“Shithead”, my partner shouts at my brother, his gleeful tone travelling through the open doors and inside the house to where I sip a glass of wine and slowly drag opalescent slices of fish through gloopy whisked eggs before patting them into a powdery bowl of flour, cumin, paprika, oregano and chilli.

He is not, as you might think, about to get into a tussle with my brother. Nor are his intentions in any way aggressive – he’s just beaten my brother at the eponymous card game in which there are no winners, only shitheads. I can hear the cards delicately flitting against each other as a member of my family starts shuffling and dealing out a new game. I can’t quite see who it is from my angle, but I assume it’s my partner – he tends to take on the job. I catch a snippet of my mum laughing at something my sister has said, and I can just make out the tufts of my brother-in-law’s hair in the window.

I’m home in New Zealand, cooking dinner in my parents’ kitchen, where, from the hob, you have uninterrupted views of the native bush and Matakana River beyond. It’s my last night in the country – the following day I’ll get on a plane back to grey London. So, you could be forgiven for assuming I would want to lap up every morsel of time left with my family and being surprised that I’m not at that table playing cards with them. You would be correct, too. It’s just that I prefer to do it from the other side of the kitchen bench.

As the part of the home that quite literally nourishes us, the kitchen is the epicentre of any house; the beating heart of the operation. It’s where we scavenge for breakfast bits in the morning, throw together sandwiches at lunchtime and, in my case, labour over feasts in the evenings. While guests – or family – sit at the dining table or in the living room, clutching sweating beers and chattering, catching up as they go, the chef gets to listen from afar, a silent participant in any conversation. As people weave around the house, travelling inside and out, from room to room, they usually drop into the kitchen to pay their social dues with whoever is tasked with cooking the meal they’re about to eat.

They’ll halfheartedly offer help; I’ll always decline it, and then they’ll sit and keep me company for a few minutes while I potter around putting on the kettle, mincing herbs into delicate flakes or slowly stirring bubbling sauces, ensuring nothing sticks to the bottom. They might pop an illicit finger into a ragu to taste it or swipe a roast potato from a cooling tray, but the intention is always sincere – to chat with the person they love infinitely.

As the part of the home that quite literally nourishes us, the kitchen is the epicentre of any house

It might seem backward, but the kitchen is, without fail, my favourite place to be while hosting, no matter whether the guests are the people I love most in this world, or a group of my partner’s acquaintances. Filling my home – or any home, really – with smiling people that spark joy is one of my greatest pleasures in life, but when sitting around a table with a collection of people I often find myself drawing inwards, the pressure of participating in a group sometimes too much. When I cook, I can spend quality time with everyone individually, emerging triumphant whenever the meal is complete.

By the time I find myself sitting down at the dinner table, the ice has been broken. The small talk has been thoroughly combed through and discarded – the ‘how’s your jobs’ and the ‘who’s pissed off with whos’ and the holidays you have coming up that year – and guests have moved onto the juicier stuff. As conviviality forms over clanking plates and scraping cutlery, steaming pots and delicate ramekins of sauce, I find I can finally ease myself into the dynamic that has formed, any social anxiety firmly replaced by delight as friends and family nourish themselves.

The kitchen bench – or kitchen island, if you’re lucky – is both a physical and metaphorical barrier. While its robust size quite literally sets itself up between you and anyone who might be milling around in the dining room or living room, it’s a metaphorical one, too. You’re not expected to converse when your energy is focused on breaking apart a gnarled pumpkin with a sharp knife without taking off a finger. When your brain is concerned with how many hours are left to ensure the lamb meat yields from the bone, there is no expectation that you will contribute your thoughts on the news of the day. And as the person holding the wooden spoon, you possess all the power. People are congregating purely for the meal you are about to prepare. They are quite literally at your whim. When you announce that dinner is served, they will all gather at the table, no matter how deep the conversation or how far through the game of Shithead they are. For however long you remain behind that kitchen bench, those few square metres are your kingdom and you get to decide who enters it.

That night, as I slowly melt a knob of butter in the inky depths of a frying pan, my sister sidles into the kitchen. Dipping a pinky into the spicy mayo I have mixed up, she asks how I’m feeling about returning to London. She tops up my glass of wine and settles onto a stool opposite me as we discuss plans for the next time we’ll see each other – an occasion that won’t occur for another nine months. As she wanders out to ask if anyone needs their drinks topped up, my dad walks in to check I’m cooking the fish right – I get my kitchen control freak tendencies from him. I think about all of the times during this trip that we have cooked together, dancing around each other in the kitchen in unison, and I lay down the spatula to envelope him into a hug, one filled with gratitude for this time we’ve had together, cooking and talking.

These fish tacos aren’t just dinner, they’re a sonnet. They’re a physical, digestible gift. “I love you,” they say

I eventually let him go and he returns to the card game to play his round. A few minutes later my mum comes in to fold some laundry and we mull over where we should go for dinner the following day before I need to be dropped at the airport. She, too, returns to the game after a few moments and I am once again left to listen as the voices of all of the people I love most in this world drift in from the deck. We all exhibit our care and appreciation in different ways, and this is how I show mine. These fish tacos aren’t just dinner, they’re a sonnet. They’re a physical, digestible gift. “I love you,” they say; “I don’t know how I’ll bear being away from you all,” they announce in between splodges of mayo.

A week before, while we were still at our beach house, I offered to cook dinner for everyone. The kitchen there is a lot smaller than the one in my parents’ home. Found at the back of our tiny beachfront property, it is just a few square metres of linoleum flooring and formica benchtops, with a cooker from the 1970s that looks like it’s croaking its way to the finish line. While I was labouring over the pans, I watched my family sitting on the beanbags at the crest of the ledge that tumbles down to meet the sand. My sister was resolutely reading her Kindle, her eyes flicking across the words. My mum was speaking intensely to my partner about something and my brother and my dad were looking out at the boats on the moorings in the bay, discussing some element or another of the intricacies of maritime management.

It was a necessary moment of reflection, and as I watched these people that are so special to me, polenta-pockmarked with energetic bubbles on the stove below, I felt a wave of gratitude so strong it momentarily knocked the air out of me. Later that evening, as we sat elbow to elbow, scraping up mouthfuls of cheesy, creamy polenta and sausages with a tangle of sweet and sour peppers, I genuinely struggled to think of a moment in time where I had ever felt happier. I asked my dad how the moorings in the bay were holding up. I queried my mother on what she was talking to my partner about and she evaded my questions (it was, as I found out later, his impending proposal that they were discussing), and I chatted to my sister about the book she was reading, and what was next on her list.

That time alone in the kitchen, once again preparing a message of love hidden in sausages and vegetables for my family, gave me the space to reflect and watch. It can be hard to see the full picture when you’re in something, and it can be even more difficult to allow yourself the space to soak in the joy of what you’re experiencing. Behind the safety of the kitchen counter I can do both, capturing snippets of moments that I will revert back to when I’m back in the kitchen in my flat in London, cooking for just two of us, the only noise being the sirens winging their way around the frantic streets of the city.