In November of 2018, I opened a restaurant called Fiona with an amazing staff and one of my best friends as my counterpart in the kitchen. By August of 2019, we were closed, and my work family was scattered across the city at their new jobs, leaving me feeling more lonely than I can possibly describe. The truth is, during the time the restaurant was open, I often felt lonely even when surrounded by customers, because failure is a lonely business. I tried to stick to a schedule for myself during the best and worst times, always keeping my therapy appointment and trying as hard as I could to keep my cookbook club commitment, even when I couldn’t bring a dish.
Something had changed in my life as I became more ambitious with work, and yes, as I got older. Friends became busier, started families, began new schedules that included little ones who needed more time and attention. Casual last-minute dinners became less frequent, and we were lucky if coffee could be put on the calendar. I hid behind the stress of building a restaurant, even though I was deeply in need of my community. Then, someone in my extended friend group started a cookbook club and invited lots of wonderful people over for dinner. That night, we all agreed it needed to be a regular thing. We needed this kind of company more.
Now, every month, a group gathers around a potluck meal. The host of the gathering chooses a cookbook, and each guest prepares a recipe from the chosen book and brings it to the table. We go around the room, taking turns to explain our dishes--what worked, what didn’t, how the recipe was written well or if it left us hanging, if we wanted more information about a specific technique. Some months, the group waxes to 15, but it usually hovers around 10 as an average. It’s always about the food, but it is also about so much more than food. My cookbook club, or CBC as we refer to it, saved my sanity through a very tough year.
Just before I opened Fiona, I hosted the club inside the nearly empty, unfinished dining room of the restaurant. We scooted all the brand-new tables together, ignored the dust covering every surface, and despite my stress level being a definite 9.5, we ate and laughed and warmed the space with the din of communal dining. I roasted a whole duck for the first time ever; a duck seemed like a celebration meal worthy of the first gathering in the restaurant. Now, after it has closed, I can say with bittersweet confidence that it was my favorite night in that space.
A colleague recently asked me how opening and closing a restaurant changed and sculpted my daily approach to cooking and gathering friends. It took me so very long to decide how to answer. I thought about this question for nearly three months--three cookbook clubs worth of time. I observed each gathering carefully, planned the dish I would bring with joy, attempted to cook without stress and not to worry too much about being impressive. I noted the dishes my friends chose to tackle for the group--Ari, who always makes handmade pasta if a pasta recipe is available; Anne, the wild card who has a penchant for making stewed dishes and soups; Caroline, who often calls for an assist from her husband and loves a good casserole--every dish said something different about the maker. I will nearly always choose the biscuit recipe in a cookbook, if one is offered, as my benchmark for whether I like the general ethos of the writer.
I realized that I had somehow returned to cooking for my friends and my household as an enjoyable act, even when cooking felt a bit lonelier without the fuss and bustle of a restaurant. I may have made too many dishes for Thanksgiving; old habits die hard. But the act of gathering and talking about recipes and eating one another’s food still bolsters me.
Recently, I hosted CBC at my house and, instead of choosing one book, I asked the club to prepare something that scared them. I decided on steak tartare for my dish, my friend Erica made challah, Ari made pasta once again, because they are still "scared" of pasta even after wowing us time and time again. The table was a hodge-podge spread of delicious food that maybe didn’t go together but individually said so much about each one of us gathered there: We love to cook, we love to challenge ourselves to cook better, and as a group, the most important value we share is the community we create for ourselves.