in their refrigerator, so everyone should be able to harvest and put that together. The basic skills of cooking involve being able to chop, being able to season, being able to know what goes with what, and being able to accommodate and be creative without torturing the guest.

Yes, agreed. So for those who don’t know all those skills yet–who are amateurs–what do you recommend they start with, or how do they start to develop those skills besides, you know, every day in the kitchen; what else can they do that’s not too painful for them either, or too time-consuming?

I would suggest start working with salads, because if you don’t know how to cook, learning how to put together, say, a spinach salad or just a salad of mixed greens with some peppers and carrots and maybe some dried fruit and some nuts and maybe some cheese–you can then experiment and then maybe cook a little bit of your ingredients, like your mushrooms you can sauté–so a salad gives you a good platform to experiment with flavors and colors, and it doesn’t take that much time because you don’t have to cook it.

You can think every day, "What’s my special salad today?" and you can use the day’s weather, you can use the time of year to influence how you feel that day, and you can make yourself a special salad that just is like the theme for the day, and limit yourself to, say, a half an hour in the kitchen at most. Your ingredients can be five; they can be fifteen, but a salad–knowing how to make a salad, and a vinaigrette that isn’t overpowering but complements the flavors–that’s a good exercise to start with.

salad, greek salad, cheese, tomato, pepper, vegetable
Julia Maguire

Would you describe cooking as therapeutic for you? And why?

I would say that cooking can be therapeutic provided I’m not totally pressed for time and I’m not trying to do too many things at once. Cooking can be therapeutic especially in environments where I know where the food is coming from, so cooking can always be therapeutic–it can be therapeutic just to heat up a bowl of soup; it can therapeutic because it’s going to feed you.

But cooking can be therapeutic when you’re in an environment where you have a little bit of time, and you have some good ingredients and you have an easy-to-follow recipe or some thought in your mind that’s executed in a way that doesn’t require a lot of steps, and you can get your results in say 45 minutes, whether it’s a tomato sauce, whether it’s maybe even a cake–just putting things together in a methodical way that takes your mind off of whatever else is going through your mind.

Cooking can be very grounding, and also one of the best things about cooking is the smell. So, when you have a smell of, you know, sautéed onions in the kitchen, or bacon, or garlic, or a pie that’s comin’ out of the oven–the smell lingers, and that’s therapeutic.

Why do you think the term “chef” is more prestigious than the term “cook” you think? And what is the difference really?

That’s a good question…um, ok. So chef means boss in French. And in France, chef is also a term that’s used in government, like chef d'affaires.

In this country, the term chef has been appropriated by people who are not in the strictest sense a boss of anything. They may be six months out of culinary school, and they now refer to themselves as a chef.

In this country more and more, though, there is a distinction if someone is, you know, someone who cooks professionally, for instance, some cooks work as a “personal chef,” where they work exclusively in a private residence. Oftentimes this does not require the same skill set that a chef in a restaurant possesses.

They are a chef, but in restaurants, the chef—there’s only one chef—then there’s a sous chef, and then there’s a chef de partie, which is the chef of a certain station. There’s, you know, pastry chefs, but each of these chefs are bosses over a certain field, but the term chef and cook have become synonymous, and very rarely do you hear someone referring to themselves as a “cook.”

The correct sort of usage of the term, a chef is someone who’s had years and years of formalized training in restaurants and school, and after years of working under precise and exacting chefs themselves, they finally earn the title chef, and that, you know, is a mark of distinction and honor that shouldn’t be bandied about in the way that it is, but is a way for people to get more respect for what it is to cook professionally.

In this country, we’ve adopted the word chef, and it is now, as a result, very difficult to ascertain the level of proficiency of someone who calls themself a chef.

Well, just building on that, do you think the term “cook” is derogatory? 

Yeah, I think that the term unfortunately—cook hasn’t been—I haven’t heard it used in a—it can be pejorative rather than a derogatory, slight difference. Um, so as a pejorative, if you refer—if one cook refers to another cook as just another line cook, or “he’s just a line cook,” that may refer to that person’s inability to command leadership in a kitchen.

So, if someone is called a cook, it also may mean that they are…someone who works in the kitchen as a mercenary more or less but has no deeper abiding interest, or passion, or depth of skill and technique; they simply–they do it because they don’t wanna deliver newspapers, or they do it because they don’t wanna be a messenger, so they work in a kitchen as a cook.

Um, so yes it is; it’s used to discriminate between those who are passionate and see themselves as authentic, and those who do it as a means to get by when, in fact, you know, all of them are cooks with the exception of those very few who are true chefs.

Now, how—would you say you started off as a cook and built yourself up to a chef? And how did you start off as a cook? What were your experiences?

So I started off as a cook—and I would still call myself a cook, honestly. I use the term private chef because just like say, chef de partie or pastry chef, you can become the boss or organizer of a particular realm, but I would not refer to myself as a chef because I’ve never run a restaurant.

I started off as a garde manger, and that meant I managed the salad and dessert station, and I worked from there up to being a line cook, so that’s someone who has a station on a line in a restaurant. A restaurant may have three or four stations, on what’s called a hot line. For a restaurant that seats 150 people you may have four cooks on the hot line and two on the cold line.

wine, gastronomy
Kirby Barth

So I worked in restaurants on the hot line after I worked on the salad station, and then I worked my way up to being chef de partie in fancier restaurants, where I was in charge of, say, the fish station, which meant butchering the fish and, you know, preparing the fish and buying the fish. Then I worked my way up to being a sous chef, so that meant that I handled schedules; I made sure that all the food that came off the stations tasted good, I managed inventory, and basically did whatever the chef told me to do in terms of making sure that things he could not get to, I got to.

So, my trajectory was longer than most, because I never went into it thinking I would become a chef, but I really enjoyed cooking. The further you get up the line, the less you actually touch the food.

What inspired you to keep on going up the line and, you know, why did you keep on going into food instead of just doing it as like a side job?

I was inspired a lot by the people. I worked for some really talented chefs, and their passion drove me to just want to be better at it. And so you could always, every single day when you go into a restaurant kitchen—or you work in a private home—every single day there’s a challenge, whether it be to butcher a whole salmon or there’s a special party, or the chef is out and you have to run the kitchen.

There’s something about the chemistry of the people that you work with; there’s something about the urgency—it’s very compelling to go into a busy restaurant kitchen and have ten or twelve people working really hard and really fast; it’s very addictive. You just get caught up into the environment and the sort of…the energy, the vibe, is alluring, and so you like to see, you know, how fast you can swim; you like to be up for the challenge.

There’s something really satisfying about getting through a busy service and knowing at the breaking point that you’re going to hold on. And you may not feel like that, but you know, the wave comes, it topples you, and you sort of then get back up and you do it again.

There’s something rewarding about being good with your hands; rewarding about being able to do things reasonably well in a quick amount of time, and there’s a reward from doing it for a long period of time—you get better at it, you get more confident. And you can teach others as you move up.

So I think that I stayed with it because I was hooked; I wanted to become better. I was fascinated by the whole culture of the kitchen in terms of its hierarchy, and I was—it was a way for me to pay my rent. I was decent at it, and I wasn’t tempted to go and get an office job because it would not be as interesting. 

So for you personally it was more about the environment than the actual food? Or has it grown to become about food, like is there anything about the food in particular that keeps you going?

The thing about food is as I get older and appreciate more the qualities of particular ingredients, you—it’s like a relationship you have with like a friend. Over time, you—I have now become very fond of black pepper and see it as sweet. So in terms of the ingredients…you go into a walk-in and you find your mirepoix—onions, celery, carrots—it’s grounding. The smell of rosemary, chopping the thyme, you know, putting that into onions, salting the onions and caramelizing them.

vegetable, carrot, cabbage, broccoli, garlic
Elizabeth Layman

There are so many sort of food favorites—chocolate’s a food favorite, bacon is a food favorite—adding just cream to a sauce is, you know, just whisking it around and then tasting it and then when it’s done, taking it off the heat and tasting it and letting it sit: beurre blanc! So yeah the ingredients are like books, and you continue to go back to them even after you feel like you’re done with them, and you still find something else there that you didn’t find the first time. Yeah, the ingredients are the building blocks.

I guess I would just add that food seems really simple and we feel like it's always going to be there, don’t underestimate how important it is.

You have a whole bunch of things you can eat if you just need to stay alive, but if you’re thinking, "what do I need right now, how can I sort of take care of myself," it may be that wilted spinach with garlic is what you need, or it may be that chicken soup is what you need, or it may be that, you know, Chinese dumplings are what you need, or maybe that you need a macaron. Or it may be that you need a buttered roll, or it may be that you need, you know, steak. But all these things–there’s a ton of ways to feed yourself, and sometimes you have to be really open to the ways that you need to feed yourself.