#1301: “This kitchen ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Hello Captain!

Summary: When my husband (28 he/him) and I (30 she/her) cook together, we’re starting to resent each other’s input because we both think we’re pretty good cooks.

So, we’re newlyweds, and have only been living together full-time since the pandemic started. Back when we were dating/engaged, we cooked a lot together and had a blast, but I was very deferential to him – early on I thought his confidence in the kitchen meant he was more experienced than me. The reality is I’ve done a higher volume of cooking overall, but he has more depth of knowledge in some specialized areas. It pretty much evens out. As we’ve started cooking more in our home together, I’ve become more openly confident, and now he gets annoyed when I intervene or say something to the effect of, “I think that needs to be done differently.” I also get annoyed when he offers unsolicited instructions, such as telling me I’m using the wrong type of knife to chop peppers. Or giving me a mini lecture on the properties of the oven I’ve been cooking with since before I met him. I feel like he’s being condescending; I can guess he feels I’m being controlling and stubborn.

Recently, something I was watching burned, and he said he saw it coming but thought I would have ignored him and done it my own way anyway even if he’d said something. I told him that I do want feedback for major problems, but maybe not so much for inconsequential things (like the pepper chopping, which I had recently disregarded him on). He responded that there’s no way for him to know what’s important or not. This gave me flames on the side of my face; I’ve been exerting a lot of mental effort to determine whether he’s doing something wrong or merely differently than I would, and bite my tongue if it’s the latter. Why can’t he be expected to do the same? But I do have to acknowledge that there is plenty of subjectivity in that idea.

We’re both fliers on the fight or flight continuum, so this hasn’t looked like yelling or arguing back and forth; it’s just the aforementioned interventions or advice followed by silence with Tense Vibes. So far this isn’t popping up elsewhere in our marriage, and we work great together on recipes we’re already comfortable with. But it does keep happening, and we never really resolved what the burned food incident brought up.

How can we be a better culinary team in the sometimes-literal heat of the moment? I don’t want our food to be ruined by either of us making a preventable mistake (often the stakes feel high because we’re meal prepping our lunches for the week), but I also don’t want either of us to feel disrespected or micromanaged. Any tips on how to keep the tone friendly and diffuse tension in these moments?

– Two cooks, both alike in ego


I have suggestions.

Practical Suggestions: 

  1. Take a break from cooking together. Instead, take turns where one person both cooks and cleans up the kitchen after dinner and the other gets some some relaxing alone time nowhere near the kitchen and a night completely off from kitchen tasks. Next night, switch roles. Do this for a while, at least until you can enjoy cooking and eating again without arguments. 
  2. When you are working on a familiar recipe or big job, like a holiday feast or meal-prepping for a week, take turns being Head Chef (in charge of the whole deal) and Sous-Chef (Head Chef: “Please cut these peppers in small chunks, thank you.” Sous-Chef: “Yes, chef.” :quietly cuts peppers any way they wish as long as they end up the right size:) You don’t have to call each other “chef,” unless of course you’re into that, but just having a designated person who is in charge and person who is a helper might create less friction. 
  3. Continue collaborating on stuff like meal planning, figuring out groceries, and keeping the kitchen stocked and clean. What do you want to eat? What do you want to make? Figuring that out can still be fun even if the implementation is delegated differently. 
  4. NEW RULE: NO OPTIMIZING SOMEONE ELSE’S PROCESS. It’s okay to silently – important word being silently – prefer different knives for different tasks. People do not have to do everything the exact same way. Your husband’s assertion that there is no way to tell what’s important is bullshit. Is something on fire, bleeding, or about to be? Is someone doing damage to kitchen equipment, people, or facilities? If yes, I think it’s burning” or “That should not be making a grinding sound, can we check that it’s assembled right” are good reasons to speak up, and staying silent to teach you a lesson for being insufficiently deferential is bullshit, also. Most routine kitchen tasks are not so complex that they require one adult to explain “the right way” to do something to another experienced cook who is already in the middle of doing that thing, and who, more importantly, has not asked for help or suggestions. If there is confusion, the words “Hey, would you like a suggestion that would make that easier?” are right there where they’ve always been. 

Where I’m Coming From:

Last time I was in Massachusetts, my parents had a very long argument about what pan, how much water, and which lid (if any) was optimal for boiling eggs. Who was the person boiling eggs? ME, aged 45 years and 11 months. I filled a small pot with water and set it to boil. My mom said, why don’t you use this larger pan instead, and took the first one away from me. I said great, thanks and used the second pan. She also had thoughts about the correct burner setting. I said, thanks for the info. Then there was some commentary on why didn’t I put the eggs in right away vs. bringing the water to a boil and lowering the eggs in with a spoon, which is my preferred method, b/c then I know exactly how long they are cooking, and I am picky about yolk consistency. But eventually, my mom decided I had boiling eggs under control and padded off to another room. 

A few moments later, my dad came downstairs and was shocked that someone would use such a large pan to boil water for eggs. Who on earth would do such a thing? My mom  – the traitor who had supplied me with said pan – interjected from the next room to express concern that I wasn’t using a lid. I responded, thanks, I boil eggs all the time, I promise, I got this. Then my parents entered into an elaborate discussion about whether the water boils faster with a lid on, and did that save energy, shouldn’t I be using a lid, etc. I offered to PayPal them 25 cents for their electric bill, because while it probably does cook a little faster with a lid, I don’t care, and I also knew if I started looking around their kitchen for lids we’d start the annual game of “That doesn’t go there,” where I am perpetually wrong for not knowing the exact storage arrangements of the recently renovated kitchen of a house I moved out of in 1996. Being monitored and corrected never makes me better at anything even if there is some slightly easier or better way to do whatever it is, it makes me tense and distracted, which makes me less coordinated, and it did honestly take every speck of concentration to safely lower two eggs into a pot and drain the boiling water later without spilling anything. 

I honestly think this is how my parents talk to each other all the time, they don’t see a problem with double-checking and optimizing every moment of each other’s behavior, but this is also why Mr. Awkward and I took our showers at night so we could escape to a diner immediately on waking the following morning and eat our breakfast in sweet, blessed silence, BECAUSE I CANNOT LIVE LIKE THAT AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU, DEAR LETTER WRITER. 

In my own kitchen, I’m a very good home cook, married to a great one who has worked as a professional chef. When we first got together, I texted photos of his majestic cookbook collection to my friends with many exclamation points, and I had fantasies of leisurely preparing delicious meals together.

We tried that when we were dating, and it was fun. We tried it more when we moved in together, and it made us both annoyed and stressed. We have a tiny kitchen. We both have our own way of doing things. We’re both sensitive to being interrupted and corrected, especially when we’re in the middle of something (see above). We both have attention problems and need to focus on what we’re doing, and it’s much safer and less likely to end in disaster not to have to pay attention to another person in a small room full of hots and sharps. We do help each other out with chopping tasks, and one way we help is by taking the cutting board and knife and bowl to the nearby dining room and getting out of the cook’s way until the stuff is chopped. That way he does not have to see my chaotic knife skills, and I do not distract him or become distracted with chitchat. My food comes out great. His food comes out great. He knows more than me about some stuff, and that’s awesome, but I still know what I know, and it’s not a competition, unless that competition is “Look what I made for you, is it not delicious?” 

I know there are couples, friends, and housemates who love and excel at cooking together, but my beloved and I turned out not to be those people once a fun date-night ritual became a daily chore, and I humbly suggest that perhaps you and your spouse might not be those people right now, either, and could use a break to reset expectations. You developing more confidence in the kitchen should be a good thing, and until your spouse views it that way, he should probably park himself elsewhere while you work your magic, and vice versa. 

Bonus Thought: You mention in your letter “I’ve been exerting a lot of mental effort to determine whether he’s doing something wrong or merely differently than I would, and bite my tongue if it’s the latter. Why can’t he be expected to do the same?” 

It’s fair to expect non-condescension and respectful cooperation in the kitchen, but we don’t actually accumulate credit for the secret mental effort we exert on not doing or saying anything about stuff that bothers us, and people don’t actually owe us silence about what bothers them in return for all the silence we secretly-but-grudgingly granted them. This comes up frequently in other questions on the site, where one person has been quietly enduring and agonizing over a problem behavior for a long time and now wants a script that will both make the behavior stop and get their antagonist to reckon with the accrued grudge-debt, with interest. In my opinion, approaching this from a place of collaboration (“I’d rather cook by myself sometimes, can we take turns?” or “Hey, we’ve been arguing and being weird about cooking stuff, can we try something new?” ) is a better way to restart the grievance clock than focusing on fairness (“You’re condescending!” “No, you are!” “Here’s all the stuff I nobly and patiently didn’t say, but could have!”), even if the second would be both fair and true.