CAMBRIDGE — On the stovetop in Carolyn Johnson and Bill Flumerfelt’s kitchen, there’s a beautifully browned pork roast stuffed with herbs and garlic, a pan of meltingly tender braised red cabbage, and a pot of black-eyed peas simmered in pork broth. It’s the kind of comforting meal the chefs — Johnson, of 80 Thoreau in Concord, and Flumerfelt, of Nubar in the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge — would make for guests.
Earlier, they had a disagreement about the cabbage. Flumerfelt suggested tossing the slivers with red vinegar before cooking, a technique that helps preserve the vibrant color. Johnson didn’t like the idea. “You can’t really sear it once it’s wet,” she countered. “I usually add the vinegar in after.”
Now, looking at their handiwork, he says, “You took my suggestion.”
“It was solid advice,” says Johnson, in a conciliatory tone.
When chefs get chef-y in their home kitchens, more than pots may boil. But we talked to four chef couples who keep the simmering at bay. Sure, these skilled folks have preferences and opinions, but they seem to have found the right formula for cooking together — or not — at home.
Johnson, 38, and Flumerfelt, 45, have been a couple for 12 years, after meeting at the former Icarus. With their demanding work hours, collaborative dinners are rare. Breakfast is more their speed. They like fried eggs with hash browns. Their version of diced potatoes, onions, and vegetables is fried in duck fat. “We usually have a good supply of duck fat or bacon fat,” says Johnson. Something like that is reserved for Sunday mornings. Otherwise, says Johnson, “We try to eat healthfully at home.” That means lots of vegetables, beans, bulgur and quinoa salads, and little meat. “We use meat more as an accent,” she says.
As chefs, they’re distinctly aware of each other’s cooking styles. Flumerfelt credits Johnson with being “more methodical” than he is. “You’re cooking like a pro at home,” he says to her. “I’m more casual. I [cook] a little more haphazardly,” he says. “I want to get to the eating part.”
If you want to hear about two different kitchen styles, talk to Jeremy and Lisa Sewall of Wellesley, who own Lineage restaurant in Brookline. “He’s messier,” Lisa, 47, says. Jeremy, 41, admits he can be a bit of a tyrant. “I don’t cook at home very often, so I just want to take control of it,” he says.
“But when I’m cooking, he’s not critical,” says Lisa, a pastry chef.
“I just say thank you,” says her husband.
With young children and multiple restaurants — Jeremy Sewall also co-owns Island Creek Oyster Bar and is the executive chef of Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne, all located in the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square — it’s not easy for the couple to have a leisurely meal at home. “It’s nice to go out and see who’s doing what and be cooked for,” he says.
When Lisa was sick before Christmas, Jeremy made all the family’s meals, including their sons’ school lunches. “Planning out the meals was the tough part,” he says. “It was a week of dishes. It was pretty humbling.” Hudson, 11, and Ethan, 8, don’t yet appreciate their father’s culinary prowess. “The boys are very vocal about how Mom’s a better cook than I am,” says Jeremy. They prefer their mother’s pancakes and sloppy Joes.
Jeremy admits that Lisa is more organized than he is. “I teach him where things are in the kitchen,” she says.
In Molly Hanson and Kate Henry’s household, Henry has the kitchen organized the way she likes it because she’s the primary dinner maker. Both women are pastry chefs: Henry, 34, part time at Oleana in Cambridge; Hanson, 41, at Grill 23 & Bar and Post 390.
“It’s really nice to get home and dinner’s made,” says Hanson. The couple, married for 10 years, have two young daughters and live with Hanson’s parents in Concord. The older couple recently became vegans for health reasons so Henry whips up meatless meals, such as tacos (using textured vegetable protein or beans instead of meat) and a mock lamb curry with homemade seitan.
“Kate is nicer in the kitchen than I am,” says Hanson, admitting she can be a little “snippy.” But when the two share kitchen space, they’re comfortable together. “We know how to move around someone in the kitchen,” says Hanson. “If I do cook [at home] it’s usually some kind of project and Kate helps find things for me,” she says. For a recent rum cake, Henry pulled out all the ingredients, mixing bowls, and Bundt pan. “She’s like the kitchen elf,” says Hanson.
They collaborate on fruit pies, with Henry making the crust and Hanson the fillings. They mostly disagree on chocolate and sugar. Henry prefers bittersweet chocolate, Hanson likes the sweetness and caramel flavor of milk chocolate. For a Scandinavian dessert called “veiled country lass,” made with applesauce, sugared bread crumbs, and whipped cream, “it really varies based on who prepares it,” says Hanson, who has the bigger sweet tooth. “Kate uses sugar like it’s salt.” For their sticky toffee pudding, the chefs came up with a recipe they both like.
As with any couple, sometimes one person’s craving or idea of a useful gift is imposed on the other. Rebecca Newell, chef at The Beehive in Boston, gave her husband, Steve Butters, owner of Butter Cafe & Bakery in Walpole, a wok for his birthday. “He said, ‘This isn’t for me,’ ” says Newell. Butters calls it “a classic boomerang gift, that you want to come back to you.” In response, the avid fisherman told Newell he would buy her fishing lures for her birthday. To use her new wok, Newell made a salmon stir-fry with ginger and citrusy ponzu sauce.
For the couple, who have been married for 2½ years, food is a token of caring. Because Butters, 39, likes chicken, they often make chicken Milanese and chicken piccata (“Anything lightly pounded we love,” Newell, 35, says). Her favorite comfort food is Butters’s cheeseburger, complete with toasted buttered buns. “It’s the best cheeseburger ever,” she says.
In Johnson and Flumerfelt’s kitchen, the two are respectful of each other’s talents. “We tend to be deferential and it works on so many levels,” says Flumerfelt.
If they do need a reminder, good advice hangs on the kitchen wall. A framed cross-stitch from Flumerfelt’s mother offers the adage: “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” The couple heeds those words when they cook together.
Except, perhaps, when they’re making cabbage.