TODAY’S WARD CLEAVER WOULD BE A FIXTURE IN THE KITCHEN
STORY BY Elizabeth Brunetti
Hans Plugge learned to cook out of necessity. Originally from the Netherlands, the now 56-year-old toxicologist remembers traveling to Ontario, Canada, for his master’s degree. Left to fend for himself for the first time in his life, he picked up a copy of the “American Woman’s Cookbook” and started off with basics – like how to boil a potato. He was hooked. Before long, Plugge had all but abandoned cookbooks in favor of a more spontaneous culinary approach. “Experimenting came naturally,” he recalls. “I was trained as a chemist, after all.” These days when he cooks for his wife, Abby Ershow, and their two children, Arie and Rieka, now in their mid-20s (both adopted from South Korea), they know to expect the unexpected. Aside from “Daddy chicken” – chicken breasts pan fried in olive oil with Old Bay and garlic seasoning – they never know what Plugge is going to come up with next. Rieka, a bona fide meat-and-potatoes guy, playfully comments that he “rues the day” he was adopted by this “creative cook.”
The family participates in a local CSA (community supported agriculture), and Plugge embraces the challenge of using what they receive each week, like an episode of Food Network’s “Chopped.” Plugge never tires of seeing kale in their share. While this leafy green may be too much in vogue of late – just ask a CSA member drowning in the stuff – it has always been in Plugge’s repertoire. He’s an expert at making “boerenkool,” a kale and potato dish from his Netherlands upbringing. He also uses kale in a Tex-Mex dish that features a tomatillo-based salsa.
Plugge has taken his love of cooking to the road – to be more specific, the railroad. In his spare time, Plugge is a chef on the 1934 Pullman railroad car The Dover Harbor. In 1979, the National Railway Historical Society purchased the car and restored it to its original mid-1930s glory as a sophisticated way to travel. The car’s bread and butter is daytrips to Williamsburg, Virginia, but it is also available for longer, cross-country charters. Stewards dress in 1930s uniforms and the tables are dressed in white linen and patterned china as diners are transported – literally and figuratively.
Like the rest of the volunteers who run The Dover, Plugge wears multiple hats. When he’s not cooking, you may find him waiting tables or even working as a mechanical officer. But nothing gets him more revved up than squeezing into the tiny 5-by-8-foot kitchen (with another chef) to prepare a meal on the go. “Everyone has a ton of fun,” he says. “Just imagine dicing vegetables at 85 mph!”
While Larry Post’s cooking may not involve contortionism or table service, it is still very much a production. The 53-year-old River Hill resident applies the meticulous nature of his job as a certified public accountant for the National Archives to the kitchen. Post aims for perfection on the plate, regardless of the distance he may have to go to achieve it – he has driven all the way to Pittsburgh to buy his favorite pizza flour (Caputo 00) in bulk. Using this Neapolitan flour to make dough and baking the pizza on a “baking steel” (as opposed to a pizza stone) means restaurant-quality pizza at home, Post insists.
When he’s not channeling his inner Italian, Post treats his family to Taco Tuesdays, changing it up almost every week. One week it might be grilled espresso steak rubbed with brown sugar, coffee and cocoa chili powder served with guacamole with pomegranate seeds; the next, Korean bulgogi, kimchi and spinach with a sesame dressing. It’s easy to see why Taco Tuesday is a family favorite.
Post’s wife, Diane, and grown children, Jessica, 23, and Josh, 20, enjoy his culinary productions, but Post gets the most help from Mocha, the family cocker spaniel, who heads up the “sampling department.” Most of the time, though, “I just put a bandana on my head, turn on my iPod and roll with it,” he says.
In Sina Negahban’s childhood home cooking was a family affair. The Columbia native credits his mother and grandmother – or Mommon Joon, as he called her – with igniting his passion for cooking. As a child, Negahban would sit on the kitchen counter and
watch the women cook and bake. “The other kids would go out to play, but I would stick around and peel garlic for [Mommon Joon] or clean green beans,” he recalls.
Now 27, Negahban is a skilled home cook, and he enjoys cooking for his fiancée, Caitlin, at their home in Wilde Lake. He shares his passion and recipes on his blog, The Unmanly Chef (theunmanlychef. com). The “5 Days 5 Lunches” feature on his blog was inspired by his determination to prepare a week’s worth of lunches for Caitlin. “He makes eating healthy food fun and tasty, never boring,” she says.
Although Negahban is a self-proclaimed control freak in the kitchen, Caitlin supports him as much as she can by doing the grocery shopping or peeling vegetables. “She’s the best sous chef a home cook could ever ask for,” he says. As detailed as he is when cooking, Negahban sees it as a form of stress relief. “When I’m cooking, I don’t think about anything else other than what I’m making.”
Indeed, it seems that more and more men are donning aprons and taking to the kitchen. Barth DeRosa, co-owner of Secolari, the artisan olive oil and vinegar shop at The Mall in Columbia has seen a rise in the number of male home cooks coming into the store. “Thirty-five percent of our clients are men between the ages of 25 and 55,” he estimates. DeRosa finds that the men who shop at Secolari seem especially “adventurous” when it comes to food.
I myself am no stranger to angling for elbow room in the kitchen. My husband, Joe, often brings home produce he’s grown himself as lead horticulturist at the Sm
ithsonian’s American History Museum, where he curates the WWII-era Victory Garden. He’ll use it to create meals for the week, usually without recipes. He tells me he loves conjuring up a meal in his head during the day and turning it into reality in the evening. The garden-to-table connection he feels with his food inspires him every day, he says.