Celebrity chefs aim to connect and inspire with new quarantine cooking content
'Take that instant noodle or take that can of kidney beans and do something different with it,' chef says
After nearly three months travelling and cooking abroad, Toronto chef Devan Rajkumar returned home in March, just days after the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic.
Following a self-quarantine period at his parents' home north of the city, the social media-savvy chef decided to share a meal he'd quickly tossed together — a jazzed-up bowl of instant noodles — via Instagram.
Immediately, messages and comments began popping up from friends, fans and followers of the Food Dudes chef — regularly seen on Toronto daytime talk show Cityline — asking for recipes and cooking advice.
He responded with what's become an Instagram series of remixed comfort food recipes — Kraft Dinner that gets increasingly decadent; banana bread studded with chocolate, peanut butter chips and blueberries; a vegan coconut cauliflower curry — that are drawing raves and providing inspiration for others isolating at home.
WATCH | 'Don't look at what I have. Look at the technique': Chef Devan Rajkumar on sharing his quarantine cooking recipes on Instagram:
"I want to inspire people to expand their skills while they're at home right now and dig a little bit deeper if cooking has intimidated them in the past," Rajkumar said.
"The way that I manipulate ingredients, it inspires people to kind of think outside the box and take that Kraft Dinner or take that instant noodle or take that can of kidney beans and do something different with it."
Rajkumar is in good company these days, with master chefs like Italy's Massimo Bottura, Queer Eye's food and wine expert Antoni Porowski and Food Network celebrities like Ina Garten sharing recipes, demonstrations and connecting with hungry fans stuck at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Connecting during a crisis
Garten, author of the Barefoot Contessa cookbook series and host of the TV show of the same name, has been sharing via Instagram daily updates, tips for fans and recipes she's making that could also be adapted by those sheltering at home. Incidentally, the post that's garnered the most attention and perhaps best conveys her bon vivant persona has been a short demo for making — and enjoying — a sizable cosmopolitan well before lunchtime.
"You need a big pitcher because I like to make a lot of cosmos. You never know who's going to stop by. Wait a minute, nobody is stopping by," she says with a laugh.
"During a crisis, cocktail hour can be almost any hour," she declares later in the video, to the delight of her many fans, including Reese Witherspoon, Katie Couric and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Her posts have even sparked the Food Network to consider whether this could become timely new TV content.
"We're brainstorming ideas for her," network president Courtney White told industry publication Deadline.
"We're asking how we can take that content that people want and how we can approach it in a totally different way. It's been challenging and fun and new, from a production and technology lens, to figure out these approaches."
Jamie Oliver is another celebrity food figure who has jumped onto the so-called quarantine cooking wagon. The famed British chef, restaurateur and food activist managed to pull together a brand new daily show — Keep Cooking and Carry On, about cooking with staple pantry and freezer ingredients — that launched in the U.K. on March 23.
It's running both as a traditional show on television (including CTV Drama Channel in Canada, Channel Four in the U.K. and Channel 10 in Australia) and as segments on social media, including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
"Cooking nutritious meals for yourself and your loved ones has never been more important," Oliver said in a statement promoting the show.
Cooking as meditation
In certain ways, the pandemic has turned our usual relationship with cooking on its head, according to chef Samin Nosrat, known for her hit Netflix series (and cookbook of the same name) Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
"Typically, we have every ingredient available to us. We can run out to any store and get anything we need, but we are often limited in our time," the Oakland, Calif.-based chef told CBC's The Current.
"Now, it's a little bit reversed, where we have all the time in the world and a lot more limitations in terms of our ingredients or what we're exactly able to make."
With her new podcast, Home Cooking, about cooking "in a time of quarantine," Nosrat hopes to spread the joy that being in the kitchen brings her and also to dispel any feelings of intimidation people may feel.
"When I'm in the kitchen, I have to be really present with what I'm doing. That means really using all five of my senses — and that is probably the shortest, quickest way into a kind of meditation for me," explained Nosrat, who admitted she spent a lot of time worrying and feeling anxious about the future even before COVID-19.
"[You're] smelling and looking and touching and tasting. You do everything. You even have to listen when you cook. And it's a nice way out of my head and into my body. So I think that's a really great thing for people."
For those feeling intimidated by "whatever everyone else is doing on Instagram," her advice is to simply dive in.
"I think the only way through that is practice and participation. And that practice and participation happens in the most simple way when we join each other in the kitchen and peel garlic and chop parsley and just, you know, stir a pot of beans and do the simplest things," she said.
"Right now, [in] this period of time when we really are sort of all driven back into our kitchens, a wonderful thing that will come from it is a lot more confidence in the kitchen. ... The only way there is practice. And now we're getting that practice."
For Rajkumar, he's simply thrilled that many are now feeling emboldened to cook — in some cases, even putting their own spin on his recipes.
"I posted that banana bread recipe and within two hours someone already had posted their version of it," he said.
"It's the best feeling in the world knowing that I could inspire someone in such a positive light."
With files from Eli Glasner and Sharon Wu.