One of the many things that I find truly amazing is a person’s ability to assimilate, understand, categorize, blend, envision, and call into action thoughts from a variety of experiences and do so with relative ease. This happens progressively throughout our lives as we tap into our memories – memories that are constantly evolving. As an example, a line cook has an incredible capacity to remember and use complex actions while stacking those actions on top of each other. Just for a moment, think about what it takes to work a busy sauté station. Every dish that is part of that station portfolio must be fully understood. How the mise en place is prepared in advance, uniformity of vegetable cuts, clarification of butter, sauce preparations, and where each ingredient should be stored according to the station map. The timing of each dish must be imbedded in the cook’s consciousness, the specific flavor profile of each item, portion sizes, the steps in cooking must be second nature; caramelization, degrees of doneness, the intensity of a flame, reduction of sauces in a pan, adjustments to seasoning, how the dish must be presented on the plate, how to time finishing so that it aligns with other stations, etc. And then, the cook must be able to catalog multiple, simultaneous preparations of a number of other dishes with totally different profiles and preparations. All the while, he or she is coordinating and communicating with other line cooks and doing so as the point-of-sale printer is spitting out a stream of additional orders to catalog and process. Amazing.
As we get older and more seasoned in our role as cook to chef, our capacity matures and grows in different ways. As a 50-year-old chef we may not be fast enough to work that busy sauté station (even though we think we are), to organize all of those different a ’la minute preparations in our head and do so with incredible ease, but we are able to approach far more complex processes that fall under the heading of “the chef’s job”. At this level we are able to envision a dish without even preparing it. Our ability to plan a menu is done virtually at first. We come up with an idea for a presentation and a flavor profile and tap into our memory that has matured through experience. We can close our eyes and see what the dish will look like, how it is built, how each ingredient flavor melds with others, how the dish will smell, what its texture will be, and overall, what the flavor experience will be. This is before the protein even hits the hot pan. We are able to do this because we have years of experiences working with those ingredients that are stored in our memory bank allowing us to discover synchronicity in thought. Different parts of our brain kick into action and merge to produce those visual pictures, faux aromas in our head, an understanding of “chew”, or texture, and how all the flavors will come together and identify the dish. Amazing.
I am currently engrossed in reading a wonderful book by Dr. Sanjay Gupta entitled: “Keep Sharp”, a book that I highly recommend for everyone. Originally, I purchased it as a resource to help me maintain mental acuity as I age, but since turning the first few pages I have come to the realization that my interpretation of memory and memory loss is skewed by misinformation. As chefs we have all found ourselves in the walk-in cooler wondering why we were there, or in a hurry to get somewhere in the kitchen only to discover that our mission was not so clear, misplacing our keys or glasses, or finding it difficult to remember where you placed a file, recipe, book, or cup of coffee. The common approach is to blame it on age, but it may just be our brain trying to prioritize a pile of messages, some of which are evolving as we walk from point A to point B. We create elaborate checklists, so we don’t forget, but in reality, those lists simply help us to keep certain immediate priorities front and center as our brains move in dozens of different directions. According to Dr. Gupta, our brains contain over 100 billion cells or neurons where our every activity and thought is shipped and processed allowing us to move, breathe, think, reason, assimilate, decipher, create, speak, see, smell, touch, and taste. All of this takes place in a 3.3-pound organ that represents only 1/40th of our body mass. Unlike other organs that can be protected much more easily through diet and exercise, the brain is an enigma without a clear understanding of how to maintain its health. Yet, its health is the key to who we are, what we are able to do, and if we are able to exist. Yes, diet can help immensely and although we may not physically exercise our brain, we can still exercise it through proper use: reading, sleep, problem solving, calculations, and other forms of positive stimulation. But the brains health is often simply taken for granted – it’s there and we trust that it will continue to do its job.
The ability to visualize a dish, as an experienced chef can, is not unique to that profession. It is a process that musicians, writers, sculptors, painters, athletes, doctors, and engineers are also able to tap into and learn to control. This 3.3 pounds of mass has the capacity to multitask better than any computer made by man, yet we have failed to discipline our ability to use more than a small fraction of its ability. When you stop to think about what we are able to do with that fraction and what we might be able to accomplish if we learned how to tap into its capacity it is hard not to be astounded.
As a chef ages and matures, his or her experiences build a capacity to move from the speed of a line cook’s brain to the chef’s depth of understanding that comes in time. We move from the immediate ability to perform tasks to synchronicity where the brain is able to reference hundreds or even thousands of past experiences simultaneously as we solve problems, design and create, teach and train, and build a high level of competence and confidence.
We find it fairly easy to enjoy the physical nature of our bodies, a healthy heart, and sound digestive system, and as a chef – our palate that triggers the ability to create delicious food; but far too often we take for granted, the wonders of our brain and how it is the key to who we are and what we have the capacity to accomplish. Take a moment, now and again, to marvel at what our brains are capable of, how we have evolved and how important it is to nurture it as much as we innately rely on it. Feed your brain with interesting information and experiences, treat it kindly with ample amounts of rest and sleep, and exercise its capacity by challenging it to process, create, solve, and inspire. FOOD FOR THOUGHT.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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