I heard a friend of mine described that way recently, behind his back. It’s a powerful tag. Most often it infers dysfunction. Proponents of that holy grail — work-life balance — paint obsession a failing, a roadblock in the pursuit of health and wholeness. But I do wonder, does obsession deserve a little more credit?
I am a fan of the Australian chef Stephanie Alexander. Her autobiography A Cook’s Life stands apart from others in the genre, a refreshingly honest account of her extraordinary career without the self-aggrandisement common to such books.
Stephanie’s first eating house in Fitzroy opened just two years before my own cooking apprenticeship began, and it feels like this kitchen matriarch has been present ever since. The second incarnation of her restaurant in its stately Hawthorn home was one of the most influential this country has known. Across two decades Stephanie was unequalled in Melbourne’s culinary world. Even today, her publishing phenomena The Cook’s Companion sits perennially open on my kitchen bench.
What’s clear about Stephanie’s story is the obsession that’s driven her. She alludes to it in her writing:
This story should not be about Stephanie’s Restaurant but about my life. But for the next seventeen years Stephanie’s was my life. The pressure and the challenge of trying to create something so special meant that everything else became subordinate. It was not that I did not value my family and friends — I absolutely needed them. But I could not find a way of managing and operating the restaurant without it sucking every gram of energy from me. My connection with the real world of political issues of the day and contemporary culture became superficial. All these things I recognised as important but I had set myself an all-consuming task.
The personal cost that Stephanie paid for her success is considerable and deeply felt:
In among all the lists in the notebooks just sometimes there is a sentence reflecting sadness or despondency: ‘At least once a day I feel utter despair at the enormity of the task and the impossibility of achieving perfection.’ Why did I think perfection was ever achievable or necessary? The relentless quest for the unattainable meant that I too easily overlooked the joy and delight in the present moment.
Though Stephanie never uses the word regret, there is an unease in her self-assessment. Her honesty is disarming:
Looking back, I have to admit that I made some very bad decisions. I always believed I could do it all and have it all. A restaurant and a baby — no problems. A restaurant and two young children — easy. A restaurant, a regular column, writing a book and two children — no problem at all. It’s significant that the ‘marriage’ is not up there in importance with the restaurant. I do not believe it was arrogance, I believe it was the unthinking hope that the marriage would look after itself while I forged ahead creating, doing, writing, carousing.
In the world of fine gastronomy, Stephanie is not alone. Obsession is as uniform as the chef’s whites. Indeed without it we would not have the vibrant restaurant scene we take for granted.
We may well critique the costs of obsession, and there are many. We should do so, however, acknowledging that there is hardly anything of lasting beauty in this world that exists without it. What’s more, we crave its results: from the excellence of our barista’s coffee to the glory of an aria; from the inspiration of Luther King’s cry for justice to the stirring beauty of an artwork hung in a gallery. The truth is, it’s obsession that creates beauty out of ashes; it’s obsession that wrestles justice from darkness. And our lives are richer for it.
No doubt, Stephanie’s was the establishment it was because Stephanie was obsessed, and at great cost. I would be the first to say that seeking a balanced and centered life is a worthy pursuit, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that a world without obsession would be a world devoid of great art, great music, poetry and culinary beauty. Even more, it would be a world without the noble acts of justice and sacrifice that arise out of a holy discontent. Most tragically, a world without obsession would be a world without passion. And what a dull place that would be.