Saturday, February 5, 2011

Zen and the Art of Cooking

Some time ago, the the blog Why is it Evil addressed the question of Why Chefs are Evil.

Not terrible funny, but it got me to musing.

We aren't evil.

We aren't always very nice. Because we work in a high stress job, that is part craft, part art, part mind numbing paper work, dangerous, repetitious, and filled with some of the most marginal personality motherfurkers you'll ever have the pleasure of meeting, and most of us love the profession.

We aren't good people. Mothers, don't let your daughters date a chef. She may love the after hours, she will love the food and the drink and the parties, but we WILL do bad things to her, that she will probably really enjoy.

Bourdain touches on a bit of the life in his books, but he doesn't do it justice, because most of the public simply won't believe it. Doing rails off a waitresses' bewbs in an office, while you have a full dining room and a patron locked in one of the bathrooms is, in some places, called Friday.

It is equal parts art, craft, and skill. And love for your fellow cooks. You bond as a team, and even if you hate the night, you're in there because the guy across the grill is your boy. Or girl depending on the kitchen, and that means they're family. It is a Zen profession, because the best you can hope for at the end of the night, are empty plates, and smiling patrons. And hopefully some good memories of your place.

The idea that one can't get into a routine is garbage. Cooks multi-task, we like to multi-task, we take it as a point of pride that we can do an 18 hour day, with a pot of coffee, half a pack of smokes, never sit once, clean hundreds of pounds of meat, fish, and more, and then actually prepare it, carve it into delicate and edible art, and at the end of the day, all we've got to show for it are some folks who are giddy and heading to their cars, and the knowledge that we'll do it again tomorrow, and most folks faced with that will run for the farking hills.

Most folks can't do the job that a professional chef does. Can't. Physically nor mentally. It is a hard life, it takes its toll on your body and mind, and yet, I love it. I love my crew. I love to cook, and being there for folks' celebrations. My art does that. My craft makes it affordable.

Yes, people cooked for their families for generations--but I cook for hundreds a night, night after night. My hands have touched an average of 150 dishes a night, 320 some odd nights a year, for better than 20 years now. I do things with food that your Grandma can't. Because I have more experience than she's had cooking. She does things well, and she is a master of several dishes. I have to be the master of a rotating menu, executed exactly the same, night after night, and in conditions that would make most folks flee. Professional cooks are just like any other professional. There are indeed talented amateurs who can do nice things. And that's fantastic. Prove it to me, by replicating it two dozen times a night, and a few dozen times for a few more different dishes, and do it on command.

Evil? Sometimes, but we kinda like it that way.

These are restaurant folk, in our natural environment.

The art of cooking is an odd one. It is very much a Zen profession. My craft gives me a lot of satisfaction. I love to cook. And I love to cook for people. But at the end of the day, not matter what, no matter how artful my plates are, not matter how long I take to prepare and play in the kitchen, the best I can look forward to are empty plates.
That's a good thing.

Empty plates means that people got fed. People don't necessarily remember the sauce that I did with their chicken, or the slight chocolate note--because I use cocoa, coffee, and dark beer--in my chili. They remember the time that they have with folks at the table. They remember Bob ordering the Four Alarm Penne, and him gulping water, and the laughs around the table. They remember the look in their wife's eye when she shared her truffle cake. They remember Grandma getting a little misty when the Steak and Tatty Pie was finished, and the memories of her mother's cooking getting shared around the table. If I get to spark those sorts of memories, that's exactly what I hope for. Mine is an ephemeral art. It is a Zen profession, because it doesn't last. The memories, the times shared, the people you're with, those last. I just facilitate things a bit.

We celebrate with food, and hopefully, meals are a celebration. Of time together, of people you love, of good times, or bad. We bring food to those who are in need, because we not only feed them, we share of ourselves. We may not have the words to help someone with the loss of their parents, but we can put together a meal for them. That shows our love and affection, and our care.

That's my profession. That is what I love to do.  I feel enormously blessed that I can share some of the things that I've learned over the years, after hundreds of thousands of meals going through my hands.  It's hard to have some pride in the skill and the craft, and you want to do what you do well, and that leads to some ego, but the one thing that handling food teaches you, is to be humble in that.  Not because there is some new hotshot coming up, but because no matter what we do, ours is a basic sort of skill. 

The best fish that I've ever had was in Jamaica. Fresh off the boat, right on the dock. Fileted right in front of me, slapped onto a grill with a little oil, salt and pepper, and a squoze of fresh lime, and handed to me in a paper boat, with some hot sauce in a blob on the side.  Nothing fancy about it. I remember that fish, because it was perfect. Crisp skin, sweet flesh, fiery sauce, tang of the lime, it all blended together with the tired of swimming and fishing, a sweet young thing whose name I cannot remember, but she smelled of sun tan oil, the rum drinks we'd had, and maybe a hint of strawberry lip gloss.  We had ice cold beer, and ate on the dock, tired, and sore, and that fish was the most pefect thing in the world. That moment is cemented in my mind because of that amazing fish.

I am grateful to that guy on the dock, because his fish made me a perfect moment. One I hope to take with me to the grave. We help cement moments in time. THAT is our professional skill. Not necessarily the cooking.  Our vehicle is the food. The presentation.  Food alone isn't going to do anything though. We need to share it with people. That's when it matters.

Cooking is craft. It's physics, it's chemistry, it's art, it's business, it's your life. It's not for everyone, but cooks get to bridge a lot of areas of expertise. A good cook should have some mechanical skills. Should have a good eye for color. A good nose. Ability to taste and judge how flavors will evolve is essential. Chemistry of cooking is amazingly important. Understanding of basic physics helps a lot. Understanding economic theory comes in handy when you run a joint, and you'd better get hip to HR, PR, alcohol service, licensing, food safety, a bit of biology, a bit of anatomy don't hurt, and even a little botany. For all those skills, it comes down to making memories. That's our real product.

My advice for the hobbyists?  Share what you do. Don't get lost in "right way" or "wrong way."

Getting lost in minutia? It happens with a hobby. I tend to think of folks in the nerd vs geek categories for most hobbies. Be that a football stat nerd versus a football geek who paints his face and gets involved. I tend to separate folks out like that. Nerds collect--be they facts, movies, stats, they immerse themselves in the details, and love the knowledge that brings. Take pride in that knowledge. Not a bad thing. Geeks get involved. Be that dressing up, making their own films, writing their own stories, building a shrine to their favorite team, a working model of their favorite mecha. Not a bad thing either. Unless of course, it turns to obsession that divorces you from contact with folks. Be that getting so lost in stats and figures, that you lose sight of the game that you love, and instead get focused on tiny details and rules, or so lost in your creations that you don't connect with people, and get lost in your own fantasy.

Ideally, your interests help you connect, and give you a greater appreciation of skills and people. You get lost in them, then it gets weird.

Love food? Then share it. Share that love, because that's what it's about. Sharing your passion and love, with those you love. Not dunning folks who don't do it "right." It isn't up to your standard? Don't go back. Don't make that mistake in your own cooking. There is nothing wrong with being passionate about cooking. But losing sight of the connections that good cooking should bring, that's a weird and lonely road, and if you constantly harp on things done "wrong" then folks aren't going to connect with you. You alienate folks with constant tirades, then you're missing the point.

It's food. It's hopefully great. Be it a great hot dog with a home made giardinera and chili that brings tears to the eyes, or a silky smooth alfredo that you get extra bread to sop up every last drop, or a falling off the bone tender beef rib, or a galatte that melts your soul. It's food. It's basic.

It IS love, but only when you share it.

Crossposted to The Motely Moose


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  2. Sometimes I sure do miss the days when I worked in restaurants. Very awesome! I don't think cooks really need to have a favorite anything, I love my kitchen, and cooking, and other than for years I had to have everything from the "Taste of Home" group... (rarely read the books, but love them!)- my favorite food is anything that fits in my mouth and my favorite cook is me. :) LOL

    Great blog, I love diversity.