Each January I spend ten days in Key West, cooking for my cousin Rob’s sailing crew, who race the J 111, Spaceman Spiff. Just to be clear, I’m not cooking on the boat. These things are the sheerest, strongest, lightest plastic for maximum speed and they don’t want some overweight guy down below stirring beans in a cast-iron pot while they’re blasting down wind. I cook in a spacious kitchen in a lovely house on Caroline Street. I write in the morning and I cook in the afternoon and happily and unaccountably I haven’t been hung over once. Go figure. Seriously. It’s a first here.

But it does allow me to reflect on the methods and importance of cooking for groups. You can see previous posts on how to cook for groups below so I don’t have to retread. But I did have a moment after the steaks, watching the table (watching because when they talk sailing I don’t understand a whole lot).

It came after Monday night’s dinner, after Spaceman got a 1st and a 6th (sigh) their first day out, that the importance of family meal became resoundingly clear.

People ate strip steak and twice-baked potatoes and salad and green beans that I cooked and shocked and Jim and Doug (aka Dim) finished on the grill—my ace grill masters. We all laughed and talked, and bottles and bottles of wine were passed.

And then everyone stopped eating and drinking (more or less). Nobody got up. They talked about the race. They had their formal “debrief,” which is dry and business-like, and then they kept talking, they moved into nuances of the race and of sailing generally. And it was beautiful even though I didn’t understand a word of it. And I know, I know, this would not have happened had it not been preceded by a full and easy and satisfying meal. You try doing this in a conference room. Doesn’t happen. No one moves into nuance. Everyone is eventually itching to bolt a conference room. Not here. The good meal brought them together, and nourished them, and they stayed to the point of discussing nuances, which is where magic hides.


Nick brought me almost to tears last night. Last night was lobster night. I ship Maine lobsters down and we have leftover steak for a surf and turf meal. But 18 lobsters are a lot of fucking work. Even cooking them using an immersion circulator (125˚F for an hour or so, 36 halves finished by Dim over a crackling fire), they’re still a bitch. Boiling the claws separately, saving all the legs for stock, breaking them down, halving each tail. This in addition to the rest of the meal. So we all ate and sat as usual and it was a fabulous meal. But I was beat. So when I was done, I went out on the back deck to have a smoke and drink a thumping glass of Maker’s Mark, and just exhale in the balmy Key West night.

Midway through the best cigarette of the evening, Nick Turney, the team’s tactician, came out and said, “Hey, I’m starting the debrief.” I said, go ahead, I’ll come in when I’m finished with this. (I don’t sail, don’t need to be there, don’t understand a word of what they’re saying about tomorrow’s strategy and getting of the starting line and reach-arounds—not that kind, anyway—and hiking and reefing, so, really, go ahead, Nick, I’ll be in there in a second. Nick said, “No, I’ll wait.” And he left.

And he did wait. Because I’d put the meal together and he wanted to thank me before he moved into the debrief. Seriously, near enough to bring me to tears. So, thanks, Nick. I’ll cook for you anytime, and for this whole sailing family. Even though I don’t understand all that you do or even need to understand. The food, and all of us sharing it, are enough.


**The winner of the 12 Recipes giveaway

Joella Comp of Springfield, Missouri

“I’m grateful for beans. It wasn’t technique for us then. It was survival. Plain and simple and filling, with a pan of hot cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. Many years have passed since then, and I still love a big pot of beans. My beans have grown up with me, to include onions and garlic, tomatoes and peppers, along with veggies that I never dreamed of as a kid. The dish may have evolved, but that feeling of security bubbles to the top when I’m cooking beans.”

Congrats & happy cooking!


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© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


31 Wonderful responses to “Importance of Family Meal”

  • Dana Noffsinger

    I have enjoyed these yearly posts since I starting reading your blog. Your legal pad list looks like mine when I cook for a crowd. Love it!!

  • Pete erickson

    Micheal, the same is true in the end of
    The day meal we have while shooting commercials. It is relaxing, and a non-confrontational way to work out the days pulses and minuses. A table is a great common denominator.
    Nobody has thought more about the the diner table and it’s nuances than Martin Kastner!!!

    • Susan Scott

      I love that, Pete: ‘a table is a great common denominator’ How true

  • Pete erickson

    Micheal, the same is true in the end of
    The evening meal we have while shooting commercials. It is relaxing, and a non-confrontational way to work out the days pulses and minuses. A table is a great common denominator.
    Nobody has thought more about the the diner table and it’s nuances than Martin Kastner!!!

  • James O.

    I’m always impressed when meals are successfully prepared for large groups. The coordination of each part of the meal, coming together at the same time, is a marvel.

    A family of six — like mine — is a challenge to plate just as we’re ready to sit (assuming we’re all together, and nobody’s working late and no afterschool or evening activities are scheduled that day).

    The challenge to keep things warm, or refrigerated, or simply *finding a spot on the counter* for staging when cooking at home for a group as large as a sailing team — or even extended family –is beyond me.

  • NancyRing

    I don’t know if anything is more satisfying then stepping away to a quiet place after preparing, serving and consuming a successful dinner for a group with a drink and a cigarette.

    I love your KW posts and hope you are enjoying fine weather along with your fine group.

  • Kath the Cook

    I love cooking for big groups and have very fond memories of long weekends on St. George Island in a rented house with a gang of friends when I lived in Tallahassee. it’s the best when everyone is staying together and doesn’t have to drive anywhere, ha.

    Tater tots….really? I’ll admit I buy them too on occasion. good to know you’re not too proud, everyone needs to slum now and then.

    Ah the good old days…..

    • ruhlman

      the tater tots were an inside joke. last year Russ insisted on making actual tater tots and they have become a running joke since.

  • Betsy Hinson

    I live (and cook) for just this. An uplifting story, Chef. Thanks so much for doing what you do!

  • Marshall Gourley

    A couple of jobs ago (not cooking related), there was a smallish kitchen in the “Corporate Office” area. Once it was known that I could cook, I was asked to prepare a meal once a month. I happily did so. Prepped some things at home and brought them in, others were done in the kitchen.
    Service was generally for 15 or so. After the meal we sat around and discussed the business, dropping all titles. I’d like to think that good business plans were hashed out after a good meal, rather than dictated over bad take out.

  • Beth B

    I had the chance to cook a “football Sunday” meal for 12 last weekend while visiting family in Texas. I admit I have never done this by myself, although my husband and I do it together all the time. And I’ve never cooked for that group before. It was a little scary! But everything turned out perfectly. But there were no nuances – everyone gathered in the TV room. 😉

  • Amy

    It takes a big man to wear pink, Michael. But that gorgeous, GORGEOUS, juicy, rare meat is enough to demonstrate the depth of your manhood. (I’m tempted to say something about the reach-around, but I suppose one bit of innuendo per comment is enough.) I will say this, though: if you weren’t married to that great lady of yours, I’d be happy to reach around ya anytime! 😉

  • Tom

    I enjoy reading about your Key West adventures! I also enjoy cooking for groups. Several times a month I’m the lead cook for our local soup kitchen. We get in to the kitchen at 8AM, and have breakfast ready for 125 by 10:30. Cleaned up and out the door by noon. The meal prep is an adrenaline rush. I never know how much or what kind of help will show up. Then, there is the pure satisfaction of handing somebody a plate of good, hot food. Nothing can compare!

  • Jan

    I’ll be racing next weekend on a J 122, wishing you could come down to Grenada and cook for us 😉 I actually begged out of one race day so as not to miss the weekly farmer’s market; gotta have priorities and fresh whole food is mine! Sail on!

  • Tony

    For me, good writing is imagery I can feel. This passage really hit it … “I went out on the back deck to have a smoke … and drink a thumping glass of Maker’s Mark, and just exhale in the balmy Key West night.”
    I can feel the air, see the glow of the cigarette, the smell of the whiskey. I can hear the quiet calm in one ear while hearing the muted voices and laughter in the house from the other ear. For a few fleeting moments, I was there. Thank you!

  • JimmyJ

    Awesome – a boat named Spaceman Spiff!!! Way to get to the heart of dining together – it’s the connection that happens during and after the meal, whether it’s friends, family, or business partners.

    Good stuff as always.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      Cooked just the tails at 125˚F for an hour or so, at least 30 mins, up to 90, then halved each one and seared them on the grill to finish cooking them and give them more flavor. boiled the claws normal, saved all the legs for stock.

  • Beth

    Ah Michael,
    To be in Key West and not sail? You are missing a part of heaven. You are spot on that food binds people and brings out the conversation. I know the Spaceman is spartan, but cooking meals on a sailboat for friends, cruising on a calm night, laughing and drinking (except not too much for the captain) and watching the spectacular sunsets we get on Lake Erie is magical. And cooking on a boat elevates mis en place to a whole new level. I live for that challenge and the comraderie of those summer nights. A good race is fun too.

  • maryk

    I love these posts every year. Just the energy of getting everything done so perfectly. MIchael, you rock!

  • Tags

    When the sun rises and the table is set, that’s the beginning. When the sun sets and we rise from the table, that’s the end. I’m grateful that these events repeat every day, so even if you miss them you can try again tomorrow.

  • ClaireS

    That’s what I love about food. It isn’t just the eating but also brings everyone together, specially family and loved ones.


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