Chefs are not always great writers. There are some wonderful exceptions, but most gifted chefs are doing what they do best without literary diversion. While recipe books abound, to have a chef write more explicitly of what draws him to his profession–and what keeps him there–is rare.
It is this that makes Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef an interesting read. The esteemed Frenchman, based in Manhattan, draws together a summation of his culinary wisdom through a series of letters to an aspiring chef just beginning her career. Though the book is not particularly well written, Boulud manages to convey his passion for life in the kitchen. While he’s a man of sizeable ego—I expect this goes with his echelon of culinary success—what he provides is a most practical resource and a significant insight into the world of professional cooking.
Now I am sure this fact alone would put most of you to sleep. But stay with me!
What struck me as I read this book is just how applicable Boulud’s wisdom is beyond the kitchen. Today I am a minister in the church, and I reckon Boulud’s final letter entitled Ten Commandments of a Chef—a helpful summary of the entire book—could well serve as a good recipe for effective ministry.
Here’s what he says:
1. KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP: As the basic tools of the kitchen, knives are respected and indispensable. What’s more, Boulud says, the daily ritual of sharpening is mandatory. The tools of pastoral ministry are many and the Bible is surely one of the most foundational. Though it’s a wieldy and sometimes perplexing read, I’ve learned to respect its unique authority and wisdom. I’ve learned that the daily rituals involved in honing my skills as a listener, an exegete and an interpreter of this book are basic to effective and sustained ministry.
2. WORK WITH THE BEST PEOPLE: Boulud emphasizes the need for good mentors in the kitchen, a number of them, all with different strengths and in a range of disciplines. I’ve had such people in the kitchen and the church, those who have formed me both as chef and pastor. A career without mentors, Boulud says, is an impoverished and shallow one; so my ‘greatness’ in pastoral leadership will only bloom in the fertile soil of those who have gone before me.
3. KEEP YOUR STATION ORDERLY: Good organizational skills and thorough preparation early in the day, Boulud says, enable the chef to face the overwhelming intensity of demand with speed, efficiency and consistent excellence. What this means for pastoral leaders of various personality types is up for discussion, but there is truth to be had regardless. I reckon attention to detail is an underrated aspect of ministry.
4. PURCHASE WISELY: A good chef respects the culinary value of every single ingredient he works with. Nothing should be wasted, Boulud urges, nor taken for granted. What we can do with the purchasing metaphor I’m not sure, but respect for the rich diversity evident in the body of Christ is biblical advice. Boulud finds an irrepressible joy in appreciating the most mundane ingredient and discovering its unique potential. That makes me smile when I think of the church as a richly diverse community of gifted individuals.
5. SEASON WITH PRECISION: Precise seasoning elevates the potential of every ingredient and every meal served. So, Boulud says, the most creative chef will be disciplined and focused when it comes to this art. It is an art, both in cooking and pastoral ministry. The end of a promising career in the kitchen is in sight when everything that goes out to the dining room begins to taste the same. So, too, in our preaching, our leadership and pastoral care. Ouch!
6. MASTER THE HEAT: It’s such a fundamental element of good cooking. An intimate knowledge of heat and mastering its use is essential to an excellent result. Kitchens are hot places. A good chef can work in it and with it to greatest advantage. The old saying, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ has an unattractive side when applied to ministry: a macho spirituality that rings hollow. Yet is has a side of truth too. The heat comes in all sorts of ways. And sometimes our spiritual metal shows through when it’s at its peak.
7. LEARN THE WORLD OF FOOD: Immersion in the diverse world of food enriches the resources a good chef has to draw upon and will open the way for greatness. One of Boulud’s most insistent encouragements to the young chef is to experience a broad range of cuisines as early in her career as possible. Some of the most notable and innovative changes to impact the world of fine food have arisen out of a creative fusion between styles and traditions. I can only say that as a young pastor, I wish that I had been guided to know and appreciate the richness and diversity within the wider Church and to find ways to bring the tremendous resources of the faith to bear upon my own life and ministry within one particular tradition.
8. KNOW THE CLASSICS: According to Boulud, knowing the fundamentals of stocks, sauces and seasoning is a non-negotiable. Innovations in cookery always arise out of a respect for the traditions in which they bloom. There is no end to new innovations in church and ministry. The rate at which new books and resources are published is breath taking. Yet there is something about returning routinely to the classic resources of our faith, to good theology, to the stories of faith and spirituality that have formed our traditions and us. Innovation is wonderful, but it must never lose touch with its past or its reason for being.
9. ACCEPT CRITICISM: Learn to receive it graciously, use it wisely, and give it sensitively and constructively. So Boulud says from some painful years of experience. It will destroy you or make you, he says, and to simply ignore it is not only poor business, it is plain stupid pride. Well said, yet Boulud’s own testimony underlines just how hard it is to put into practice.
10. KEEP A JOURNAL: For Boulud, keeping an accurate and detailed journal has been an important resource in sustaining his professional life for the long haul. It’s not only a journal of recipes, ideas and suggestions. It’s a reflective practice that disciplines the writer to remember, to think and to envision. What wisdom there is here for those who are ‘called’ to remember, reflect and envision.
So there you have it–wisdom from stove to pulpit. And all in ten easy steps! : )