Eric Salinas' apples and bone-in pork loin (Jason Little photo for RedEye )
Eric Salinas swirls a pat of butter into a pan of sizzling green apples, brown sugar and apple juice. The fat glistens, creating the perfect sauce to go with a bone-in pork loin roasting in the oven. Golden-brown squash cools on the counter.
You'd think Salinas was showing off his cooking chops on TV alongside chef Alton Brown, but in reality the 25-year-old is whipping up a master meal in his North Park kitchen. The studio audience consists of his mom and girlfriend, eagerly awaiting dinner in the living room.
"They're my favorite people to cook for," he said. Plus, "I love to eat."
It's a watershed moment for cooking in general, and home cooks like Salinas are just part of the new developments. With Chicago chefs making names for themselves in hit shows such as "Top Chef" and restaurants like Grant Achatz's high-tech fantasy Alinea snagging Michelin honors, the city is increasingly on the culinary landscape. Add to that at-home chefs taking their cues from cultural icons – in a survey by market research company Mintel, about one in four Millennials said they "love cooking" – and you have a perfect storm of cooking activity.
"Being a cooking enthusiast in general has gotten more mainstream," said Kingsley Shannon, senior brand manager at high-end cookware company Calphalon. She said 20-somethings love food that's as diverse and unusual as they are. They've grown up trying different kinds of food, traveling and going out to eat more than their predecessors. "That has definitely contributed to that group maybe latching onto food."
The reasons people cook at home are as varied as the reasons we eat, but there are some key motivators for the at-home chef, according to the 2011 Kitchen Audit by NPD Group, a marketing firm that has tracked food buying and cooking for more than 30 years. The survey showed most people cook at home because it's healthy – and sometimes can be cheaper.
Over the years, Millennials also have been looking for ways to change the at-home meal from something totally standard into a restaurant-worthy meal, experts say. And Shannon said Millennials are starting to cook the kinds of food they like to eat: ethnic and experimental.
"We want to eat, that's not going to change," said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, who names Italian and Mexican foods as the new staples of the American diet. Part of the reason for that cultural shift is the one-dish meals common in those cuisines. "We're looking for ways to still have a full meal but, can we just make one item?"
Beyond the economic benefits, cooking (and sharing that food) can be fun. You invite your friends over, pop open a nice bottle of pinot noir and enjoy something home-cooked. It's expressive and artistic.
"For [Millennials], it's not just creating a meal to eat," said Fiona O'Donnell, senior analyst for lifestyles and leisure at Chicago-based Mintel. The under-30 crowds "look at cooking like an act of self-creation."
The creation gets artistic for cooks like Salinas, who's starting a food blog and hopes to begin hosting "tasting menu" dinners, where friends will chip in for the grocery bill and he'll do all the cooking.
He's also doing beer-and-chocolate tastings with his girlfriend. Salinas cooks full meals about five days a week, he said, and names a roast chicken inspired by chef Thomas Keller as one of his go-to dishes. He used to watch the Food Network religiously, he said, when he first learned how to cook, and picked up tricks and techniques from shows such as "Iron Chef" and "No Reservations."
"It's awesome," said Erica Ochoa, Salinas' girlfriend, about his cooking. "It's only 2 o'clock and he's already calling me and telling me what he's gonna make for dinner."
Most home cooks aren't quite as serious as Salinas, though. They just want to get food on the table quickly and cheaply and they want it to taste good. That's not out of the question – if they get some help.
Cooking schools across Chicago meet the needs of the home cook, and culinary programs like Kendall College's train would-be professionals who want to get degrees in cooking. Schools like The Chopping Block give Chicagoans with more modest goals a way to learn techniques and dishes they can use at home.
"Most of what we do here is not rocket science," Michele Glancey, chef instructor at the Chopping Block, told students during a recent class. "People who swear up and down that they're not cooks, those guys and gals do better. … They just start to cook intuitively."
"I'm cooking because I know what goes into the dish," said Brian McKee, 38, of Lakeview, while acknowledging that "it's not always cheaper, it's not always cost efficient."
Salinas first started cooking after his mother got sick, but the get-the-food-on-the-table mentality eventually shifted into a love of the artistic side.
"I enjoy the gratification," he said, adding that he hasn't gotten tired of cooking yet. "I haven't hit that point. I hope I don't."
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