For me, there’s finally some sense of conceptual awareness of the art of cooking. I think I can finally see its majesty. Like anything tremendous and worthwhile in this universe, it’s staring me in the face, daring me to see it. It’s like that moment when you first see the sailboat in the picture of squiggly lines, but then lose it real fast and want to shout at your friends about what you saw, while you steel yourself back into staring just the right way again… so you can see it.
I’m not talking about how to make heat transfer from surface to surface in such a way that properly cooks food or cut vegetables in various forms. The concept is one of having a kitchen, as opposed to simply being in one – a kitchen that actually does something. Something that fulfils needs & wants, and yet requires real work. A kitchen that otherwise wouldn’t exist… a kitchen that only exists because Chef makes it so. I think I’m finally getting that important part of it in a way I wasn’t able to consider previously… because I was too bedazzled by various components of the culinary arts themselves. Once you learn how to do what bedazzles you (or at least see how it can be done), you can begin to focus on seeing what you failed to see because you were too bedazzled before.
I’m a huge fan of holistic understanding. I firmly believe (on the advice from others mind you - I don’t pretend to have made this up) that if you understand the over-arching concept of a thing, rather than it’s specific details, then you’ll be able to consciously drive or pilot the machinations of that concept to an intentional or deliberate end. This is different to many who would attempt to “ride” the machinations of a concept to whatever random end happens to come about.
The latter is called luck. The former is where you attempt to grasp something hard to grasp – something large, abstract and even difficult to see at any given point - and take it somewhere because you meant to (it’s where you realize that you too can operate that car and drive it wherever you want; and then you decide on a destination and go there – where you want to go). The latter – “riding” - is where you climb into a parked car, take off the hand brake, close your eyes and pray the car lands somewhere safe when it finishes rolling down the hill, all the while wondering what the steering wheel, clutch, brakes, etc are for (perhaps while bedazzled by them).
As far as understanding “cooking” goes: at some point someone is going to invest labor into your food. Maybe you’ll hunt down a bear, skin it, eviscerate it, hang it, bleed it, bring it home, cut it into steaks, put them away in portioned-sized, plastic-wrapped chunks and then… make bear bourguignon for 8 hours at home. In other words, “labor”.
More likely, you’ll have a microwave dinner, or perhaps some fast food (which translates into virtually zero labor on your part). Maybe you’ll splurge and order a pizza (less labor for you, but higher cost); maybe some nice Chinese take away. Maybe you’ll make your own special pasta… where you do that thing with the wine and the butter. It doesn’t matter because in all cases (even the bear) – and because of what you have to eat with that bear (which also costs labor) – you’re talking about a ton of labor that went in to your food just to get it to the state where you could use it, let alone eat it.
Playing a part in that for a living means developing a focus for what is important in those equations – in the equations of labor and cost and distribution and education of and for cooking. These are what comprise the business of cooking. Once you’re finally directed by your elders in the directions of what is considered important you can start to pay attention to the “self-evident truths” of this discipline and begin the process of holistic understanding; getting the whole picture. Seeing how everything is connected. Not having to ask anyone any longer, “Why is that important?”, for questions like these have self-evident (or obvious) answers. If you need to ask, then you aren’t paying attention to what’s right in front of you. This is sounding like what Chef would tell us, no? “Chef always tells us all we need to know”.
Perhaps it is easier for me to see the silhouette of this grand concept out on my horizon. It resembles the last discipline I was in - one I was in for almost 20 years, Graphic Design. I reached a point of holistic understanding in that discipline as well – to the point where I was running a successful business in that industry of my own creation. It was a very deliberate attempt to get in the car of Graphic Design and drive her on down the road for a few years. We arrived at a predetermined destination, and even in the manner we had hoped. However, this was only after years of intense self-discipline and only because while we drove it we worked harder than anybody else. And it was because of a group of people working together - not just my own personal effort.
The similarities between the silhouette of a successful design group and a successful kitchen remain conceptually strong and useful from my still nearly virgin perspective. The purpose is the same to their respective worlds. In the design world the bargain is simple: Take your skills, your time, your equipment, and use my money to create an outcome with the best possible result I can afford. That’s the bargain with the graphic designer that her taskmaster makes with her and only because there’s a customer who sees the value of that work.
In many ways this is similar to the kitchen. Take your skills, your time, your labor, your equipment and create something of value that I would pay for. In graphic design that something of value might be a logo like the Nike swoosh, or a methodology that defines an entire marketing program of a large multi-national corporation - in the culinary arts it might be a signature amuse you still serve at your cornerstone restaurant; and that people copy at home once or twice a year using your cookbook, or it might be a methodology that defines an entire service program of a large multi-national corporation.
However, and for “starters”, it must have a market. Graphic Designers don’t just sit around and draw pictures until someone sees one they like and says, “I’ll buy that for $10k” (that’s called “art” and it’s a completely different discipline). Graphic Designers get hired by (or start their own) firms that target a certain area. They cater to specific aspects of graphic design: the best web site designers for video game companies; the best designers for mass-audience mobile phone apps; the best fast food commercial graphic designers (who specialize in table tents and other Point of Sale materials). If you’re a fast food operation owner with a marketing budget and no ideas about how to increase business, then you are the ideal customer for that last firm of graphic designers.
That’s how it works in most businesses and that’s certainly how it works in the food world. Knowing the market exists, finding the market, understanding how to approach that market, position yourself within the market – these are the first conceptual points to clarify. And something 20 years in a kitchen isn’t necessarily going to teach you.
Secondly - and yet more importantly - is the “what”. High-end, low-end, catering, restaurant, food services, mainstream, underground, gimmick, no-nonsense, ethnic, utilitarian, what… what do you do? What is the product of the operation? Is it really food? What kind of food? What value does your version of that food have? Is it cheaper? Does it taste better? Is it better value? Is it a status thing? What?
In graphic design – similar to much of the food industry – it’s really the process that we (the public) are purchasing. The process is where the value lies and also where professionalism is achieved (because the process brings consistency). When designers charge their clients for their labor (which is the primary cost in that business) what the customer is usually paying for is an entire process of labor that can be defined in hours. The designer is being used for the definitive stage (where they and the client define what’s needed – which takes a ton of time if you do it right), the creative stage (where the designer spends a ton of time exploring ideas and developing concepts right or wrong – again, which takes a lot of time done well), the execution stage (where the designer physically builds out the refined, final concept – which requires even more time), and then any tertiary stages depending on how static or live the project might be over time. It’s almost identical to the time a Chef spends, with the exception of the management time that goes into a large multi-person performance project like a kitchen is - yet which the design world has equivalent roles (managing large numbers of people is often what Creative Directors do as an aside).
So, for example: I want fine French food tonight when I go to eat somewhere. You could say I’m looking to “buy/rent” a kitchen service that follows a process for the result of my money, and their time, and tools, and expertise, in executing that process that they designed for us earlier. It’s really the same thing. The designer has a consistent outcome because of the process they follow in executing what they designed earlier according to the standards of that art form. The chef has a consistent outcome because of the process they follow in executing what they designed earlier. The graphic artist follows the same concept of standards in their given medium.
But don’t forget: the second thing is more important than the first thing.
It comes second procedurally because it will be valueless if you offer that service/process to the wrong people (the people who do not value the process, or who won’t/can’t pay for it).
Go try to sell brand new American Luxury Cars to the poorest people of Guatemala. Try to sell really expensive Golden Oldies CD Collections to young teenagers in shopping malls. Let us know how that works out. Try opening up a 5-star restaurant in a neighborhood that can’t afford it, with no outsiders to visit either and see how successful you are.
Value is not an absolute and it is certainly not the same thing in any two different situations or even among any “single people”. Value is only what we human beings (individually) assign to “it” (X) at any given moment in time. The previous two sentences are more important than anything else you will ever learn in life, no matter what you are, or what you ever do (ask Albert Einstein about it). Value is what people (nothing else, just us people) give to anything in the entire universe, no matter what their religion, beliefs, ethnicity or anything else that might influence their means of evaluation, belief, hope.
There once was a time when salt was more valuable than gold. This is no longer the case because we humans collectively decided to make gold more valuable (among other reasons). It might have had to do with figuring out how to harvest/distribute more salt than we need, but in the end it doesn’t matter why or how that changed. All that matters, is that salt is no longer more valuable than gold; the only reason gold is more valuable than salt right now is because we humans all collectively agree that it is so.
So if you’re in the food business, don’t charge more than gold for the salt you sell. Not right now anyway. Maybe we’ll all change our minds next week but for now…
With the marketplace identified and us carefully making sure we’re positioned the way we want to be within it (we’re charging the right amount, we’ve got the right smile on our face and our customers can’t wait to get to our place or see our truck or use our service), and with our product well-defined and unique among all of our competitors – now we’re going to put our holistic understanding of this business to use: we’re going to get better. We understand that not getting better is the same as getting worse.
We’re going to keep improving, we’re going to come up with new ideas every week, we’re going to make that perceived value feel even more valuable as time goes by; with our solid holistic understanding of the business our attempts to make the service better are going to be spent on the right issues and the right way. We’re not necessarily going to waste time figuring out how to appeal to some trend one of our competitors has taken to, because we understand holistically that it isn’t really what our customers want anyway.
We won’t fix what isn’t broken. But we will do.
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Details are for looking up. Albert Einstein famously never knew his own phone number, because he wanted to save his memory for important things. Not details he could look up. Our culinary training has many examples of this kind of thinking at work: learning a ratio instead of a series of specific amounts is a common technique, e.g. 2 to 1 with long-grain rice, or the same weight of fat and flour for roux. Invariably some details we will always know, the point isn’t being made so we can all start trying to forget our own home phone numbers. It’s just a matter of always making sure you understand the concept, and having less concern for details which can be looked up. If you focus on details to the point of missing the concept, then you will always be confused when those around you are making perfect rice pilaf in any amount without ever looking it up - where you can only make exactly two cups of rice pilaf correctly, and are lost when it comes to any other amount because you don’t have a recipe for the different amount and never learned the ratio.
Along with keeping the intellect free to focus on problem solving and innovation however, we must also follow a purposeful and deliberative process, or all of our preparation will be for naught. Just like failing to follow steps in their proper order in most recipes, if we don’t follow the process, the product we’re trying to create won’t materialize – or even worse, it will be a bad product. Generating paperwork for the sake of generating paperwork is no solution.