Backseat Cooking: What It Is And How To Deal With It

Maybe this sounds familiar: You ask your friend for their famous biscuit recipe, and when they finally send the link, they point out that it's missing some crucial steps. Suddenly you're receiving photos of "what the pea-sized lumps should look like" and links to YouTube videos demonstrating the best way to cut butter into dough. And oh, by the way, you have a biscuit cutter, right? Because according to your friend, you'll "definitely need one." Envisioning the hours of perfectly precise butter-chilling, kneading, and properly equipped dough-cutting ahead of you, you drive to a nearby Popeyes and lie to your friend when they ask how your biscuits turned out.


Your friend is a backseat cook. Backseat cooking happens when a person who is not cooking points out errors or makes unprompted suggestions to someone who is cooking. The perpetrator believes they're being helpful, saving the cook time and effort and improving the quality of the resulting meal. The recipient of this barrage of advice may feel belittled, or like their efforts are unappreciated. In extreme cases, an otherwise pleasant cooking experience is entirely co-opted.

The most common culprits of this behavior lurk unexpectedly at park picnics, company holiday parties, and in your very own home—and they come in lots of varieties. To better identify backseat cooks and prevent what might be the most abhorrent culinary assault since the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, I've assembled this compendium of backseat cook archetypes. Identifying them is the first step in neutralizing them.


The Meal Hijacker

Typical offense: Sneaking away to start the braise before you can

The scene: You suggest to your boyfriend that the two of you cook a meal together, believing this to be a fun weeknight activity. You find a good recipe and go shopping for all the ingredients the night before. He, meanwhile, has more free time during the afternoons to putter around and mise en place, so by the time you wrap up work for the day and head into the kitchen, everything's already cooking; when you try to assist, he says, "Hey, maybe you can set the table?" You find yourself sidelined from a meal that was your idea to begin with.


How to deal with the Meal Hijacker: While his back is turned as he double-checks the recipe, dump a bunch of salt into whatever he's prepared. When he eventually tastes the food and doesn't understand why it's so salty, act surprised, then say matter-of-factly that he should've waited for you to help out. Pat him on the back and emphasize how tricky cooking can be.

The Neat Freak

Typical offense: Shortcutting the meal in the name of tidiness until it resembles an episode of Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee

The scene: Your friends from college are getting together, and plans for a make-your-own pizza night are discussed. One of your friends volunteers to host, and you bring your sourdough starter to make dough. But then the host starts vetoing ideas left and right, claiming she's "not in the mood for a big project," though you suspect she's actually just not in the mood for a big clean-up. Before you know it, your dinner party has turned into a bunch of women spreading jarred tomato sauce on store-bought discs of dough in an exercise reminiscent of a large-scale Lunchables meal. When you try to put your pie in the oven, she swoops in to make sure that no flour sprinkles onto her oven grates.


How to deal with the Neat Freak: Unfortunately, there is little hope that the Neat Freak might change her ways. Next time she offers to host a party, simply say you have plans and then host a much bigger and better party on the same night.

The Grill Bro

Typical offense: An endless treatise on the superiority of kamado grills

The scene: You're grilling burgers and hot dogs for a small gathering of friends. Even though you don't know this guy very well, he's spent the whole night hovering near the grill commenting on your use of lighter fluid and the choice to use briquettes instead of lump charcoal. Whenever you step away, he adjusts the vents or adds charcoals to the fire. At one point, you plate a burger for your friend who asks if it's well done, and without any warning this guy sticks his finger in the burger and announces that it's "super well done" while grimacing.


How to deal with the Grill Bro: Ask him to man your station while you step away for a minute, and then never return. If he cares so much about grilling, let him do it!

The Quality Control Specialist 

Typical offense: "Fixing" all the dishes other people brought

The scene: It's your cousin's birthday, and she invited friends and family members over to celebrate with a potluck dinner. When you arrive at the house, you find her in the kitchen fiddling with all the potluck contributions. She asks if the salad you brought is already dressed, and you confirm that it is. However, later in the evening when you scoop some of the salad onto your plate, it looks different. It's sodden with a creamy dressing (even though you'd used a vinaigrette), and there's now some kind of crunchy garnish on top.


How to deal with the Quality Control Specialist: Quietly start asking other guests at the party if their dishes were similarly adjusted. Once you gain enough support among the ranks, confront your cousin loudly and publicly. Bring up that one Thanksgiving years ago when the two of you collaborated on a pumpkin pie and she made you run back to the grocery store five times because she was displeased with the nutmeg and whipped cream you'd purchased. Then yield the floor to a group of her coworkers who resent her tyranny when planning holiday office parties. It's a bitter pill, but she needs to swallow it.

The Picky Eater

Typical offense: Refusing to eat sandwiches because "ew, tomatoes"

The scene: Your daughter comes home for a visit with her new boyfriend. She hasn't introduced you to anyone in years, so you celebrate the occasion with an elaborate meal. They arrive in the late afternoon, chatting while you chop veggies and slowly cook a lamb curry. Your daughter offers to help, and you give her some peppers to cut. She begins cutting them but then asks if you can leave out the peppers in her portion of the curry, because she doesn't want it to be spicy. You explain that these are sweet peppers, but she insists that she won't like those either. Then she asks if there's a way to reduce the amount of actual curry going into her portion. You sigh deeply, and divide your one-pot meal into two portions that will finish cooking separately, one with all the flavorful and nutritious ingredients, and the other with tragically few.


How to deal with the Picky Eater: Ask your daughter if she can go outside and pick some herbs for a raita. Walk into the yard with her and point out which planters she should pick from. When you head back inside, lock the door on her!

The World-Weary Cook

Typical offense: Defending the dignity of food while shaming all the humans that prepare it

The scene: You're cooking dinner when your roommate, a restaurant cook, comes home from work. They talk about their day while watching you pour a jar of tomato sauce into a pot. They wince and seem uncomfortable, and then they get out a new pot, and explain that you should heat the tomato sauce in non-reactive metal. You explain that you've done this many times before and it's never tasted weird, but you agree to use the other pot, annoyed that you'll now be washing two pots. You pull out a sourdough boule you bought from the good bakery on your way home from work and begin cutting it. Your roommate dramatically shouts at you to stop, pointing at the uneven, chewed-up slices and asking in anguish if you wouldn't prefer using "an actual bread knife."


How to deal with the World-Weary Cook: Refuse to use a bread knife—not just now, but ever again. Follow your roommate around the house while sawing ineffectively at the bread with your non-bread knife, leaving a trail of crumbs in your wake. Shout the words "This bread is mine, mine, mine!" at them. Then rip a chunk from the heel and tear into it with your teeth.

Field notes:

  • Witnessing violence enacted upon food does not excuse backseat cooking.
  • Taking implements away from someone cooking their own food is only acceptable when it's to prevent something dangerous from happening (to the human participant).
  • Cooking is one of the few creative acts we can take part in on a daily basis. As such, while you can give advice when it's solicited, ultimately you owe your fellow man the freedom to ruin their food as they wish.
  • The Meal Hijacker presents a caveat: Though he sounds like an egregious backseat cook, if he did the majority of the cooking before you joined him, you are obligated to follow his vision. There's a reason professional kitchens run on a brigade system modeled on the military and not an all-out free-for-all à la Hungry Hungry Hippos or bumper cars. In cooking, a hierarchy is necessary to eliminate acts of dissent that threaten the success of a meal. Though there can be several passengers, only one person can steer the car in this cooking metaphor!
  • 99% of backseat cooking is preventable. The next time you witness something terrible happening to food, ask yourself these two questions: Is the situation dangerous (i.e. is there risk of food poisoning or personal injury)? Is the cook currently unhappy with how things are going? If the answer to either is yes, then you're allowed to speak up! If not, pump the brakes.