With the meteoric rise in interest in culinary endeavors, the number of “foodies” among us has exploded. HGTV and Food Network, along with the proliferation of the celebrity chef and the ubiquitous urban fusion restaurant, make for an environment where a stellar meal seems within reach of anyone with taste buds. So, it’s no surprise that more men have become keen on not only devouring trendy cuisine, but in creating those masterpieces.
However, two Maple Grove area men have been cooking up a storm since long before it became popular. Tom Huston and Chris Laird were kind enough to invite us into their kitchens, share their go-to recipes, offer a few cooking tips and reflect on what instigated their passion for cuisine, a habit their wives don’t mind one bit.
Chris Laird became interested in cooking in his early teens. “I was raised in a single-parent home with my mom, who worked two jobs. I often cooked dinner for my sister and I,” he says.
He followed directions on packages until he began working in a hotel restaurant. “My initial training came from the Sheraton Airport Hotel when I was 15. I lied about my age and got hired as a dishwasher,” Laird says. (His wage? $2.66 an hour.) “The executive chef liked how hard I worked and brought me downstairs to be his dishwasher and general helper. Soon, I was chopping vegetables and doing basic prep. He taught me how to core, cut, chop and dice vegetables. He was a demanding guy and it was a pretty dysfunctional kitchen, but he was good for me.”
Laird spent three years cooking in various hotel kitchens along the “strip” in Bloomington where he learned to prepare a wide array of dishes. But the kitchen is hot, sweaty, dirty work and at age 18, he decided to move to the front of the house and became a waiter. “I got extensive training at Hotel Sofitel, preparing food table-side—Caesar salad, steak Diane, flambé—and a passion for quality food took off,” he says. It opened his eyes to food beyond line cooking and the next 14 years, waiting tables at top restaurants in Minneapolis and Chicago, helped to fuel Laird’s gastronomic expertise.
His passion also helped to inspire his wife to become an excellent cook. “And now we see a love of food developing in our son, Caden (age 11), who eats everything: oysters, escargot, fish and seafood,” Laird says. “He has a very advanced palate for his age. We are fortunate to not have a picky eater.”
Laird now cooks about a third of the meals in his household. “My wife, Carin, and I often cook together,” he explains. “It helps to have two people working together to pull off a quality meal.”
“I am a grill man, and I love to grill steaks. I have my own method of seasoning, and I prefer ribeyes—medium-rare, of course. Overcooking the steak is a major screw up for me, I hate that!”
The formal training Laird received shows in his everyday cooking habits. He mentions the importance of being intentional when planning to cook. “This will allow you to also plan a menu and give you adequate time to prepare your meal,” he explains. “I think it is important to cook what you know and cook what you like.”
“I really like a clean kitchen, as does Carin. She cooks more than I do, because of my schedule, but also I tend to wash dishes while I am cooking,” Laird says. “Our kitchen is small, so staying ahead is key.”
Tom Huston says he began cooking at “probably about 10 or 11 years old.” His mom was the main party responsible for teaching him, but his dad cooked quite a bit as well.
“I remember helping my mom make pies from scratch,” Huston says. But he doesn’t make pies anymore, claiming he lacks her technique and patience.
As it turns out, Huston does all the cooking (and shopping) in his household. His wife Pam says she didn’t marry until she was 38. “It took me that long to find someone who cooks 100 percent!”
She is often in the kitchen cleaning or getting ready to serve if they have guests, and Tom’s cooking has influenced one of his sons to cook, but otherwise, the uncommon division of labor doesn’t seem unique in their eyes; perhaps a natural choice for someone with a long-time habit. “I like to cook because I like to eat, on my schedule,” he says.
Like many experienced cooks, Huston says he rarely follows recipes to the letter. “I almost always modify, or rather, I don’t measure as accurately as it calls for, but it always works,” he says.
His go-to dish is a family recipe for crêpes, or “big pancakes,” as he calls them. “In my house growing up, we put butter and powdered sugar [on them], but now we also use strawberries and whipped cream,” he explains. “Mom always made us cut them and use a fork, but we would always use our hands when she wasn’t looking.”
These days in the Huston kitchen you’ll find pork and chicken, probably hamburger and always potatoes. “I’m a pretty basic meat and potatoes kind of guy,” he says. “Nothing unusual at all. One of us is pretty finicky about non-standard foods.”
“Pam doesn’t like to cook and I hate cleaning,” Huston explains. “So, we make a pretty good team.”
Laird 8-Heavenly Shrimp
shrimp, 1 lb., 16-20 count
Seasonings for Sauce
30% Old Bay seasoning
5% cayenne pepper
Tajin (Mexican) seasoning, ground pepper, garlic powder, ginger and ground cinnamon, to taste
Cook shrimp and serve chilled with a spicy cocktail sauce; mix a 50/50 portion of sauce (at left) and prepared horseradish. The sauce should be pink.
“I vary this recipe every time I make it, depending how [much spice] I feel my guests can handle,” says Laird. “I like the cinnamon part of it.”
4 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
Milk (until it’s easy to stir)
1 Tbsp. vanilla
Add more milk after everything is thoroughly mixed, to make batter very thin.
Use 1 tsp. oil for each crêpe in a hot pan.
A non-stick pan makes them easier to flip.
Tips from Tom
1. Have fun in the kitchen.
2. Don’t be a slave to recipes; experiment a little (but write it down in case it’s really good).
3. Use a little extra sugar.