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How to Cook in Public Like a Decent Human Being

Four experts tell us the dos and don’ts of cooking in shared spaces like parks and office kitchens

Behind a public grill a woman with four arms holds a spatula, hot dog, bag of trash, and bottle of mustard as a park ranger and woodland creatures look on. Illustration. Subin Yang

It’s never a good look to scatter your trash across a public park, burn a bunch of popcorn in the office microwave, or leave burnt meat scraps on your condo’s communal grill. As the weather turns warmer and people get to gathering, it’s important to keep a few communal cooking etiquette tips in mind. We spoke to experts in four different public cooking spaces — a public park, an office kitchen, a Korean barbecue restaurant, and a building’s shared grill — to learn how not to piss off the neighbors.

Cooking at a public park:

Kena Peay, a Bay Area outdoor chef, makes delicious, elaborate meals as she walks through parks and hiking trails, and documents her creations on Instagram. She packs a backpack and a cooler, and makes use of the shared grills in public parks for much of her cooking.

Step one for Peay is planning ahead and arriving early because park grills are limited and usually first come, first served. “I was at a grill one time when the park was packed, and another family came in with their ribs [wanting to use the grill],” she says. “It was kind of funny — you really have a lot of faith, in the middle of summer in Oakland, that you can bring your open container of ribs all marinated, but you ain’t got no grill yet?” Peay says with a laugh. The moral of the story: Be conscientious of others’ time and space.

Peay also advises outdoor grillers to check local rules and fire regulations. Only make a fire if it’s permitted. And if you’re on tribal land, make sure you’re invited first. “I hike and camp up in Mount Shasta a lot, which is tribal land, and you’re not supposed to make fires for food there, but people still do,” says Peay. “If fire is allowed, then use it, but if it’s not, you should respect the policies for cooking outdoors.”

Lastly, make sure you clean up after yourself, not only for the people who will use the area next but for the health and safety of the ecosystem around you. In other words, pack it in, pack it out. “I make sure that when I’m unwrapping things, I put them in a garbage bag that I can put in my pack because I don’t want to leave random pieces of plastic that an animal can eat,” Peay says. And after using a public grill, “just straighten up a little bit as a common courtesy because parks are generally managed by the city,” she explains. “Someone else shouldn’t have to deal with your mess because you wanted barbecue chicken but didn’t clean up after yourself.”

A blender affixed with a post-it that reads “Feel free to use!” is surrounded by a tea bag, fork, mug, and packaged snack. Illustration.

Making lunch at the office:

No one knows more about office kitchen kerfuffles than Alison Green, the creator of the Ask a Manager blog and the author of the Cut’s “Ask a Boss” workplace-advice column. “The letters people send me are just full of drama about people using shared kitchens in a way that other people don’t like,” Green says. While heating up broccoli or fish in the office microwave might not smell great to everyone, Green cautions office workers to handle these situations delicately to avoid tapping into racial or cultural biases. “If you work in an office where the only microwaved foods that people object to happen to be non-Western foods, that’s something you need to consider… Offices need to be pretty deliberate if they’re trying to set up guidelines for what you can and can’t do.”

Green generally advises office workers to be sensitive to their surroundings and humane to their coworkers. She recently got a question from a person asking if they could bring a blender to work to make healthy smoothies for lunch. “Ten years ago, I would have said, ‘No, don’t do it.’ But I feel like now, yeah, it’s okay, with some guidelines. I think you should try to get a quieter blender, and you should know that if you store it in the kitchen, other people are going to use it, and you have to be okay with that. And you should probably check with the people whose offices are close to the kitchen after you do it the first time to make sure that the noise didn’t disturb them,” she says.

The pandemic has shifted some of the norms around office kitchen culture, Green says. “What we consider okay to do at work as far as food has changed because of the shift to remote work,” she explains. “I think we have seen people relax their standards in a lot of different areas, but definitely around eating at work. I do think there’s more leeway these days for doing your own thing in the kitchen.”

Grilling at a Korean barbecue restaurant:

During her 11 years working as a manager at 99 Favor Taste, a Korean barbecue and hot pot restaurant in New York, Joanna Lin has seen it all. Her experience serving customers as they grill their own meat with friends, or dip veggies into a sizzling hot pot broth, says a lot about how to eat in a communal restaurant environment.

A hot pot full of meats and vegetables. Illustration.

It might seem obvious, but Lin says one of the most important tips is to make sure you cook your meats fully before chowing down. “One time, a customer just ate the beef raw,” she says. On that food safety note, Lin adds that it’s also important to use the right utensils to avoid cross contaminating raw and cooked meats: “We mandate that customers use two different [utensils] for handling raw food and cooked food.”

Also, make sure you pay attention to the grill, and call for help if things are heating up fast. Meats that sit on the grill for too long can become charred or burned, which forms potentially dangerous compounds. “Don’t wait until the grill gets very dark — it’s not healthy to eat,” says Lin. “It’s okay to remind a waiter to change it out.”

And finally, we all want to capture our Korean barbecue grilling with friends for Instagram or TikTok, but the staff at 99 Favor warns customers to keep their phones away from the electric hot pot grill, or induction cooktop, for obvious reasons.

Using your building’s shared grill:

In the middle of the pandemic, when Meredith Cummings, a journalist and professor, was living in a condo in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, she saw a group of self-proclaimed college “dudes” attempting to use the building’s grill for the first time. Cummings watched them from her third-floor apartment, and the result is a deeply entertaining Twitter thread about their efforts: “lol they didn’t have any charcoal and it’s a charcoal situation. ‘Well, I guess we can use my stove,’ one said. ‘No. We must be men,’ another responded.”

A happy squirrel relaxes on top of a half-eaten hot dog. Illustration.

From her own experience with the grill, and from watching other neighbors over the course of a decade, Cummings implores residents in a shared-grill building to clean up after themselves. “Don’t leave a mess behind, and don’t leave your empty beer cans or liquor bottles,” she says. “Please clean the grill off when you’re done with it, especially if something burns or chars — just tidy up a bit.”

She also advises grillers to keep a close watch on what they’re actually cooking, especially if the grill is surrounded by other apartments. “When something was burning, we all knew it,” Cummings recalls. “I’m not judging — I get that when you’re busy drinking and having fun, you just lose track of what’s on the grill — but then it burns and stinks up the whole place.”

Finally, she echoes Kena Peay’s sentiment about being mindful of your usage of shared equipment. “Don’t hog the grill all day. It’s important to remember that somebody else might want it, even if they’re not standing there waiting on you,” Cummings says. “Maybe they’re looking out the window, waiting for their turn.”

Valeria Ricciulli is a New York City-based Colombian journalist. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Curbed, DNAinfo NY, and El Diario NY.
Subin Yang is a South Korean illustrator currently based in NYC. She makes images using colorful blocky shapes and loose line work inspired by themes of home, culture, and identity.