Nancy Silverton is likely best known for introducing the country to La Brea breads. From meager beginnings as a small artisan bread bakery, La Brea grew to become a national representative of the craft bread movement in America. No longer involved in the company she sold, Chef Silverton, is owner and operator of Mozza Restaurant where exceptional Northern Italian dishes are highlighted on the menu. But it is her sporadically offered grilled cheese on her crunchy sour dough bread that draws crowds and calls for a label of “perfection”. When offered, it quickly sells out because people are always drawn to perfection. It is elusive, hard to define, impossible to reach, yet easy to relish when it is almost achieved. You know it, when you see it, feel it, smell it, or taste it.
Anyone who is passionate about their craft is always in pursuit of the A++ result. The best cup of coffee, best omelet, best burger, best barbeque, or most outstanding steak is the carrot dangling in front of every chef or cook. By best, what is meant is “perfection”. We seek it without really knowing how to define it. We attempt to set a course to arrive at perfection but are unsure of the direction to go, where to start, or where we will end up. Is perfection a thing or is it a mindset, a motivator leading to a dead end. Or might it simply be an attitude of wanting to always push the envelope and get better. Good is not good enough, we must be great. Great falls a little short until we reach excellence, and excellence – well we know what comes next; or do we mean – what comes last?
Maybe perfection is not a thing, it is the pursuit that excites and gratifies. If you get there, what comes next? Do we move from that perfect grilled cheese sandwich to another menu item? Is perfection the same as complex or is it really connected to simplicity? Are chefs with a focus on perfection simply like a dog chasing its tail, or are they setting a course towards something that can be grabbed and celebrated? Lots of questions without answers.
Vince Lombardi, considered by many to be the greatest football coach of all time said:
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
So then, if perfect is not attainable, why chase it? Well, as Lombardi inferred it is a way of approaching anything, not necessarily a goal. Attainment is a mindset rather than an end game. It is that carrot just a bit too far out of reach that it can’t be grabbed, but in the process of pursuit we push ourselves as far as possible with that goal in mind.
Chef Charlie Trotter may have offered the best rationale:
“I have always looked at it this way: If you strive like crazy for perfection…an all-out assault on total perfection…at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night. To accomplish something truly significant, excellence must become a life plan.”
Elusive as perfection might be, so many chefs jump out of bed in the morning with their sights on the prize. They work to find the best purveyors of ingredients, develop relationships with farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and cheesemakers to stock their shelves with the right raw materials. They hone their skills through trial and error, repetition, and the pursuit of knowledge. They hire and train the most dedicated professionals to execute the plan, and they are always focused on the details. Taste is coaxed out of ingredients through dedication to process, aromas are built with an understanding of how they marry together, and plate presentations represent an appreciation for the visual arts; the beauty of fresh, natural ingredients; and the symmetry of food on a well-designed canvas – the plate. In their mind is always that pursuit of the carrot.
It’s only food to some, it is a focus on purpose for chefs. It makes little difference what type of cuisine, whether it is fine dining or your local pizza shop or if the price point is under $10 or over $200 – the pursuit is the same and the end result of this focus is excellence; and then they can sleep at night knowing that tomorrow it will be time to start all over trying to get just a little bit better than today.
From this pursuit comes failure and failure is a great teacher. From failure comes new ideas and flaws that make a product or process interesting. If perfection were to be achieved, then what would be left to do? Some of the greatest products, processes, and art have come from the flaws that are a biproduct of the pursuit of perfection. To this end, the process is what is most important. Without this pursuit we would not have cell phones, computers, light bulbs, airplanes, incredible wines, or restaurants that take our breath away. It may be elusive, but perfection is the inspiration that pushes us forward.
“Perfection is impossible, but you don’t stop aiming for it.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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