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Photos by Chris Casella

The Worst Cook in Columbus

With Laura Dachenbach and Matthew Heaggans, Flatiron

Remember that guy in high school who figured out the one semi-dressed up outfit he could wear—sweater, plaid button down, Dockers, boat shoes—and stuck with it for the next four presidential administrations? (He works in accounts receivable now.)

I’m that guy.

Except I’m not a guy. And it’s food instead of clothes.

A lot of my food comes from boxes with pictures on the front so I know what it is. When I “cook” I usually make pasta, varied by shape. Or eggs, varied by what I use to coat the pan. I might go all out and put some bleu cheese and red onion on spinach and eat it with something I got out of a box. Some people call it survival. I call it simplicity.

So it really makes no sense that I write for a magazine that does its utmost to stay on the forward edge of the Columbus food scene. After I played stupid at a few meetings, my editor called me into the office and said, “Laura, your writing’s pretty good for a nonsmoker. But you need to learn something about food. Otherwise, I’m going to have to fire you.”*

So now I’m going to cooking lessons. In a way, cooking isn’t that different from writing. Both are learned by doing. Both involve a lot of subjective rules and creativity. And they both require a certain amount of tolerance for screwing things up in the beginning stages. So maybe I can do this. Actually, I need to do this.

It’s time to think outside the box.

* He didn’t actually say this, but he did hand me a pack of cigarettes.**

** Okay, so he didn’t do that either.

Salad: It’s What’s For Dinner

I dislike the Food Network. It’s not just the hyper-cleanliness of their trendy kitchens or Rachel Ray’s kids or their lame ideas for competitions. I dislike watching a close-up of someone exquisitely grating parmesan cheese on steamed asparagus while telling me how mind-blowing the experience of eating it will be. Because I cannot eat food that is on my television. So I don’t want to hear about how the splash of coffee in the chocolate frosting keeps the sweetness in check or how wonderfully fresh the raspberries smell. (I’m talking to you, Barefoot Contessa.) Like watching porn in a straightjacket, there really is no point.

But today is going to be different. Today I get to eat something I’ve made.

I meet Kate Djupe, owner of The Commissary, a giant test kitchen located on Dublin Road, where chefs plan and test menus, caterers and meal delivery services operate, and instructors offer cooking classes and team building exercises. “If there’s a way to play with food, we do it,” Djupe said.

I’m ready to play. A gathering of ingredients is assembled on the table, just like the Food Network. Djupe introduces me (actually reintroduces me) to my instructor Matthew Heaggans, the chef de cuisine at the Flatiron Bar and Diner and an occasional writer himself. Heaggans begins my lesson by asking me what kind of knives I have in my kitchen.

“Metal,” I respond. I assume they’re metal. I haven’t taken them out for a while. “They’re in a wooden block.”

Heaggans decides that the knives in a block have a steel, so he demonstrates the beginner’s way to steel a knife: by holding the steel upright with the tip on a kitchen towel and pulling the blade for about five strikes on each side. Steeling sharpens the knife by realigning the blade. A rolled edge will prematurely dull the blade, causing the user to work a little harder, and possibly cut herself in the process.

Today we’re going to make a salad and dressing, so we start by prepping some vegetables. First we grab a cutting board and place a damp kitchen towel underneath for stability.

Heaggans pulls a large leafy thing from a metal pan. “Do you know what this is?”

I have no idea. I’m not even sure what part is edible. Heaggans informs me it’s kohlrabi and begins pulling off the leaves and stalks, leaving behind a round pale green root that tastes similar to a broccoli stem, but a bit sweeter.

I am awkward—at best—at the tasks of peeling and slicing. Heaggans encourages me to use a towel to hold the kohlrabi while I run it against a slicer. “Don’t be a hero,” he says, explaining that it is better to leave some of the vegetable unsliced and have my fingers remain intact. With kohlrabi and broccoli stems peeled, sliced, cut, and put in ice water to retain their crispness, Heaggans tells me it’s time to blanch the broccoli florets.

“What do you mean by blanch?” I ask skeptically.

To me, the English major, this word usually indicates a reaction of shock or fear, but apparently it can also mean to partially cook something for about a minute or less, then stop cooking it by immersing it in ice water. Heaggans pours what looks to me like an insane amount of salt in a large pot of water and starts it boiling. Scientifically speaking, the large quantity of salt keeps the color from draining away and seasons the vegetable in a very short amount of time.

After we remove the broccoli from the ice water, Heaggans invites me to taste a raw floret and a blanched one. The blanched broccoli is beautifully green and crunchy-tender—admittedly a better alternative to my usual masking of the bitter taste of broccoli with a lavish glob of Hidden Valley Ranch.

Speaking of ranch dressing—that’s what we’re making next. Heaggans, usually a passionately anti-ranch kind of guy, likes to make improvements on this condiment so frequently used as “sauce American.” We start with a generous amount of smoked almonds (although pistachios could work as well), and add about two cups of buttermilk, some mayonnaise, dill, chopped garlic, and the juice of a lemon. There are no measuring cups used here. The only gauge is the question, “Does it taste delicious?”

Next, he breaks out some halloumi, a semi-hard, unripened brined cheese with a high melting point, making it ideal for frying or grilling. Which is what we’re going to do. With butter. Oh my god. My unhealthy relationship with cheese is about to go to the next level.

“Touch your food,” Heaggans encourages. He means it. He presses on the surface of one slice with a finger, looking for a springy texture as the halloumi releases from the pan. When I discover I will not burn myself, I almost can’t stop touching it. Breaking down food boundaries can be a beautiful thing.

Finally it’s time to put these elements together and do a little presentation. The broccoli and other vegetables on ice are combined in a bowl with some arugula. We spread some ranch across a salad plate, and arrange the slices of cheese on top. To avoid overdressing, Heaggans has me ladle the dressing around the edge of the bowl and use my hands—yes—to mix everything together.

“I’m pretty sure that’s an awesome salad,” he nods.

Heaggans is right. It’s so good, I almost can’t finish it. Buttery cheese. Smoky, salty ranch. Fresh greens and vegetables. Mixed with my own bare hands, dammit. I’m beginning to understand the Barefoot Contessa. I might not like how she describes food I can’t eat, but at least I understand why she does it. When food gives you this much, I suppose it deserves a few words of recognition in return. 

Soon, you’ll be able to join Laura at The Commissary on her journey to shed the title of The Worst Cook in Columbus. For more of Heaggans’ excellent dishes, be sure to visit Flatiron Bar & Diner (129 E Nationwide Blvd.).