Ethaney Lee, best known to Instagram as Tender Herbs, writes every day love letters to the food she prepares. Her cooking philosophy is centred around comfort and celebrates the romance in making food just for ourselves. She wants us all to ask: “what do I find delicious? What food means the most to me?”. There’s an opportunity to offer ourselves tenderness through food - packing leftover sandwiches when we know we have a tough day ahead or popping on a pot of coffee and slowly preparing our favourite breakfast before everyone else wakes up.
Tell us about our favourite food memory from your childhood...
There are so many. My family is a very food-centred family. My mom raised us to love and appreciate a good meal. She cooked dinner almost every single night and packed our school lunches with sandwiches made from leftover chicken piccata. There’s not a specific favourite food memory from childhood but more of a feeling when thinking back on the meals we used to eat as children. How even on days where I’m sure my mom was struggling with stressors and anxieties of being a single mom and I know the last thing she wanted to do was cook dinner, her salmon seasoned with Mrs. Dash and baked with lemon slices on top will be something I remember forever. Or the pan fried tofu she would make us to eat with rice. Or her above mentioned chicken piccata that she would make for lunch sandwiches the next day. Food memories from childhood make me remember how much my mom cared for us and how, even on her hardest of days, she always wanted us to eat well. She loved us.
What would your advice be to someone who is new to cooking and is looking to put more love into the ritual of preparing food at home?
My number one advice isn’t really anything tangible but more emotional. If you’re new to cooking, find joy and happiness in cooking what sounds the most delicious to you. Or when flipping through a cookbook or looking online, cook something that you think looks beautiful. It’s okay to be shallow, sometimes. Cooking is something that is often talked about as something we do for others. It is something we do to show love, care and friendship for those in our lives. But I feel like there isn’t enough appreciation for cooking solely for ourselves! To indulge! To celebrate the mini joys of that day! To show love and tenderness to ourselves! To take care of us! Find love in tending to your body, your cravings, your needs, your wants. The ritual is taking the time.
Tell us about one of your cooking rituals at home...
I love cooking in comfy clothing. Clothing that might even be considered very ugly. Baggy shirts, athleisure pants that are at least 15 years old but have somehow managed to survive all this time, my hair held up by a chopstick. I don’t enjoy cooking in jeans. I also must cook in a clean kitchen - a completely empty sink and empty dishwasher is preferred. It makes me feel like my kitchen is a blank slate to completely make a mess in.
What’s your favourite thing about having friends and family round for dinner?
My fiancé would disagree but the dinner plates, the empty wine glasses with a last drop of wine in them, the emptied bottles of wine, the stained tablecloth and skewed dining room chairs after everyone leaves is one of my favourite things about having people over for dinner. Sometimes I take a photo of it with my phone because it makes me happy and I want to remember it. Once the last guest leaves and the door closes and you’re looking at the mess that needs to be cleaned up, it’s like: “Wow, that was really fun.” Second favourite thing? The random irrational conversation topics that come up like… “If The Purge was actually real, where would we hide?”
Tell us about one of the most memorable meals someone important in your life has cooked for you...
I was in my mid twenties and I was really struggling with everything in my life. It was one of those periods where everything just felt so hard and my unhappiness was palpable. It was hard for me to find slivers of happiness anywhere. My brother invited me over for lunch one day and I remember distinctly how un-hungry I felt. I couldn’t think of a single thing that sounded delicious to me. But he insisted so I went and he served me a bowl of steaming hot rice with a perfectly golden chicken thigh with the most crispy skin. The sprinkle of flaky salt looked like diamond confetti. And he served it with a simple side of pickled cucumbers. I will never, ever forget how such a simple meal could feel so nourishing and loving. It was like my brother understood how hard a time I was going through so he poured all his love and care into this meal and I felt so loved. He didn’t need to say anything. I was so thankful, I could have cried. I’ll never forget it.
Taste that most makes you think of home:
Ddoengjang (Korean fermented soybean paste)
Favourite song to cook to:
Currently: Alien Superstar by Beyonce
When you're feeling low, what do you cook for comfort?
It’s either a pasta dish with tomato confit and lots of freshly grated parmesan OR fresh rice made with chicken stock and softly cooked egg with lots of chilli oil.
You have friends coming round for an impromptu dinner, what do you cook?
Chicken (I don’t eat veal) Milanese with roasted potatoes and an arugula salad. Pavlova with homemade vanilla whipped cream and blackberry compote and crushed pistachios for dessert. And wine!
Your most proud career moment to date:
I don’t know if it could be considered a ‘career moment’ but hosting my first ‘Dinner Date’ at my home which is something I came up with to offer women or those who identify as non-binary a space to come together and find community and friendship over a multi-course meal cooked by me. I was terrified to do it because I was scared everyone would hate the food I made or something would go disastrously wrong, but it was truly beautiful to see these people who were complete strangers find connection and friendship while enjoying an meal in my home. I was proud to know these people exist in my community and I was proud of myself for doing something that made me scared.
Best place for a cosy dinner in your local area:
Belotti Ristorante which is the best Italian in the East Bay, in my opinion. So quaint and nothing fancy but the lights are dim, the wine is good and the pasta is insane.
Favourite autumn dish:
Bulgur cooked with chicken and apple. I know it sounds a little odd but I promise that it’s delicious and is the epitome of a fall dish. It tastes like what warm sweaters and chilly nights feel like.
The ingredient you’re most looking forward to incorporating into your dishes this season:
I really want to get more into pears for the late summer/early fall. Poached pears in red wine paired with chocolate sauce? Something decadent.
Follow Ethaney: @tenderherbs