Taste Bud Profile
Chef Cortney has such a holistic view of the way we nourish ourselves. Our conversation really left me thinking about the ways I use food to balance out the way I feel, and how paying more attention to that interaction can really make a difference. I loved how she spoke about honoring culture, food, and ourselves in the process.
Cortney Burns: One of my earliest food memories is of grocery shopping with my mother. We used to get half a pound of corned beef brisket and half a pound of muenster cheese and we’d snack on it the entire time we were in the store. Then of course we’d take the bags and check them out, and the whole thing just felt like a very complete experience. I looked forward to it every time. I also remember my mom’s pot roast—we’d have it for my birthday every year. I can still picture her setting everything up so perfectly, peeling all the cloves of garlic with her perfectly manicured nails—I still make it today, and it always takes me back to my childhood home. It’s actually in my cookbook as an homage to her. Something that really feels like home now is a dish based on Lancashire hot pot. It’s a lamb based stew with potatoes and leeks and turnips, and it all gets braised with lots of herbs and served with pickled red cabbage. It was one of the first things my fiancé ever cooked for me. In our home it has evolved—I add tons of spices and more herbs and we’ve definitely made it ours, which itself is a feeling of home.
Both of my parents were naturally very curious people, and they supported my curiosity too. I was lucky to get to travel a lot with them, mostly because of my dad’s job. He worked in sales and marketing for companies like Kraft and Conway Imports—so I grew up going to events like the Fancy Food show. I got to just go booth to booth tasting things. I was traipsed in and out of high-end kitchens and I was mesmerized by the toques and the shiny knives and the brightness. When we’d come home, I’d sit on the couch and watch Great Chefs: Great Cities all the time. I’d get a huge glass of milk and Oreo cookies, (which I’d dip in the milk with tongs so my fingers didn’t get messy or cold) and just be enamored and transported by food and travel and the convergence of the two. Once, I got sick on a cruise during vacation. I had to stay in my room. Since I couldn’t leave, but everyone knew the food was so important to me, they sent someone from the kitchen to ask what I wanted to eat. It was likely a young cook, but he came in wearing his tall toque, looking very professional, and very politely asked me what he could make for me. I didn’t miss a beat and said “duck a l'orange”. My mother says she nearly fell off the bed. She couldn’t fathom where I got this idea! But I was just constantly thinking about the food that I saw, and this chef made it for me and presented it on china with a cloche covering it and everything. The whole experience was so memorable for me. It was theatre. It was a performance. And I just loved it.
When I was around 8, my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said either a doctor or a chef. If you asked me today—I think I’d still say the same thing.
I see them as intertwined. I’ve been deeply impacted by the nourishing, healing aspects of food and the experience of creating, serving, and eating it. It has kept my attention my whole life. There’s just an endless amount to learn. Food is used by all living things to nourish, to evolve, to survive, to heal, to ward off disease—and of course for pleasure. There are bodies of knowledge that have existed for years that detail how food can help and heal the body—of course I’m not advocating that food replaces medicine—but I do find it endlessly fascinating to continue to learn about all the ways it can enhance our lives.
Cooking, feeding, and eating is an energetic exchange. In my professional kitchens, I used to talk about this with my cooks all the time. The kitchen, I’d tell them, is our medium for personal growth.
This is a place where we have the opportunity to work on ourselves, but we have to be careful because this is also a place where we will translate our energies into food for other people. The kitchen offers a place to make mistakes and learn from them very quickly. It gives us the opportunity to do something just a little bit different from the time before—like .025% better every day. As we go through that process of self-reflection and improvement with the mechanics of cooking, that energy is going in the food too. We get to feel good about our progress on the plate, and send it out in the world. Who knows what the person who receives it is going through? Maybe illness, heartache, sadness—and maybe something we put on the plate can help. I try to think about that every single time I cook in making myself a little bit better, maybe I’m helping someone else too.
Cooking is one of the truest ways I know how to show love.
When I’m cooking at home and the kids ask what I’m making, I’ll explain the dish but I’ll always tell them that the most important thing I’m doing is putting all of my love for them into the food. I want to make sure that they feel it from pot to plate, and then we sit down and we talk about our days. Sometimes when they’re craving certain things, I think it speaks to something else missing in their lives—was today hard? Did it lack sweetness? Then how can we find a way to bring that sweetness back into your life? It’s not necessarily about eating emotionally—it’s about pinpointing what’s missing in your life and finding ways to balance it. Just thinking about it and talking it out can usually do that— and if we’ve made something sweet while talking it out, all the better. The sweet is now a treat at the end of the process, not the solution itself.
We have such an opportunity every time we eat to learn something. We can learn how to honor our food. We can learn how to experience other cultures. We can experience things outside of ourselves, and see broad landscapes of people and flavors around the world. And as it gives us the opportunity to learn about differences, it also grounds us in who we are.