When I finished my psychotherapy training, I didn’t follow the ‘recipe’; I didn’t rent a consulting room and buy Freud’s Standard Edition. Instead, I bought knives, chefs’ whites and clogs; I decided to swap the couch for the kitchen; I went to Leiths School of Food and Wine to do an intensive course in classic French cuisine. Psychotherapy was slow and heady but this course was frantic and hands-on, which was exactly what I wanted at that time. I wasn’t sure what kind of psychotherapist I was or wanted to be. Cooking, and food in general, has always been my safe haven; it’s the place where I feel secure and most myself, in both mind and body. Some recent research found that cooking increases feelings of excitement, arousal and aliveness – key ingredients of what Freud called Life Force.
My food self and my therapy self, however, first met when I started my training to be a psychotherapist. During a session that happened to be online (once upon a time before we all migrated to Zoomland), I was feeling especially defended, dismissive and despondent. After a short silence my therapist said, ‘Tell me about those books behind you?’ He was pointing at Nigella Lawson’s ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ and Ottolenghi’s ‘Simple’. In what felt like a pantomime-esque ‘It’s behind you!’ was an invitation right in front of me to bring more of myself into our relationship. My therapist was curious about that part of me. After that, we both started to bring our food selves to the table of our therapy sessions. Over the years, what we both cook and how we cook has often taken our conversations to places that have nothing to do with the kitchen. Sometimes our food talk is serious and takes us to certain memories of mine, painful and poignant. Sometimes our food talk is just fun and playful (I like to think that because of me my therapist will now only ever use Cyprus potatoes for roasties). But through all of it, my therapist has seen who I am to myself. That is why it has mattered.
The therapist –who they are, their feelings – comes directly into the therapeutic work whether we like it or not. I find it challenging to do the traditional psychoanalytic ‘blank slate’; it’s inevitable that I bring myself and all my experiences into the room with each and every person I work with. Sometimes that will mean a judicious use of self-disclosure. And as I have become more relational in my approach as a therapist, I have disclosed my food self more. The chef Anthony Bourdain once advised us to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food.’ I decided to do just that when I created Cupboard Love. I guess you could say it’s a kind of self-disclosure that also helps the client to know that I have been moved by their experience and that they have a place in my ‘other life’ – and at my table. When I asked one client for permission to write about the story of his and his late father’s magical make-believe place of ‘Chocolate Island’ he replied, ‘You think of me outside of this room?’ I told him that he inspired my chocolate île flottante recipe. At that moment my client wasn’t a man who was an island – he wasn’t isolated. And he wasn’t floating either – he knew he was held in my mind. The conversation, and the self-disclosure on my part, seasoned the therapy; just like salt it brought out the flavour of both of our characters. Because I was able to be myself more, so was he. It scaffolded the trust between us and helped to enhance that crucial ingredient of empathy, which interestingly, has been shown to increase when we cook for another person.
So when I speak of being a ‘Domestic Therapist’, I am really talking about how to be ‘at home’ as a therapist, and being comfortable to bring more of myself into the space with my clients. It can be essentially nourishing for the work. To return to those two books that my own therapist noticed on my bookshelf all those years ago; psychotherapy is certainly not ‘Simple’, and there is no ‘How To’ guide. We are just two humans in a room, having a conversation, really, about what it means to be at home in yourself.
This story inspired my recipe for chicken livers with coriander seeds and red wine.