Mango sake at Matsuhisa, Maker’s and Coke at Dan Tana’s, and lychee martinis at Mr. Chow. Whichever of these I was most in the mood to drink dictated where I ate for the better part of a decade. Now, more than nine years sober, it’s amusing to me that I once thought that was totally “normal” behavior rather than a one-way ticket to the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous. Alas, youth is wasted on the young.
For those unfamiliar with my quarter-century career as a DJ and musician, I’ve spent the last near-two decades based in Los Angeles but living mostly on the road playing gigs and touring with my band. Back then, a Strawberry Ensure on my hospitality rider was the only way my body got the minimum nutrients it needed to function aka for me to do my job. Food was really just an afterthought for so much of my life; something I only remembered I needed at the end of the night once I was back in my hotel room, and by then it was chicken tenders off the kid’s menu accompanied by Law & Order or Forensic Files. The perfect pairing in my not-so-humble opinion.
And then one day, while sneaking an e-cigarette under a blanket onto a plane, I realized I needed to quit smoking. Everything changed. Miraculously, I was able to kick the habit thanks to a hypnotist named Kerry Gaynor and some extra help from Tea Tree toothpicks and Tootsie Pops. I may or may not have also turned to whiskey. Nine days later—after realizing it was impossible to replace 40 cigarettes a day with liquid resolve—I chose to quit drinking, too.
I say “chose” because it was my decision, no one told me to. There was no rehab or intervention, just a final hangover to end all hangovers, literally. So, there I was, sober, tobacco-free, and fidgety AF, and once I took alcohol off my menu, I didn’t really see the point in going to restaurants. No longer drowned in whiskey, my social anxiety was off the charts, my patience was nonexistent, and my tolerance for small talk was none. Such is when I found the Food Network.
I would love to say that is when I started cooking, too, but I didn’t. I just watched Chopped and Iron Chef while eating Jon & Vinny’s via delivery apps for about 6 years, until guess when? Covid! Yup, I finally started cooking when I hit my limit of hot dogs and mac and cheese. No, I didn’t make sourdough bread, but I did begin by trying to make the foods I missed during the lockdown; things that didn’t travel well like steak and risotto.
As a DJ, I’m always prepared. I have a constant supply of songs to choose from—at the time of this writing, my library is at a healthy 38,982 tracks—and every time I enter a room, I revel in solving the puzzle of which songs will make the people I’m around have the most fun. Sometimes that means Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, Biggie, and Jay Z, and other times it’s up-tempo house music or downtempo hip hop. Many times, it’s pop songs, disco, funk and soul, classic rock, 80’s, and 90’s, and more often than not, it’s all of the above. No matter the crowd, I have what I need to make it work… my kitchen, on the other hand, not so much.
A few things I learned immediately into my cooking career:
- Garlic does not last forever
- Olive oil does not last until you finish it
- Always preheat the oven
- If a recipe calls for room-temperature ingredients, believe it
- Make sure you have everything you need before you start cooking
I haven’t read a lot of cookbooks since starting this journey—I usually just Google what I want to eat and see what pops up—but I can tell you I really appreciate the pantry guide in Alex Guarnaschelli’s new book with her daughter Ava, Cook It Up. Knowing what you need down to the exact brand is super helpful for newbie chefs. It’s like, if you asked me to play “The Birthday Song,” I would play “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder… but you probably meant “In Da Club” by 50 Cent. My point is details matter. Taste also matters, but in the kitchen it’s a little less subjective. Too much salt is too much salt, no matter if it’s Diamond Crystal, Maldon, or Morton’s. No big deal, but these days I have all three on hand. Hair Flip Emoji.
I haven’t spent too much time thinking about why I love to cook or what it is about food-making that makes me so happy—some of that is what this column will be about—but I have realized that cooking is not unlike being a DJ. I get to bring people together and satisfy a few of the desires they didn’t even know they had. More importantly, at the end of the night, everyone wants to kiss the chef.
Taste Matters is a monthly column by the musician-DJ Samantha Ronson, who learned to love cooking at home after she gave up going to the bar.