Cooking as Therapy for Everyone

My 13-year-old neighbor Yoav Mehler has a twin sister and 7-year old twin sisters. The only boy in this exuberant, creative family, he was very close with his father, Zeev. Among the many activities they shared, both loved to cook. Three months ago, Yoav’s father suddenly died. Soon afterwards, when I asked Nathalie, their mother, how they were doing, she allowed that her son was hit hard. I suggested we cook together.

Thus was born a ritual where Yoav comes to my kitchen and we make dinner for his family and often many of their friends. Once finished (we always seem to run late because there is the additional chit-chat and laughter), I love the pride with which he carries the platters and pots across the street for “show and tell.” Early on, we made green beans and new potato salad. To hear him confidently explain to all assembled how using Dijon mustard forms a bond between the oil and lemon juice to help emulsify the vinaigrette made me smile. The next week, he told me he’d adapted my recipe for glazed chicken thighs and made it with ingredients he found at home. It was different but no less satisfying. “It’s a great distraction,” he says. “It gets me out of my head.” With all the wounded personalities in this family, it’s no wonder he sees this as a refuge. Here it’s one on one and non-judgmental. And I adore lavishing attention on him. He’s very loving and responsive.

As we chat about all that’s transpired, I’m inspired by his creativity. Last time our lesson turned into “quesadillas à la Yoav.” While I was demonstrating the basic techniques involved, suddenly a light bulb went off in Yoav’s head and he asked if we could add seared steak on top? When I allowed that I didn’t have any on hand, off he bolted to the nearby butcher, having first called him to see if the $12 in his wallet was sufficient. The end result: anything-but-basic quesadillas with a little jalapeño added to the cheese, topped with a dollop of cilantro pesto, thin ribbons of seared steak (cut across the grain for maximum tenderness, I explained), and mango salsa. Not bad for a 13-year-old. Amidst death, food is life. Along with exploring different ingredients and techniques, Yoav relishes the accolades his efforts bring. Nathalie added that the day she remembers his mood shifting was after the first time we had cooked together. The experience has priceless for both of us.