Category Archives: Cooking & Vocation

Jim Hearn on the professional kitchen

art-353-Hearn-300x0‘Dreams drive hospitality. While some people like to think of it as a component of the service industry whose responsibility it is to address the needs of the body, for those on the inside it is a weird and sometimes wonderful dreamscape of ungodly hours, ridiculous pressures, unkind owners, absurd customers, torture, humiliation and occasional moments of brilliance.  The obscure thrill of putting it all together on the night, of getting all the sections of a busy kitchen firing, is like no other I know.’

Jim Hearn, ‘Hospitality: A cautionary tale,’ in Griffith Review (27), 2010: 80-90.

Chelminski’s ‘The Perfectionist’

If you’re a fan of biography, especially from the kitchen, then Rudolph Chelminski’s The Perfectionist is a delectable read.  It’s a captivating and honest account of the rise and tragic fall of Bernard Loiseau, the irrepressible, larger than life and entirely likeable star of modern French gastronomy–a man who lived in obsessive pursuit of excellence, even immortality, amidst the giddy heights of haute cuisine.

Loiseau was one of the culinary elite, awarded the prestigious three stars by Le Guide Michelin for his inn and restaurant La Cote d’Or in rural France—an award he first received just after his fortieth birthday. Indeed, to be so rewarded had been Loiseau’s life dream. However, dogged by a mostly unrecognized and untreated bipolar disorder, Loiseau’s professional highs were more than matched by his periodic emotional lows. Under the captivating veneer of bravado and self-promotion, Loiseau lived in perpetual fear of failure. Tragically, in the early months of 2003, aged fifty-two and at the height of his career—spooked by the unfounded rumour of his imminent demotion to just two stars—Bernard Loiseau took his own life. His devoted wife Dominique found him on their bedroom floor, the gun by his side. The restaurant world was rocked. The country of France, ever obsessed by culinary celebrity, was in mourning.

From Chelminski’s account, Loiseau was a perfectionist of the highest order, an obsessive compulsive totally consumed by his culinary vision. In his obsession with what proved to be ultimately elusive, Loiseau allowed everything else in his life—including his own family and personal well-being—to take a back seat. Still, even when confronted with his conspicuous frailties, I cannot help but be captivated by this man: his passion, absolute persistence and near unbreakable spirit. Food was his world and the perfecting of his art—one of both euphoric creativity and devoted service—was a pursuit of almost religious dimensions.

From a Christian perspective, people like Loiseau are an easy target: telling illustrations of the hazards of unchecked pride and idolatry, perhaps even the presence of that ‘God shaped vacuum’ I learned about in Sunday school. But such simplistic conclusions do nothing to discern the abundant integrity and beauty mixed in to a life like his. Before dismissing too hastily or critiquing too harshly, we owe it to ourselves to note the genuine goodness demonstrated in Loiseau’s story.

In the kitchen of La Cote d’Or, Bernard Loiseau’s daily challenge was to so inspire his staff to see the day before them as a new opportunity to excel in excellence, creativity, and gracious, faultless service. For close to 23 years, seven days a week, following both lunch and dinner services, Loiseau took up his post by the reception desk to greet departing guests, making each one feel personally valued and assured that upon their return they would be warmly embraced as old friends. Though I doubt Loiseau would ever have spoken of his life in the kitchen in terms of a calling, there is no doubt that for those who aspire to greatness in the disciplines of creativity and service aspire to something innate to the image of God.

Hospitality is always a messy business, and no more so than when mixed with the shadowy world of profit. Yet there are those who are able to see through financial ledgers and pay slips to the beauty and worth of what they do. It’s a point that Chelminski makes in his closing reflections on Loiseau’s life:

“Certainly, restaurants are businesses engaged in seeking profit, but it is remarkable how often they can be something very much like a calling, how often that artisans engaged in that calling are stricken by the artist’s imperative to transcend the dreadful, passionless bottom-line mentality that more generally rules the modern world. It’s an odd kind of business, taking money to give pleasure, but no one who has spent time observing these artisans … can doubt for an instant the utter sincerity with which the best of them approach their craft.”

This is no claim for Lioseau’s experience of God. Rather it’s an affirmation of the gift that people like him embody. Where a person cares passionately about what they do, invests the best of themselves in the service of others, and does so with creativity, joy and care, there is evidence of God’s generous hospitality. Every story is a checkered one; every life a curious mix of decency and angst, darkness and light. Surely our privilege is to celebrate the miracle of goodness when we see it, and thereby rejoice in the gracious presence of God wherever it can be found.

Gay Bilson’s ‘Plenty’

In Plenty: Digression on Food, the legendary Australian restaurateur Gay Bilson provides a compilation of intelligent observations about food and culture in Australia. She does so through the lens of her own experience in three notable Sydney restaurants. It is a pleasure to read.

9781920989835For me, Bilson provides one of the more eloquent testimonies to a sense of vocation in the kitchen. She writes of her earliest days cooking professionally, circa early 70s. As mother, spouse, business manager and dessert chef, her days were long and, for the most part, spent in a dingy corner of a grossly inadequate kitchen adjoining an equally modest little dining room: but one that would go on to become a legend in the adolescent days of Australia’s love affair with fine gastronomy.

Bilson recalls the end of another day;

I’d finish plating desserts and baking souffles in the Kookaburra, with Jordan in a papoose on my back, then clean up and sit on the laundry bags. In retrospect I see this connecting space as the one I never left, mentally or emotionally, in twenty-five years of running restaurants and cooking. It is the space still connected to the work and the working staff but edging towards the audience, towards a need for recognition.… I didn’t always sit there is contentment in those days, but there was that marvelously satisfying sense of fatigue and completion that all professional cooks, brilliant, middling or bad, understand and which seems sometimes to be what one works for.

She continues: 

What I learned on my naive feet was that the reward given to people who cook well and who do so with spirit and generosity and, in the best way, intelligence, is an enormous affection and gratitude. The cook in turn feels the same towards her diners, for she cannot cook without someone to cook for.

Bilson’s trinity of ‘spirit, generosity and intelligence’ is a rare and worthy gift in any context of service, be it the kitchen, the classroom, the office or pulpit.  I have thought much lately about how those three characteristics are nurtured in my own life and work–in what I do and what I offer to others.  It’s a challenging thought.

Stephanie Alexander and obsession

‘He’s obsessed!’ I heard a friend of mine described that way recently, behind his back. It’s a powerful tag, obsession. It infers a dark side. In fact, the most common use of the term renders obsession a dysfunction, something to transcend in favour of personal wholeness. Proponents of that holy grail — work-life balance — paint obsession’s imbalance a wrong to be righted. But I often wonder, does obsession deserve a little more credit?

9781742534947I am a devoted fan of the Australian chef Stephanie Alexander. Her autobiography A Cook’s Life stands apart from so many others in the genre, a refreshingly honest account of her life and career without the self-aggrandisement painfully common to such books. The first Stephanie’s Restaurant in Fitzroy opened just two years before my own kitchen apprenticeship began, and it feels like this matriarch of the kitchen has been present ever since. The second incarnation of her restuarant in its stately Hawthorn home was simply one of the finest and most influential restaurants this country has known. Across two decades Stephanie Alexander 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 and her rise to prominence is the obsession that’s driven her from beginning to end. She alludes to it in her writing, occasionally naming it more explicitly, but she doesn’t need to. Her life’s obsessions with excellence, beauty and perfection are there on every page.

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 has 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 a nagging unease in her self-assessment. Her honesty is disarming and an unexpected gift to the reader:

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 among those who succeed as the chef’s whites. Absolute obsession. Indeed without it we would simply not have the vibrant restaurant scene we now take for granted.

We may well want to critique the costs of obsession, and there are many. But we can only do so acknowledging there is hardly anything of lasting beauty in this world that exists without it. What’s more, we crave and value its results: from the excellence of our barista’s coffee to the sublime beauty of an aria; from the inspiration of Luther King’s obsession with justice to the stirring beauty of an artwork hung in a gallery. Even David’s spiritual obsession expressed in his prayer, ‘One thing I ask of the Lord and this is what I seek …’ It’s obsession that creates beauty out of ashes. It’s obsession that wrestles justice from darkness. And all our lives are richer for it.

There’s no doubt, Stephanie’s was the great establishment it was because Stephanie was obsessed, and at considerable cost. Perhaps we should all strive for balanced and centered lives, bit it’s likely such a world will be devoid of great art, great music, poetry and culinary beauty. Perhaps it will 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.

Cooking and calling

Commonly, the experience of ‘calling’ in the Christian faith is approached as a mysterious thing and highly prized; to have heard ‘the call’ is to have entered the ranks of the spiritual elite. Tragically, such a mystical approach leaves the majority of Christians in the stands; there they sit—excluded and disempowered—destined to be spectators while the divinely ‘chosen’ play centre field with God.

I often say that while it’s true the call of God is a mysterious thing, it is never exclusive. In fact, from a biblical perspective it’s one of the most inclusive and liberating gifts given to us—all of us. What’s more, the experience of calling is never uniform. It’s as diverse as those who hear it.

In the book Tough Cookies, Simon Wright tells the stories of four of Britain’s most talented chefs, their rise to prominence and their impact upon the culinary scene. I suppose it’s an odd place to go on the nature of call, but what strikes me is the strong sense of vocation each of these chefs have in what they do.  What’s even more telling is how each one come to that sense.  I reckon there’s some truth here for the church.

For the infamous Gordon Ramsey, it was not the love of food that took him into the kitchen. He stumbled into cooking when a career in professional football failed. But the longer he was there the more enraptured he became. Encountering first hand the genius of the renowned Marco Pierre White, Ramsey found his home: “When I walked into that kitchen, I thought ‘my God’ … this is me, I’ve found my base. I’ve found me. I wanted it!” It was a discovery that drove him from that point on, a passion slow to flower but once in bloom took over his life.

According to Wright, “The love of food wasn’t in Ramsey’s blood, it got in there like a virus born in the atmosphere of the places where he worked. Places where reverence and respect for the best things that grace our tables infected the very air that he breathed. It was a relationship that grew over time and it was a love that came in tandem with lust, a fierce desire to the meet the challenges thrown up by this extraordinarily demanding world, to stand up to each new trial, defy expectation and move on energized, to the next test.” 

For Heston Blumenthal, there was nothing gradual about it. It was the Damascus road and burning bush rolled into one. When Blumenthal was just fifteen years old, he and his family visited a two-Michelin-star restaurant in France. The visit was accidental, but it turned out to be a defining moment for the teenager, a captivating epiphany that has stayed with him the rest of his life. From that point on, food became his passion. It was an obsession he fed, a love affair he nurtured with such focus and energy, a driving force that arose directly out of his personality yet baffled even those closest to him. 

Shaun Hill’s story could not be more different. Any sense of passion was exceedingly slow to ignite. Ambition was never a motivating factor. Hill simply did what was in front of him, and in the course of doing so a love for food was nurtured. Quoting Hill: “I don’t think there has ever been a long-term plan … The problem with thinking too far ahead is that it stops your concentration on what your doing. So how I work is I do it while I really enjoy it and when I stop enjoying it I decide it’s time to go. This very regularly seems like a dumb idea at the time. But in order to do anything well you have to be completely, maybe not obsessed, but committed, not looking to the next chance.” For Hill, awareness of his own sense of vocation has only come in retrospect. It’s as he looks back over his shoulder that he is able to see some sense of who he is and what he’s about. 

Finally, Marcus Wareing’s sense of vocation came primarily through hard slog, persistence and failure. And even more through significant relationships, firstly with his father and then with other notable chefs like Ramsey. According to Wright, “When you think about it, it’s a common enough tale. Seldom does anyone achieve much without finding a mentor for at least some of the way, someone to feed off, someone to believe in, someone to journey with. Very little comes from a vacuum.”

Wareing’s self confidence was always slight, but his belief in the wisdom and giftedness of others was unrelenting. He burrowed into these relationships, determined to learn everything he could, to feed of the passion and talent of others. And as he did his own giftedness in the kitchen blossomed: “When he was racked by doubt, questioning his own abilities, he still kept to the path, relentless … like a lonely long-distance runner pressing on through the pain, like a boxer on the ropes refusing to go down.”

What strikes me is that each story is so different, each personality unique. Yet each is gifted and has found a ‘home’ in the kitchen.

We Baptists hold tenaciously to the ‘priesthood of all believers’ … all believers. It behooves us to be sure that our language of ‘calling’ is one that both empowers and includes, one that celebrates difference, and one that invites every person of faith onto the field and into the game … or the kitchen!

[Simon Wright, Tough Cookies: Tales of Obsession, Toil and Tenacity from Britain’s Kitchen Heavyweights. London: Profile Books, 2005]

From the kitchen to the pulpit

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! : )

Ruhlman’s ‘The Soul of a Chef’

UnknownSeriously, how could I not? With the title The Soul of a Chef, I didn’t much care what was in it. The title was enough to warrant a prominent place on the shelf. And the thought that this might truly be a serious exploration of spirituality in the professional world of the kitchen … the possibility was good enough for me.

This is not Ruhlman’s first literary stirring of the pot.  In fact, those who’ve read his previous books — most notably The Making of a Chef — will note some repetition.  Still, you can’t sniff at Ruhlman’s energy or insight, and certainly not at his writing style.  This is a good read!

As the title promises, Ruhlman sets out to discover what it is that lies at the soul of a great chef.  What it is that motivates, energises and inhabits such a person?  What is it about his spirit — and Ruhlman’s focus is clearly on the male experience — that propels him to become the best in an all-consuming and unforgiving profession?  Most importantly, where does the obsessive and relentless drive for perfection come from?

In pursuit of answers, Ruhlman spends eight days observing the self-selecting group undergoing the gruelling Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam at the Culinary Institute of America.   He follows this with extended observations of Michael Symons of Lola in Cleveland — one of the rising stars of the American culinary world — and the internationally renowned Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley.

In the end, Ruhlman is defeated by his own intentions.  I’m not sure he even understands what he means by that slippery word ‘soul’.  Still, he has done far more and far better than me!  And along the way he does provide significant insights into what makes these unusual beings tick.  Perhaps it’s his exploration of the work of Thomas Keller that provides the greatest promise.  Keller, a self-described (with tongue in cheek) ‘Buddhist monk in search of perfection,’ is undoubtedly one who embraces his profession as a spiritual practice and his movement toward excellence as a pilgrimage of meaning.

There is much here that adds a new depth to the appreciation of great chefs and the contribution they make to the world.   I recommend it!