There is a major fallacy about cooking – the belief that you can teach someone to become a cook. Now that every chef and culinary educator has their feathers ruffled – let me explain. Yes, we can teach or train someone to perform the steps in cooking and through practice we can do this quite well – just like it is possible to teach or train someone to play the piano or guitar, violin, or cello. It is the same as training someone to play the game of baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or golf. So, where is the fallacy? There is something missing in this formula, something that separates someone who can cook from a person who is a cook; something that differentiates someone who plays the piano from a person who is a pianist; or teaching someone to play basketball vs. developing a basketball player. The missing ingredient is who the person is and how they became that person from birth to a given point in time.
When we think of those who know how to play basketball vs. players like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, or Larry Bird we start to see a significant difference. Someone who plays the guitar may be worlds apart from Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck; a high school teacher who understands how to play the cello is not quite the same as Yo-Yo Ma, and a chef working for a major chain of busy restaurants may understand the complexity of the job and the outcomes that are necessary may be a far cry from Dominque Crenn or Daniel Boulud. On one hand, they all know how to execute their taught skills and they all talk the same language, but that is where the comparison ends. Some call it an innate talent while others understand that there is something even more substantive than that.
If you take the time to study these differences and discover more about individuals you will likely find rich family heritages, a lifetime of engrained traditions, and a plethora of life experiences that go beyond sitting in a classroom or working day in and out on a restaurant line. These individuals have breadth to their backgrounds, something that is built into their essence, almost a part of their DNA.
The most accomplished chefs cook from their heart and soul. They express what they were exposed to throughout their lives: the culture, history, traditions, and life-experiences that cannot be replicated in the classroom or simply taught through repetition in the kitchen. Daniel Boulud grew up in France, his parents operated a café, he lived on a farm, he pulled carrots from the ground, watched local artisans mill flour for bread, and walked the vineyards where grapes were crying out to become wine. This is where he cooks from. Yo-Yo Ma suffers through debilitating paralysis yet his struggle like the knotted old vines of the grapes from Bordeaux helped to create beautiful music like magnificent wine. LeBron James and Michael Jordan built basketball into their lives as the way out of the hood, a skill – yes, but more importantly, an answer for them. Their struggle became a passion for this way out, a friend, a mentor, an answer.
When a cook understands the work of the farmer, when he or she bends down to pull those carrots from the ground or dig potatoes to find that long awaited exposure to the sun from their earthen home, when they have picked a ripe tomato from the vine and tasted it right there – dripping with sweet moisture warmed from the July sunlight – then a real cook is born. When a young boy or girl spends Sunday mornings with a grandmother making sauce for that traditional Italian (full day) meal, when they smell those tomatoes slowly cooking with garlic, onions, pork, chicken, and beef, sweetening as the process continues for hours – then they understand how to make a great sauce – this can’t be taught fully by following a recipe or even understanding a process. It is that grandmother’s passion that makes all the difference in the world.
I grew up in a family that was Americanized. A family that always cooked balanced meals, but that never reflected their history or traditions. My grandfather left Norway when he was 17 and traveled to find a new life in America. Once on these shores he was compelled to set aside his history and act like and become – American. Such a shame that I had to discover what it meant to be Norwegian on my own. My grandmother on my mother’s side was my only real connection with food tradition and I believe that my real desire to become a chef stemmed from her. She lived with us for maybe 15years, the most formative years of my young life. She cooked most of the meals since both my parents worked full-time. A few things stuck with me forever – statements that said it all, that relayed a deep family connection to cooking:
One of her classic dishes was chicken and dumplings. This dish was exquisite, so much so that I insist that it be my birthday meal every year. Her matter-of-fact statement continues to drive one of my bedrock beliefs in cooking:
“To be made right you must use a young chicken. If you don’t, it won’t be right.”
Throughout my career in the kitchen, I have stressed the importance of using the correct ingredients, from the right source, prepared in the correct manner if a dish is to work.
She also stated, as strongly as I ever heard her speak of anything:
“Never serve day old pie.”
Freshness, seasonality of ingredients, cooking a ’la minute are all philosophies of a cook that make sense. My attempt to stick to this belief is a credit to my history, to my grandmother. It would never sink in as well coming from a textbook or a fellow cook.
I relish my collection of cookbooks. Some would say I have way too many or wonder how often I read or use them. OK, I don’t use them enough, but they are there, and they represent what I appreciate most about the craft: they represent those special life lessons for each chef or cook who wrote them. Marcus Samuelsson’s reflections on his life in Africa and then Scandinavia, Lidia Bastianich’s musings about life in an Italian family, Daniel Boulud’s and Jacques Pepin’s classical cooking upbringing and stories of early years in France, or Sean Brock’s connections to heritage crops and traditional Southern cooking through the eyes of a child growing up in that environment. These are all priceless reflections on where their passion and unique skill set came from. This is the difference between a person who knows how to play the cello and Yo-Yo Ma.
Recently, I received a book from my friend Chef Jake Brach – currently the chef responsible for Culinary Learning and Development for Rich Products in Buffalo, New York. He may not work for a four-star Michelin Restaurant (although he did spend time at Charlie’s Trotter’s in Chicago and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York City), but his passion as a chef is undeniable and his impact on the food system is immense. This self-published book, “Of Food and Family” is not about what he does, it is about who he is as a cook. It is a vivid reflection on his history, family traditions, connection with farmers and producers, and imbedded appreciation for every aspect of the journey that an ingredient travels from farm, water, or ranch to plate. This book, like so many others in my collection is a key to unlock what it means to be a cook, not just know how to cook.
“Food is the thread that has held families and nationalities together for generations.”
The culture of food is the basis for most chef’s start – the spark that lights the passion for a career behind the range. Reflecting on cooking with his family he states:
“These are the traditions and flavors that last a lifetime and the ones we pass on to our children.”
Chefs who are on the level of Yo-Yo Ma, Eric Clapton, and Michael Jordan, and those who are simply recognized by their peers and the guests they serve as authentic and accomplished tend to come from strong food traditions, backgrounds where food connections stretch from the ground to the table, and who have traveled and experienced other cultures and understand their role in bringing all of this to the plate. Cooking has never been a job to them, it is an expression, a sharing, a statement of just how important all those life experiences have been. They eat and cook who they are – savoring every bite, relishing the chance to work with each ingredient, and committed to paying respect to all who helped them to paint on a plate.
A FEW BOOKS TO ADD TO YOUR LIBRARY:
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Cook from the heart and soul
Cook like you mean it
Represent your traditions and experiences
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast