He’s our favorite “Man in the Kitchen”. Meet Ken Carlton: professional writer, cook in a commuter marriage and passionate connoisseur of food and relationships. When he’s not dashing off to Paris or Hong Kong, or working on his next book from his New York office, Ken is in the cuisine whipping up a culinary storm with the freshest ingredients from his latest market run.
INSPIRELLE is thrilled to have Ken Carlton share his personal insights and recipes in a monthly post for our section “Guy Talk”. Ladies, we think you’ll love him, and guys, we hope you’ll read Ken’s posts for his take on the evolving role of men today in a modern marriage and family.
Is it true you LOVE to cook and do all the cooking for your family?
Yes. It’s my hobby, my relaxation and my passion. I find myself thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner from the moment I open my eyes in the morning. It’s an integral part of the day’s strategy. What are my kids up to that evening? What’s on my work plate? Do I plan to hit the gym before dinner? It all factors in, because the evening meal – shopping for it, preparing it, and enjoying it – are all part of what drives my afternoon towards a rewarding conclusion. I know some people slog home from a tough day at the office and collapse to a bowl of cereal or nuked leftovers. I see dinnertime as a complete reboot. Like every evening is a Saturday night.
How did your role as the family chef come about?
I went through a divorce many years ago when my boys were four and six. You’re laser-locked into one lifestyle and suddenly you wake up wearing the caps of both dad AND mom. It was a big learning curve for me, but my one unassailable comfort zone was cooking. So I converted my initial sense of overwhelming panic into playtime for all of us. The guys learned how to scramble eggs and chop onions and smash garlic with the flat side of a chef’s knife. (They still have all their fingers!) My boys will tell you to this day, dinner is never just dinner. They call me at work to ask what’s on the menu. And they can be awfully demanding. But it’s a role I would not relinquish for anything in the world.
Is eating well a key ingredient to a happy marriage and a healthy family?
Absolutely! I remarried a picky eater who also had two young kids and was not especially fond of cooking. Plenty of my friends questioned how I could fall for someone who did not share my culinary obsession. Answer? It gave me this rich palette in which to color with food, both romantically for just the two of us, and as a newly patched-together family unit, when it was four or six of us sitting down for a meal. Work is hard and parenting is even harder. Food nourishes us in so many ways. If you can laugh over a bowl of pasta and no one goes to bed hungry, you’re ever so much the richer for the experience.
Why do you think men don’t cook for the family as much as women?
I’m guessing it is a holdover from the previous generation. The only thing I can recall my dad making was a Tanqueray martini with salty and delicious olives, which I learned to enjoy at a very young age. The rare times he was responsible for a meal, we went out. But in my experience, we’re seeing a real turnaround. Almost every guy I know cooks and nearly all of the dads share the role of putting food on the table. That is also in part because I know so many women with big jobs. I think the kitchen has become shared space and that is going to continue.
How did you learn to cook?
In a word? Mom! I loved to sample everything she made and at all the stages. I licked the bowl, whether it was the recipe for my grandmother’s brownies or the raw prep for meatballs and spaghetti. (I guess I developed my taste for steak tartare from an early age, too.) Since I was always in the way, my mother used to pull up this sour apple green step stool and let me dive in. Chopping, stirring, sautéing. I was intoxicated by smells and flavors and I was always hungry. It was a good mix.
Why is there something sexy about a man who cooks for a woman?
Well, since my wife doesn’t cook a lot, it’s awfully sexy when she cooks for me, too (she does a mean garlicky shrimp and leeks linguini!). But in general, cooking is sexy because food is sexy. It’s satisfying and malleable and it comes in many flavors. When you know someone’s tastes and desires and you have all these choices to please them, then it’s kind of hard to miss. I mean you walk into the store and there’s glistening salmon and fresh raw tuna and rows of oysters on ice; beautiful meats and saucisson and pâté, great wines and cheeses.
Cooking is the ultimate, utterly customizable seduction theory. And it never grows old.
Not only do you whip up a mean meal, you are a successful writer. Do you mainly write about food and relationships?
I love to write about those topics and I have to admit I end up there quite frequently. My last novel was called Food for Marriage, which unearthed a raft of truths and confidences about four couples’ relationships, over the course of one long, wine-soaked dinner party. That novel led to some very interesting discussions at the book groups I was invited to attend. I write “The Ramen Blog,” which delves into the issues we face as parents and partners trying to make sense of this crazy new world we’re attempting to navigate.
But I also write a lot about global business and where it’s all headed. I’ve written speeches for world leaders, which is empowering, thrilling and more than a little scary. I get to write about everything from growth in China to shipbuilding in Singapore. I’ve gone from my Brooks Brothers suit and a luncheon on the Bund to a jumpsuit and hardhat in the ballast hull of a dry-docked tramp steamer in the 110-degree heat. There are great stories everywhere! Come to think of it, I spent several years writing about the business of smallholder farming in Africa. I remember slipping out of a meeting with a Ghanaian agriculture minister to visit the daily street market in Accra. It was amazing. I suppose it does always come back to food for me.
Weren’t you the guy who wrote for Cosmopolitan magazine in the 90’s about the dating scene from a man’s P.O.V?
It was my first magazine gig! I wrote a column for the incredible Helen Gurley Brown, as well as three books about dating and relationships. I didn’t marry until my early thirties, so I got to lead a pretty interesting single life during a very interesting time to be single. There was no online dating and no social media. My biggest splash was an appearance on Oprah as a “dating expert.” That, and those Cosmo columns that were literally read by millions. It was quite the chuckle to be riding the subway to work and look over the shoulder of a woman perusing my very words on some of those crazy back-then rules on dating.
Times have changed. How can a man help his female partner find balance in work, family and leisure today?
My wife is a professor in Chicago and directs research programs in Africa and Asia. She is the ultimate 24/7 worker. And we manage two homes 733 air miles apart, along with our four kids and three dogs from our previous marriages. Some sense of balance is critical to our lives. I remind her to schedule time for vacations. I urge her (politely) to retire her phone for the evening. I encourage her women’s night out with best friends. And of course I make her dinner – even if it is just a plate of cheese, a baguette and a nice Sauvignon Blanc. Nothing speaks louder than gently reminding her that her personal life matters, too.
How do you think stay at home dads are now regarded?
As working fathers who have learned how to wear as many caps as working mothers do, too. I don’t know any stay-at-home dads who don’t have a job or skilled craft as well, and I don’t know any moms who aren’t gifted at handling the roles of work and home. I think successful couples have this really deep respect for one another’s career choices and they both provide for each other and their kids. “Stay-at-home,” for better or worse, is fast becoming another word for “the office.”
Your work and lifestyle have you traveling the world. Do you have a soft spot for Paris?
Without a doubt! The streets of Paris feel as right and familiar to me as my native New York. My whole body sighs the second the wheels touch down at Charles De Gaulle. The moment I surface from the Metro and plant myself at a café for that first espresso, I am home.
Would you share with us how you would plan a romantic visit to Paris with your wife?
Just say the word “Paris” and you’re off to a good start. I favor a small out-of-the-way hotel on a side street. Two-star is fine; the service seems more intimate and I love those creaky little elevators. My wife’s favorite plan is no set plan, which suits me just fine. Perhaps a museum we have never visited, or a good market I’ve read about? Pick a metro stop, get off, walk, explore. Mainly, we want to be where the French are. Invisible, part of the hoi polloi, enjoying small plates and delicious wines.
Where would you take your kids in Paris?
Our last visit we discovered Père Lachaise. Talk about a great history lesson couched in a very cool place! Balzac? Oscar Wilde? Jim Morrison? We spent hours. Next time perhaps the Marché des Puces at Porte de Clignancourt?
Tell our readers what they can expect for your monthly column, “A Man in the Kitchen” for INSPIRELLE.
I see food, life and relationships all through one lens, so I look forward to delving into how regular routines can create nuance in the nooks and crannies of our daily existence. I’ve seen a man plop down on one knee and propose to his girlfriend at a crowded Greenwich Village bistro, so close I could have said yes! I’ve witnessed a marriage unravel over grilled Teriyaki short ribs at a backyard barbeque. The party never made it to dessert.
Weddings, bar mitzvahs, holiday celebrations: they’re all unified by the sharing of food. I wrote a memoir a few years ago with a well-known New York chef. We called it THE HUNGER. I think that captures a lot of what I want to unearth in these pages. People are hungry for something. Couples are hungry. And hunger can be emotional. And revealing. I want to go there. Naturally, with an easy and delicious recipe in every column to whet our appetites for more.
What’s Ken got cooking on the burner these days? A new book?
I’ve got three burners going. A new novel, not set in America, which is a great writing challenge for me. Anyone who has ever gotten off the plane in an utterly foreign destination and been forced to fend for themselves will find common ground here. I’m also working on a new nonfiction book that I can only say for now, will speak volumes to the parents of teens. And I’m producing a documentary film on – go figure! – seafood and the sustainable fishing industry. In my work, just like my cooking, I suppose I am always drawn to many different flavors.