Hovering Kitchen Guest Conundrum

Dear Helena,
When guests ask if they can help in the kitchen, I feel it’s more trouble to explain how I want something done than to do it myself. But sometimes someone follows me into the kitchen and tries to “entertain” me. This is annoying, as I don’t necessarily want my guests to know everything that goes into a dish—like how much butter goes in my stuffing! Last year my cousin distracted me so, prattling on about her latest bad date, that I accidentally poured my gravy down the sink. Is it uncool of me to be irritated? And what’s the most gracious way to banish a guest from the kitchen?
—Shy Cook

Dear Shy Cook,
There are two sorts of cooks: sociable and solitary. As this thread illustrates, people seem to fall about equally into the two camps. And when I asked readers of the Kitchn what they thought about this week’s topic, they were split down the middle too.

Sociable cooks think of the kitchen as the heart of the house, the place where everyone hangs out. They feel excluded if they are stirring risotto while their guests are laughing in the next room. Their ideal kitchen has an island with barstools.

But solitary cooks—like myself—like to concentrate when they cook. I need to enter a kind of flow state: I’m beating egg whites while remembering to check the pasta while plotting what will go into the salad. It disrupts my flow if I have to listen to a guest’s anecdote about what happened while he was at the DMV.

Some solitary cooks may feel uncomfortable about guests watching them cook because it spoils the surprise when they finally bring out the food. They don’t want people to see them double-dip the tasting spoon or eat the soggy bit of Parmesan rind they used to flavor the stock. It’s like having your date watch you pluck your eyebrows and powder your nose.

If you’re a solitary cook, it’s natural to be irritated when hovering guests cramp your style. But those guests most likely have good intentions. They’re worried that you’re lonely, or convinced that, even though you’ve refused their offer of help three times, you could still do with a second pair of hands. So be gentle when you banish them.

I recommend being straightforward: “I’m really enjoying your company, but if you go and sit down, I’ll get everything done faster; then I can relax and focus on our conversation.”

Commenters on the Kitchn have other suggestions. “I usually tell them to go make me a drink and often they get waylaid by a conversation at the bar,” says tasterspoon.

“We put a linoleum floor in our kitchen, and as a decorative accent, I added a black stripe around the island,” says sara jane. “When we have big crowds, everyone gathers in the kitchen, not even minding that there aren’t enough stools. When it’s time for me to get into ‘game mode’ and get dinner on the table, I shout ‘Behind the black line!’ and woe to anyone caught inside of it and in my workspace.”

But you have to know your guests well and be very charming to do this without causing offense. I used to have a tiny kitchen and would always bark “Invisible line!” at my husband whenever he tried to come in and chat to me while I cooked. Needless to say, this was not received well.

Here’s more CHOW advice on how to deal with kitchen invaders.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.