Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Why My Cooking Isn't Great

From my seat at the counter in front of the open kitchen, I watched Nudel Restaurant's highly-skilled chefs churn out plate after flawless plate. Since I've been on a quest to boost my cooking skill, I paid careful attention, hoping to pick up some pointers.

What I noticed was the softness of their hands. They weren't wrestling ingredients into submission. Their actions were gentle and sweet. They coaxed rather than compelled. And pains were taken. Vast concentration, vast attention, vast levels of caring. It’s not that they were projecting an image - impressing others or themselves with their theatrical intensity. This was a deep and non-self-aware sense of commitment, period (which I rewarded with whiny jaundice in my review).



It was inspiring to see, but highly ironic that I’d be struck by this at such a late date.

I used to teach jazz improvisation workshops around Europe. Among my clever exercises and useful bits of advice, the thing that most helped students was a simple, exasperated and brutal observation:
You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?
It struck them like thunder. Every time. And it often stuck with them.

As I said a couple of postings ago, it's devilishly hard to distribute insights evenly into all aspects of one's life. I needed to learn the power of commitment twice; once with music and then again with writing. Now, after a decade of effort to improve my cooking, and feeling that I was still missing an essential piece, it turns out that that piece was my very own signature hard-won lesson. Sigh.

It's not that I don't commit at all in my cooking. As I recently wrote, I'm actually a bit of a kook in some tasks:
I've made toasting a spiritual practice, honing my tolerances to milliseconds, aiming to extract the bread at its peak. That's working out quite well, but it's just a matter of vigilance and commitment - of wanting it (watching me peer expectantly into my toaster oven, you'd think I was slicing atoms). But tea brewing, with multiple moving parts to its process, each ridiculously sensitive to minute variation, is so, so much harder.
However, that's not enough. Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?


I could have written a perfectly acceptable version of this in ten minutes flat. Instead, I've sat here for hours, fiddling with every word (and fretting over that last comma) as if the fate of the universe hinged on perfect, seamless clarity. I'm a much better writer than a cook. This is why.

A follow-up posting

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