This First-Year Finds Community in Cooking

The power of cooking helped Alex Christiano find his place during his first year at NYU.

Alex Christiano, Gallatin first-year, is an avid chef and frequently cooks in his Third Avenue North Residence Hall dorm room. (Staff Photo by Talia Barton)

Upbeat drums, rhythmic guitar and the raspy voice of Iggy Pop fill the air and bring the cramped kitchen alive as “Lust for Life” reverberates through the room. When Gallatin first-year Alex Christiano cooks in his Third Avenue North Residence Hall dorm room, his go-to playlist sets the scene.

Christiano cooks three to four times a week on average, often making do with leftovers for the days in between. His favorite dish to experiment with is pasta, noting the possibilities for variation and inexpensive ingredients. But Christiano also has all of the proteins down — chicken, salmon and steak are frequently featured in his recipes.

However, when cooking for people other than himself, Christiano goes all out to make more complex meals.

While making a large meal to enjoy with his friends, Christiano battles to work within the confines of his spatially-limited kitchen. Tonight’s menu consists of chicken confit, pasta, salad, yams and butternut squash.

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“This kitchen is so tiny. I’m literally cooking right now and I don’t have space for sh-t,” Christiano says while looking for a place to store his pan. “I have to put stuff on the stove top […] I keep stuff on top of the fridge. There’s literally stuff everywhere. And no dishwasher.”

While this wasn’t a challenge Christiano faced when he began cooking for his family in Southern California when he was 16 years old, he finds that the joys of developing his skills and sharing his food outweigh the constraints of the small space.

Christiano’s roommate, Gallatin first-year Connor Sovak, constantly reaps the benefits of Christiano’s affinity for cooking.

“I like having a roommate that’s a chef. Third North dining hall is terrible and dining halls get old,” Sovak said. “He works his magic, and it’s amazing.”

But Sovak couldn’t help but bring up Christiano’s biggest cooking horror story since arriving at NYU. Christiano begrudgingly filled in the details, explaining how smoke and splattering hot oil set off his fire alarm, almost triggering the fire alarm for all of Third North.

“That was really stupid,” Christiano said. “But in general, I think making mistakes is how you learn it’s really important. I can confidently make some dishes because I messed them all up a hundred times.”

After taking an early interest in the YouTube cooking community, Christiano realized his talent during his sophomore year of high school.

“I started by watching YouTube videos and making things in middle school,” Christiano said. “But one year, I cooked the turkey for Thanksgiving and that was when I realized I could actually cook meals for my family.”

However, despite spending a summer working back of the kitchen for an Italian restaurant in California, Christiano doesn’t have professional culinary aspirations. Rather, he’s majoring in Politics and Spanish, hoping to use his love for conversation, debate and food to work within global food politics.

To Christiano, cooking has benefits he finds more important than working for profit in a restaurant.

After starting school at NYU, Christiano began posting Instagram story recipes. Each 10-second video illustrates a step of the process, providing personal tips and tricks to his 1,383 followers. He keeps the ingredients simple, hoping his recipes are something any beginner college dorm room cook could replicate.

Christiano’s motivation behind starting the Instagram story recipes was not only to help out other young aspiring cooks, but also to create a conversation starter upon his arrival to NYU. Just like every other first-year, Christiano was worried about meeting people in New York City.

“It actually ended up being super helpful in making friends,” Christiano said. “That was a really cool way to meet people and they already knew a little bit about who I was because I had attached myself to something besides just my major.”

Christiano often hosts groups of people in his dorm to enjoy his freshly cooked food. Rory Meyers first-year Kora Quintana is a regular attendee.

“It’s nice when you’re missing home and home-cooked meals,” Quintana said. “The dinner-party meals are really cool. He’s only done a couple but it was cool because I met a lot of people through that who I’m still friends with.”

After seeing the impact his food has had on his friends this semester, Christiano decided to create an Instagram page dedicated to cooking — @christianocooks. While the Instagram story recipes remain a prominent feature of this new page, he also recommends unique restaurants that friends can go to in order to share a unique experience together. Once the transitional phase of adjusting to college winds down, Christiano hopes to start a dinner party business where he will cook dinner for groups of people at an affordable, college-friendly price.

Christiano has a lot of advice for students who are finding it challenging to become self-sufficient in the kitchen after moving away from home. There are ways to collect ingredients (such as vegetables from the salad bars) using meal swipes.

“If you’re waiting in line at a dining hall or waiting for your food at a restaurant, you’re probably spending just as much time on your food as you would be cooking it yourself,” Christiano said.

Living in New York City, it’s necessary that we all find something to help us escape from the constant chaos. For Christiano, cooking is therapeutic, not only in the process but also in the way it connects him to people. He hopes to inspire this mindset in others, and trust me, he’ll talk about it with anyone willing to listen.

A version of this article appears in the Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, print edition. Email Calais Watkins at [email protected]

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