Pros: Written in a language that appeals to cooks
Cons: Opening your mind to Zen studies may be tough for the unconvinced
Instructions to the Cook
Bernard Glassman & Rick Fields
Reviewed by Jim Berman
Guilty! I judged a book by its cover. I was in between titles, waiting for Ivan Ramen and the new Rene Redzpi, while I doggedly flopped through the new releases section at the local big-box book store. The title, Instructions to the Cook caught my attention and I bought it, unopened without even a glimpse at the back cover, a gander at page one or even a shot at the author bio.
And it isn’t a cook book. Or even a book on food. Joke is on me. Rather, it’s about life. And cooks need a little set of instructions now and then. “Cooking, like life, is about transformation. When we cook, we work directly with the elemental forces of fire and heat, water, metal, and clay. We put the lid on the pot and wait for the fire to transform the rice, or we mix the bread with yeast and put it in the oven to bake. There is something magical hidden, almost magical about it..”
I read Instructions to the Cook while still digesting The Back of the House about Tony Maws’s kitchen mystique and unpredictability. Instructions is the perfect follow-up; it worked well to sooth the fiery, vehemence that comes with running a world-class operation. And, again, it provided balance.
What we do, what we juggle, the fires we extinguish and often start, the pace at which we race, the physical trials we exercise, the demons we excise, all take their toll. And, as many cooks will tell you, burn-out is a reality. The intensity is akin to sprinting; it works in the short-term, but the pace can simply not be maintained. Something has to give. Our industry is ripe with abuses of many colors and flavors; and those abuses are just the start. We can take out that ferocious intensity on each other in the form of venom-laced tirades; unexpected terminations, often on a whim; suspension, if even momentarily, of that kitchen camaraderie that we all relish. All products of that unfiltered ferocity.
Glassman is not unknown in the culinary world, however. He is the founder of the Greyston Bakery, a staple in Yonkers, founded on the Zen belief of sustainability and enriching the lives of the people involved. The bakery is a burgeoning empire of its own and supporting community initiatives, low-income housing, health care and education.
A concise synopsis of the book can be found at http://www.tricycle.com/feature/instructions-cook-a-zen-masters-lessons-living-a-life-matters. In essence, there are countless parallels in the art of finding the Zen way of living a full life and the ingredients that make up our kitchens, the morsels that make up the dishes we serve and the process that we call cooking. Unlike other pieces I have reviewed, I offer little in terms of the storyline and the content. Rather, for you cooks, Instructions to the Cook is a treatise; it is a guiding light on how to live. There are similarities with the boiling pot and troubles brewing, there are bits on cleaning the kitchen as discovery; the taste regions of the tongue as harmony; aspects of life as ingredients. “See the pot as your own head, see the water as your lifeblood.”