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Why is it that some people can make the most amazing creations of culinary wonder while others can only seem to burn water? Is it the lack of knowledge? Skill? Is it just by sheer luck? Chance? Or is it something more profound that we cannot truly even begin to understand?
I ask these questions only from noticing my own cooking ways as of late. I mean I guess when I look back, they've always been there, but I suppose lately I've just noticed them more. Let me explain, or at least attempt to. When I'm cooking, I'm not just tossing random ingredients into a dish because I think they would take taste great together. It's more methodical, as if I'm being guided by some unknown force. The other day for example, I was adding some thyme into a dish. As I was about to put the ingredient away, something told me that I hadn't put enough in. So I went back and added a little more, and again it was saying, "add just the tiniest bit more," so when I did that, the feeling went away and a calmness took over letting me know that I had added the perfect amount. This again happened as I was sautéing onions. It told me,"you need another 1/4 of an onion." So I listened, felt calm again, and continued on with the dish. This continued to happen with each ingredient for the rest of the meal unless I had added the perfect amount the first time.
At the end, the meal turned out pretty damn good and that's when I had noticed that I'd had listened to this "feeling" in the past. (Before you ask, no, I was not high.) Now you could argue that my years of working in the culinary field may have honed my skills to the point that I have a natural sense for cooking, or a really well trained gut feeling. That's a great argument, but my counter would be to ask you to explain to me how others I know, who have never professionally cooked, have this same thing happen to them? Or, how many times I've tasted the food of others who have cooked professionally longer than me, and their stuff tastes just ok. Kind of meh even? I remember having this feeling when I was pretty young but never paid much attention to it. It's only in the last few years that I've really noticed it more. I believe this is the cooking "essence" speaking to myself and others. A spiritual force. An omnipotent being even. (Again to reiterate, I am neither high nor intoxicated in any way.)
Cooking is life. We all need to eat to survive. Some people may just do it out of necessity because their bodies are craving sustenance. But for the majority of civilization, we cook to live and live to cook. Look around at any culture in the world and you'll notice how they take pride in what they're cooking and eating. We all want to tantalize our tastebuds and enjoy the experience of sitting down to eat. It brings with it a sense of calm and communion. An opportunity to truly enjoy a mundane every day task.
Now back to that "being" that seems to guide us as we cook. I truly believe something one of my first ever chefs said, "you don't choose cooking, cooking chooses you." Which, to me, explains why 2 people, with relatively the same knowledge, who go down the same culinary path, can have 2 completely different outcomes. "Cooking" has chosen 1 more so than the other. Again, there's a difference between cooking to enjoy and "truly" cooking to enjoy. We can teach anyone to follow a recipe that has a well desired outcome, but 2 people following that same recipe may have different results. Once more this leads back to having "it."
There have been times when I have made a new dish that absolutely blew my mind. One where every single taste, texture, smell, and flavor were spot on. Then, when I tried to recreate that dish, it wasn't exactly the same. It was good, but not like the first time. Is it because this feeling can be attributed to someone having their first kiss? That once you've had the first kiss of that dish, that each kiss after is always going to be slightly less then perfect? I can tell you from experience that isn't so. I've recreated a same dish with absolutely the same feeling as the time before. Was it cause the stars and planets we exactly as aligned as before? Cause the time and temperature where exactly the same? Because I was wearing that same pair of underwear? (Hopefully changed since the last time I'd made the dish.) No, it was none of those. I believe it was because this cooking "entity" and myself were truly in tune with one another. In the previous case, we clearly weren't. Maybe I got overconfident. Maybe I was rushing. In reality, I probably just wasn't listening. But in those instances of recreating a dish perfectly, we were completely on the same wavelength. Jammin to the same tune. I picture it as almost like a ghost standing behind me, guiding my every movement, whispering in my ear the whole time, (inject Patrick Swayze comment here), and if you listen and follow, you'll end up with outstanding results.
Whatever this thing, presence, feeling is, listen for it the next time you're in the kitchen cooking up a storm. When you're putting some basil in your dish, what's "it" saying? Add more? Less? Something else entirely? Can you even hear it? Or are you just burning water?
- Dedicated to one of my heroes, Anthony Bourdain. Rest well.