It’s been said that a great way to really get to know someone is to do something together. And when it comes to a new or potential relationship, there are few more revealing activities than cooking as a couple.
Preparing a meal — not just the eating that follows — is a multisensory experience that can expose many behaviors, from creativity and generosity to control issues and messiness. Cooking with someone who knows his or her way around the kitchen can be a kind of foreplay — or, on the flip side, it could send up deadly red flags.
Pay attention to everything: not just kitchen skills but how he or she reacts in preliminary discussions about the meal, shops, handles the food and the bill and more. There may not be clinical evidence, but as a professional chef who has shared my kitchen with countless friends and partners over the decades, I can assure you this exercise is as informative as any Myers-Briggs–type assessment tool.
Flexibility, Generosity, Fairness
Start by considering how adaptable and giving your potential partner is. Whether in the kitchen, living room or bedroom, for a relationship to work, there’s no place for a “my way or the highway” attitude. As my mom used to say, “You both need to give more than 50 percent.”
“Choosing a menu and shopping together are like a preamble,” says Suzanne Aaronson, who runs a website about upscale travel. “They predict how well you’ll jointly solve larger challenges later on.” Unlike in past relationships, Aaronson says she and her partner, Jeffrey Vanderveen, a music agent-producer, strive to respect each other’s talents.
Acknowledging individual strengths and preferences can help prevent bickering about insignificant details. For more than 20 years, James Derek and his (now-ex) partner, Robert Swanson, both in their 50s, entertained in their Connecticut country home. “Bob did all of the shopping because he liked to clip coupons and I couldn’t be bothered," Derek says. "But I love to cook and he was terrific about cleanup, so it worked for both of us.”
Being flexible helps when an ingredient is unavailable at the market. An imaginative cook will improvise. But if your suggestions are categorically rejected, this may signal a control issue. A small hurdle at any stage of food prep that elicits snarky behavior, rigid resistance or meanness can sabotage more than a meal: It doesn't bode for their reactions to much more important issues, like if a child needs to move back home temporarily or your travel plans change at the last minute.
Sharing costs and labor are usually part of the deal unless you agree on something different ahead of time. Yet if your mate obsessively tallies every item down to the price of an extra roll of paper towels, that can foreshadow future money issues. Or when everything from the prep to what’s left on the table is dumped into the sink for you to clean it up, you’re right to wonder if you’re signing on for a lifetime job as maid or butler. Hold the bar high and say that you expect to work together on even unglamorous tasks. Getting down and dirty (literally and figuratively) can lead to fun.
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Cleanliness, Neatness, Organization
One of the biggest deal-breakers in relationships revolves around cleanliness, especially if you’re a neatnik and your partner’s a slob. Experimenting with ingredients is one thing, but bad hygiene and unsafe food practices can ruin the night’s meal and potentially be lethal.
Less dangerous but nevertheless irksome is how your sense of organization and neatness fits with Mr. or Ms. Right’s. Ideally you both fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. I represent the “uber-anal” end of the spectrum. As a recipe-developer, I arrange my spices alphabetically so I can find them easily. But rather than get annoyed at having to re-order them later, I explain to people assisting me why I do that — or why I do anything a certain way.
At the other pole are people who either can’t or won’t be neat and organized or follow instructions. There’s no right or wrong, but this is one area where differing styles don't bode well for a congenial future together.
Kitchen interactions are a great way to discover compatibility before you become too emotionally invested. Carol Metzger, a couples therapist in Indianapolis, likens preparing a meal together to two people doing a slow dance, where both the words and body language give all kinds of signals from slyly suggestive to stay away.
Creativity, Sensuality, Spontaneity
Then there's the matter of how much "spice" you like. If your partner follows a recipe to a T, you may experience only the drabbest of Christian Grey’s 50 shades. On the flip side, a creative approach in the kitchen — from seasoning to dressing the plates — can indicate how things may play out in the rest of your life.
Sienna Jai Fein, who runs a website celebrating the joy of midlife companionship, is herself happily involved with a man she describes as a superb cook and sensuous lover. She sees a correlation between the liberal use of spices in food and a generous, assertive style of lovemaking. A dinner teeming with flamboyant seasonings can be a predictor of zesty delights to come, she says.
If you see recipes as a guideline for improvising but that riles your partner, this speaks to the issue of how important spontaneity is in your life. Does a last-minute getaway with a few items tossed into a tote bag appeal to you, or do you need to plan and book a trip months ahead? The point isn’t what those preferences are — just that yours and your partner’s should be compatible.
(MORE: Relationship Rescue: Getting Your Needs Met)
Kindness, Respectfulness, Sense of Humor
Most of us have had any number of relationships when we walk into a new partnership; we come with baggage. Getting to know another person’s quirks and trigger points, and whether those mesh with yours, is fundamental.
During that "slow dance,” while sipping wine or tossing the Caesar salad, the kitchen can be a relaxed place to gain insights into those irritating habits and where they came from.
You won’t know in one session whether a relationship will work in the long run, but along the way, laughter can break the ice, titillate your partner, repair a wounded spirit and become the mortar in building shared, lifelong experiences.
If the angel food cake falls, it’s not terminal. Call it “angel cheesecake” and pour another glass of prosecco. When your best crystal goblet gets broken or if your asparagus risotto with wild mushrooms is gluey, support and sympathy mean more than the cost of ingredients or replacing the glass.
Of course, one can take the compromise and lightheartedness too far. While I can laugh at painting your face (or other body parts) with chocolate mousse, I have no humor when I it comes to my knives. They are the tools of my trade. If they end up in the dishwasher more than once (after asking that they be done by hand) or are used as a screwdriver, I can only assume this person isn’t listening or doesn’t respect me. This speaks volumes about how they’ll treat my stuff — and me — later on.
When disaster does strike, a simple “well done” or “I’m sorry” buys a lot of good will. To me, someone’s skillfulness or even intelligence is less important than if they are kind, respectful and fun to be around. Ultimately, basic human courtesy and respect are essential ingredients in the kitchen and all partnerships.
Take heed of kitchen warning signs and you'll know whether the relationship could be a keeper or if it's just a flash in the pan.
Joanna Pruess is an award-winning writer and cookbook author whose passions include food, travel and entertaining.