The life of a chef is a busy one: Difficult work hours, late nights, and tiresome services don’t allow for any personal time. Although they are always cooking for others, a chef can lose sight of their well-being. How does someone handle creating their own meals with this lifestyle?

Caitlin Cassidy, a chef at the elegant Sorrel in San Francisco, combats this issue through cooking simple, nutritious food that’s maximally delicious. Using her senses and intuition, she approaches her food with a keen eye towards how she wants to experience it. When she gets home from a long day, she doesn’t want to partake in long meal preps or slow simmered sauces. Instead, she likes to transform ingredients into quickly-cooked, well-flavored elements of a big, delicious, and hearty salad. By combining cooked, raw, starchy, crunchy, and meaty components, she layers flavors and textures to satisfy any hunger. 

Kaitlan Tseng

Caitlin first became interested in cooking by helping her mother and watching Food Network as a kid. After working in the Michelin-starred SPQR in San Francisco and endlessly popular Jon & Vinny’s in Los Angeles, she’s now a managing member of the Sorrel restaurant. Despite her endlessly busy schedule, she took the time to show me how she likes to cook at home.

Grocery Shopping For Food

Kaitlan Tseng

I met up with Caitlin at the Fort Mason Farmers' Market to decide what we were going to make. We first took a lap around the stalls just tasting and looking through the day’s offerings. After discussing our tastes, she started to pick each ingredient individually. There wasn’t any particular direction—she just followed her senses. She knew what the final dish should feel like, and simply used the market’s available ingredients as a guide to the end result.

Nicole Chen

Picking potatoes, romanesco, squash, and mushrooms, she was thoughtfully layering one ingredient idea on top of another. This strategy was new to me—the idea of using the ingredients, as opposed to a planned recipe, to guide the dish. Going around and around, she zeroed in on the elements of our meal through simply seeing what looked good that day.

Cooking With Caitlin

Kaitlan Tseng

Taking our market lot back to the empty Sorrel kitchen, she showed me how to thoughtfully, yet easily prep our ingredients. Leaving freshly picked parsley large, chopping hearty radicchio leaves, and tearing bite-sized pieces of bread, we prepped effortlessly yet still considered how each element should end up on the plate. Should we need a knife to eat this? Should the pieces be smaller? She approached the prep of each ingredient with these questions in mind to guide its size and shape.

Nicole Chen

To make a comforting, satisfying dish, she knew the salad must contain both cooked and raw ingredients. So, we boiled and seared potatoes, sautéed mushrooms and romanesco, caramelized squash, fried bread, and pan-cooked steak. Combining these with raw radicchio, scallions, and parsley, we tied all the components together with Caitlin’s go-to vinaigrette mixed with a splash of yogurt. All of this summed up to a relaxing lunch that was simple, beautiful, and delicious.

My Afterthoughts and Observations

Nicole Chen

Caitlin opened my eyes to a new approach to cooking. She neither followed a recipe nor used any fancy techniques—she followed her taste to create what she wanted to eat. Placing our finished plates on the table she said “This is what I would be eating on the couch at home,” which displayed how effortless a meal such as this can be. She showed that through simple techniques and flavor compositions, you can easily make delectable food that is exactly what you want to be eating. Anyone with a busy life can take inspiration from Caitlin’s cooking to influence their own personal well-being.

Caitlin’s work life isn’t easy, but she makes sure to take care of herself through her own cooking. As we sat down to eat she said “Sometimes, you have to make sure to watch out for yourself. It’s so easy to give your life to your work, but you should take time for yourself. I’ll cook a salad like this because it’s easy, simple, and satisfying.” This method of cooking can act as a mediator when it comes to your own life because the process of following the ingredients, treating each in its own way, and putting it all together pulls you out of the world, and lets you make it your own.

The Takeaway

Nicole Chen

Caitlin shared with me a few takeaways that I believe everyone should know when they cook:

1. Make sure you preheat your pan thoroughly before adding any oil. This way, you don't risk putting food into burning oil.

2. Always taste your food during the cooking process. You can use measurements as a guide, but you should always be tasting your food as you go—adjusting the acid, salt, and cooking.

3. When you have finished cooking an ingredient, place it into a paper towel lined bowl or plate. This extra step will drain off any excess oil, preventing a grease-riddled disaster in your kitchen. 

4. Use a cast-iron pan for cooking foods that need an even, thorough sear. For example, searing steak, squash, and potatoes in a cast-iron pan creates the best results.

What makes Caitlin’s process and recipes so beautiful is that they provide a template waiting to be riffed upon. She substitutes ingredients, using what feels best at the moment. The only thing she makes sure of is to include cooked, raw, proteinaceous, and crunchy elements in order to hit the palate's every note. With this is mind, you can easily make uniquely tasty dishes that are more than food—they are extensions of your own culinary personality.

Nicole Chen

Cooking with Caitlin was one of the most wonderful experiences I've had because it showed me that cooking has the ability to do more than satiate us—it allows us to engage with ourselves and focus on the present. By learning from Caitlin's effortlessly thoughtful approach, we can all learn how to use cooking as a vacation from our crazy lives. If you follow the ingredients, using intuition as the recipe, you too can cook and capture the moment like Caitlin.