The recipe for a happy marriage? Cooking therapy!

The recipe for a happy marriage? Cooking therapy! That’s the premise of a new counselling service, but does it just stir up trouble? HARRY WALLOP and his wife try a taster

  • Charlotte Hastings offers counselling and cooking sessions for £75 per couple
  • Psychotherapist visited Harry Wallop and wife Vic at their North London home 
  • Harry claims Charlotte delivered home truths in a surprisingly enjoyable way 

Eager to please, I am stirring some celery and onions in a frying pan, while my wife chops coriander, under the watchful and patient eye of Charlotte Hastings, a psychotherapist and member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

‘I feel like I’ve opened a few doors,’ says Charlotte soothingly. ‘More like, can of worms,’ hisses my wife darkly, as she slices through the herbs with a murderous relish.

The temperature in my North London kitchen is starting to increase — and that’s not because of the fajita ingredients simmering on the hob. Charlotte runs a practice called Therapy Kitchen. The idea is that she can offer individuals, and often couples, counselling while helping them cook a meal at the same time.

Often a cooking session, lasting between one and two hours and costing £75 per couple, will be part of a longer course of couples’ therapy; or sometimes just a one-off to help people discuss their partnerships in a different way. Get some searing insights into their relationship alongside some seared beef.

Harry Wallop and his wife Vic (pictured) had a therapy session at their North London home, with psychotherapist Charlotte Hastings

I thought the idea sounded like the worst form of Californian woo-woo. For starters, my wife, Vic, and I have been happily married for 20 years, a relationship that has held firm through four children, three mortgages and two redundancies.

Though I know therapy can be useful, or even a life-saver, for all sorts of people, I’m firmly of the view that there’s no point prodding a sleeping dog if they’re snoring away happily.

Secondly, I love cooking. I enjoy the uncomplicated nature of taking some ingredients and turning them into something delicious.

I don’t want a psychotherapist to start analysing why I like shoving my hand up a chicken.

But here’s Charlotte telling me: ‘Food should be about pleasure and basic creativity. It’s the first taste of alchemy. It’s the first place children start to play, making mud pies. We want to go back to that child thing.’

Do we? Really? I was rather hoping, at the age of 46, to move on from the food of my childhood — which mostly involved Angel Delight and Findus crispy pancakes.

But my wife is firmly of the view that everyone could do with a bit of therapy, not least her repressed husband. And after the strange year we have all suffered, couldn’t we all?

Britain has started to embrace self-improvement in all its guises. According to the BACP, counselling’s trade body, 34 per cent of adults in the UK sought help from a psychotherapist or counsellor last year, up from 21 per cent ten years ago.

Charlotte (centre) explained therapy can be helpful for anyone and participants don’t have to be in crisis before they go

There is art therapy and dance therapy, so I suppose therapy while making a salsa isn’t as loopy as it may first sound. Especially if food is an important part of your life.

In just over a week, we will be allowed to do the one thing that signals, to me, freedom above all others: entertaining.

From May 17, if the roadmap continues apace, six people in England will be allowed to sit down for a meal together inside.

In Scotland, it will be four people until June 7, when — if Nicola Sturgeon’s government allows it — a bacchanalian six people will be allowed to break bread.

While others crave the crush and noise of music festivals or the dark embrace of cinemas and theatres, I can’t wait until we are allowed to welcome friends back into our home —– not the freezing garden, our actual home. A dinner party, with all the hoopla of napkins, candles and the giddy anticipation of popping corks, will symbolise a return to normality.

Which partly explains why Charlotte is in our kitchen instructing us to chop and slice various vegetables, while she probes our marriage.

‘Therapy can be really helpful for anyone,’ says Charlotte. ‘They don’t have to be in crisis before they go.’

Charlotte (centre) said conducting a therapy session while cooking is potentially less confrontational than doing it sitting face-to-face

Charlotte argues that conducting a therapy session while cooking is more relaxed and potentially less confrontational than doing it sitting face-to-face. ‘This is another reason why art therapy works, and also therapies such as gardening and walking.’

Any awkward silences can be filled with stirring the pot, while any tears can be blamed on peeling an onion. And there’s another reason. ‘Seeing how a couple cooks together gives a practical insight into the dynamics of their marriage. Watching how you “dance” around the kitchen together gives a primal sense of how the relationship ticks or doesn’t.’

And it doesn’t take long for Charlotte, 53, to realise how I “dance” around the kitchen with Vic, after I unilaterally start to add more lime juice to the salsa that my wife has been put in charge of.

‘He’s got previous for this,’ my wife says, turning to Charlotte. ‘He’ll come into the kitchen and start interfering. Sometimes I’ll ask what this stew, or whatever, needs.

‘But frequently, he’ll just come in and start taking over, stirring the pot — metaphorically and literally — adding things, changing the heat. It drives me insane.’

Charlotte then turns to my wife and says in a therapist’s tone: ‘What does that say to you?’

‘It’s all about him thinking he’s the better cook,’ she answers. I am happy to admit that my wife is better at nearly all other aspects of domestic life but when it comes to roasting a leg of lamb or seasoning some sea bass, I think I have the edge.

Harry said when he and Vic first met, as students, they both loved food and he had already discovered he was a dab hand with a saucepan. Pictured: Harry and Vic with Charlotte 

Charlotte wants to unpack this. Of course she does. She trained in ‘psychodynamic therapy, which is basically Freudian’, she explains. ‘It looks more towards the past. I’m looking at how the way we’re fed, early on, gives us a thread of how we see the world.’

When we first met, as students, though Vic and I both loved food, I had already discovered I was a dab hand with a saucepan. I used to skip university lectures to watch cooking programmes. So when Vic and I first got together — I wooed her with a blackbean pancake recipe I had picked up from Ready Steady Cook — I became the main cook and it’s stayed that way ever since.

‘But if Nigella says it needs 20 minutes on the hob, why do you then take it off after 15?’ my wife asks me accusatorily. ‘Well, because I know best,’ I suggest. ‘God, you’re so controlling,’ is her response.

In a bid to lower the temperature, I volunteer the information that Vic is a far better baker than I am.

Instead of just accepting this praise with good grace, Vic declares: ‘This is revelatory to me. I’ve just discovered why you can’t bake — you refuse to follow someone else’s instructions,’ she tells Charlotte triumphantly.

Woah. Hang on a second — we’ve gone from me wanting to add a bit more salt than Jamie Oliver suggests to being a raging egomaniac who always wants to have the last word.

Charlotte made Harry and Vic (pictured) cook chicken fajitas to focus on how they would host a dinner party

Charlotte says she’d like to focus on how we host a dinner party and has decided to make us cook chicken fajitas with guacamole and salsa, which she has suggested would be a great meal to give to our guests.

‘Is it something you’d cook for guests?’ she asks.

‘I would never give fajitas because I think of that as a midweek meal I might give the kids,’ I tell Charlotte.

She looks at me meaningfully. ‘What are you looking for when you invite people over?

‘Have you invited people over because you want to see them? Or have you invited them to show how clever you are?’

Well, OK. Maybe I am shallow, but isn’t everyone desperately keeping up with the Joneses? Some do it with a swanky new car, or by letting slip their latest career success. I do it by making my own hummus.

Charlotte suggests that one of the reasons dinner parties cause tensions is that people put themselves under pressure to impress their guests.

But the tension in our household is due to the fact that I spend all afternoon quietly deseeding the pomegranate or roasting the hazelnuts, rather than do any other crucial aspects of having guests over.

Harry said Charlotte managed to deliver home truths in a surprisingly enjoyable way. Pictured: Harry and Vic with Charlotte

‘Hats off to you for noticing that,’ says Charlotte. ‘That is a simple thing to change.’

‘But I’m not very good at Dettolling the loo,’ I say.

‘That’s because you never do it,’ says my wife pointedly.

Isn’t a marriage all about playing to one’s strengths? Mine is with an oyster shucker, my wife’s is with a pair of Marigolds.

‘If it’s not in our strength zone, that’s exactly what we need to do,’ argues Charlotte.

‘To become more resilient, we need to do the things we don’t want to do.’

‘In a particular partnership, we will work out, not necessarily very consciously, who’s good at what and how you best work together,’ she continues.

‘And that’s OK, except that then we get stuck in habits, and we think that the fridge gets filled by magic.’

Charlotte is, of course, correct about getting stuck into habits.

They may not be bad ones, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy ones. In just over an hour, she has helped us whip up a substantial meal while managing to neatly dissect our relationship with as much skill as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gutting a partridge.

I thought our Kitchen Therapy session would be bunkum and the fajitas sounded not very appetising, but Charlotte managed to deliver the home truths in a surprisingly enjoyable way. Even better, we ended up with a pretty tasty meal.

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