Cooking Through My Pandemic
By Sam McArdle
The year 2018 was my pandemic, I was in a mental lockdown. Basically, I was on social welfare for almost 2 years. I was fired from a job the Christmas before; I quit acting; I couldn’t get a job; I couldn’t get a break. 2 years previously to this, I was doing theatre in New York with Cate Blanchett and Daniel Craig coming to see our company, Cheek By Jowl. And now, here I was without a job. I was unemployed and feeling so overwhelmed. I wasn’t in a good place. I did an exercise from Tim Ferris, my favorite podcast host, where you take a review of your year. What have you done? What have you achieved? What have you learnt? And I realized that for all of 2018, I had been very negative, very angry, and very defeatist. I had lost track a little of who I was. And even worse, I had learnt nothing. Then at Christmas of 2018, I was given a cooking book by "The Happy Pear” twins. I heard of them before and enjoyed their light-hearted take on life. One day, I made one of their recipes, a chickpea curry, and I put it on Instagram. Some people commented, “Ah, that’s cool. Fair play." I realized that I had spent so much time looking for jobs or just going to the gym on my own, that I had kind of gone into a little cave and wasn’t seeing anyone. It seemed like everyone but me had their dream job or that their career was going well. Even though I’m a social person, and this is weird to say, I found that communicating with people via these videos would bolster me up for the week ahead. Then I had to prepare a dish for a friend's dinner party, so I made this sweet potato and marshmallow dish. I put a bit more effort into that, and I did a voice-over, and I just joked about it. Two or three more positive comments and messages came in. I started cooking a lot more, and I started putting more and more thought into it. I was someone growing up who loved being a performer. I used to be in a band when I was younger, and I then became an actor. But I had lost my self-confidence, and so I stopped wanting to be in front of the camera. But with each weekly video, I started to claw it back, and then I started putting my face into the video more. Let’s be honest, everyone knows what chopped onions and peppers look like. After about 2 months, I started a routine of going to the gym 5-6 times a week and cooking. However, at the weekends, I would get very anxious about my life. I was still on welfare, still getting down to the last few rounds of jobs, but still no luck. I felted like I was wasting my life and wasting my time. My self-talk was so bad, so negative. Meditation wasn’t helping, and the positive effects of a workout would wear off after a few hours. However, whenever I would get stressed, I would just go and read up some cooking books. I would spend between two and five hours in the kitchen at any day just slowing down. I would think about what I was going to cook today. I realized that you have to take your time with cooking, and you have to be specific with the measuring of ingredients. It became my form of therapy and meditation, and it really calmed me down.
Cooking was my Apollo Creed to my Rocky. Cooking was my training partner that got me back on my feet, that got me thinking, “You should have a crack at writing this play you’ve been thinking about for a while, The Manny.” From there, I started jumbling down ideas. Now, it’s a dark comedy about a male nanny who works for affluent single mothers in west London. It also deals with themes of masculinity, loneliness, and dating in the 21st century digital age.
Writing my play was slow as f*ck because my self-confidence was so low.
When I started writing it, I said to myself, “Maybe you’re not a writer, but can you give me just 10 minutes a day. Just give me 10 minutes every day of writing uninterrupted.” So, I started with 10 minutes a day. Gradually, it turned into 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and eventually, I got the bare bones of a script by summer 2019. Then, I got a job at a consulting company.
I’d first heard of the role when I was invited along to an unemployed person’s networking group (there really is no way to glam that sentence up is there?). Someone had dropped out of going at the last minute, allowing me a space to attend. The guest speaker was the head of one of the teams Claire Carroll. She gave an overview of the work she does, and the different personalities that work there. I’ve never heard of a workplace described like that was before.
Later on, that evening, I worked out what her email address was and sent her a cover letter and a CV. She said thank you and that she’ll let me know if there are any vacancies. A few weeks later I’m in New York with some friends on a cultural pilgrimage to witness Wrestlemania 35, and I get a phone call from a recruiter to say I have an interview for a role on one of the team’s in a week. A few days before it, I feel exhausted and burnt out from the prep. I decide to go easy on myself, take a break, and bake something. I decide on Chickpea Cookies, they go down well. A little too well. It says there are enough portions for 12 people. We’ll see about that.
I ended up getting the job. Genuinely, my first bit of good fortune in two years. Just having that job and that routine, I realized that I was doing so much wrong in the last 2 years. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I was just feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t focusing on the things I can do. I actually can write a play. I have half a script here. I actually am into cooking, and I’m actually okay at narrating it.
Over time, I started getting more into videos and writing the play. In January 2020, I said to my buddy Donal Gallery, “You show me something you’re working on Valentine’s day, and I’ll show the first draft.” By setting that target and holding myself accountable for it, I had to get it done. Then COVID happened.
Because I had those two years of hell and mental anxiety and mental burnout, I was able to get through it. I could get through this pandemic. So when COVID hit, I was f*ck that, what can I control? Ok, so the cooking keeps me on a routine, and this play I’m writing, this is the end goal I want to get to. So, I just needed to stay calm, keep to a routine, and focus on that.
Now I have two hours back in the day, I know that I am in a fortunate position with my job. I don’t have to go to work and come home from work. So what am I going to do in those two hours that used to be travel time? Now is the time to spend on passion projects you always wanted to do. For me, it’s the cooking videos and The Manny.
I let 2018, as a year, go by. I didn’t learn to drive, I didn’t write my play, I didn’t get better at cooking, I didn’t get a handle on my nutrition. I just sulked and wasted the year. I remember coming towards the end of 2019, I’ll never let life go by without squeezing the most out of it as I can. So when COVID hit, I just kept to the belief that “the routine will keep me sane.”
All throughout 2020, I continued with my cooking videos, and I started doing drafts of The Manny. Now, it’s finished. The play is ready. As someone who fell out of love with acting, the cooking videos helped me to get back into it, and now, I got a play.
Through COVID, I know what it's like to stay in bed and pull the covers over and block out the world. I did that for at least 9 months, and I never want to do that again. So when the pandemic hit, I thought to myself, “Right, what can I do to not fall back in that trap?” For me, it was creating a routine.
So what started for me as trying out a little curry recipe from The Happy Pear helped me to find my mediation and start a routine. The cooking helped me to rebuild my self-confidence and find my passion for performing. It helped me to start writing my play. It helped me to find a routine and work on the things that matter to me.
I can’t control if I get to Hollywood. I may never get to play a Shakespeare role on stage. I might never get to be part of a really important story told on TV. But, I can control writing a play about a young man and what it talks about: objectification, mental health, relationships, dating in the digital age, and responsibility. I can control writing that and putting that on. I am going to put that on, and whatever comes after it, comes after it.
As told to Elizabeth Harris.
Sam McArdle is an actor, writer, and consultant. He produces cooking videos on Instagram @smcardle5 where you can also get updates on his play The Manny.