I’ve been studying cooking for a few years with Chef Bernard Guillas of the Marine Room in La Jolla, California. When he isn’t running a group of top-tier restaurants, writing award winning cook books, flying off to New York for a Today Show appearance or Paris for induction into the prestigious Maître Cuisiniers de France (Master Chefs of France), he shares his boundless love of food in bi-weekly cooking classes at the Macy’s Home Store in San Diego. Each class costs a whopping five dollars, every penny of which goes straight to the San Diego Food Bank and helps feed thousands of families in need. My wife and I and a few friends have been attending regularly and it has really boosted the quality of our dinner gatherings, to say the least. But something surprising and unexpected happened along the way. Whether he intended to or not, while Chef Bernard was teaching us how to cook, he was teaching us how to live.
1. If your process is chaotic, your results are chaotic. Before you begin cooking, clean and organize your entire work space. Gather all of the tools you will need. Assemble and measure your ingredients. That way, once you begin cooking nothing will interrupt your flow and you’ll be able to feel your way through the process without having to constantly stop and go looking for something. And clean up as you go. Your kitchen should start clean, stay clean and end clean. The French phrase for this is mise en place. It means “putting in place.” How much easier would our work lives be, how much smoother would our homes function, and how much richer would our creative output be if we applied this principle to all the processes of our lives?
2. Do one thing at a time. When you are mincing shallots, mince shallots. When you are filleting a salmon, fillet a salmon. A divided mind is the enemy of awareness. That’s when you burn the butter, drop a glass or cut your finger. In every task we must be present and in a state of relaxed focus. Only then do solutions and pathways appear.
3. Keep it simple and let the ingredients speak for themselves. As you create your own recipes or adapt the recipes of others, don’t over-think it. Never let flash obscure substance. When possible, eat in season, eat fresh, eat local, and let the natural flavors, scents, textures and colors of your ingredients suggest combinations and techniques that bring out their natural beauty. And just because you have every ingredient in your pantry doesn’t mean you have to use them all. Less really is more. As in life, when in doubt, leave it out.
4. You eat first with your eyes. When you plate food, pay special attention to the way things look. Every meal begins as a visual image, followed by aroma, then flavor. But it all begins with the eyes. So too in life, don’t discount appearances – of course inner beauty matters, but so does outer beauty. Make your homes, offices, gardens, indeed your lives beautiful. Follow and amplify the natural lines of your raw materials. Celebrate the splendor of the visual dimension. Take a tip from nature. Look sharp. Let your personal appearance be your primary art form. Make it easier for others be drawn to the treasures within.
5. Follow your senses. We are cerebral creatures. The name of our species, Homo sapiens, means “man the thinker.” We are justifiably proud of our intellectual and rational accomplishments. But we are still animals sensing our way through a world of bewildering sights, sounds, scents and textures. As you assemble the earth’s bounties into dishes that feed and delight, allow the authority of your senses to speak. And as you struggle through life’s challenges, let intellect guide your steps, but let your senses show you the path.
6. Practice. Cooking requires the mastery of a core set of techniques – knife handling, heat management, traditional prep processes, culturally specific ingredients and the regional methods that accompany them. There is no short cut to mastery. Simply begin cooking everything you can. Then do it again, and again. Eventually mistakes fall by the wayside, instincts sharpen and results improve. So too in life, how can we demand mastery in any endeavor without a long and arduous apprenticeship littered with failure?
7. Let the mystery be. Food is energy embodied, made from the elemental substance of the earth just as we are. When we eat, we commune directly with the mystery of existence and with our own deepest nature. When we break bread together we enact a ritual that grounds us in the fundamental unity of all life beyond the veil of birth and death. Don’t turn eating into an intellectual puzzle. Embrace your animal nature. All eating is killing, and as such, involves loss. Eat mindfully, compassionately and reverently. Honor the earth’s gifts. And honor your heart. Each of us must draw our own ethical lines and avoid imposing our views dogmatically on others, for in the end it is only a matter of degree between the omnivore and the vegan. We vote with our forks and with our dollars. Support growers, ranchers and fishermen who share your values and treat the earth with dignity. Still, no matter where we draw the line, we all must participate in the sacrifice of life. Trust your gut, and do what you feel is right.
8. The process is the outcome. Don’t put all your stock in the end result. Make every step of the journey a destination in and of itself. “Sometimes it’s better to travel than to arrive,” wrote Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and he’s right. Sometimes the dish you slaved over all day doesn’t turn out right. But you have most certainly not wasted your time. There is joy in the stages of becoming that the end result doesn’t know anything about. Let the path itself be your reward.
9. Cultivate gratitude. After your mise en place is complete and you’re ready to begin, check in with yourself. Don’t touch anything until you have a grateful heart. Respect the plants and animals who gave their lives for your table. Work with them consciously and compassionately. Respect the fishermen and farmers who dedicate their lives to bringing you the fruits of the earth from every corner and continent. Feel their passion and their commitment to excellence. A sacramental offering is placed before you on the altar of your kitchen counter. Don’t poison it with resentment or self-pity. Preparing food is not a burden – it is a sacred ritual. Really see. You are surrounded by miracles. Let gratitude fill your heart and guide your hand.
10. Let your work be play. Cooking shouldn’t be a chore, it should be fun. If you cannot cook with love and an open-hearted sense of wonder, step away from the stove. Slap yourself in the face and get it together. Your mom was wrong. You should play with your food. Get your friends involved. Lead your kids into their own life-long love affair with food by your example. Explore the myriad wonders of the earth together. Food is communion that erases all boundaries. A chef is a shaman, a priest, and an alchemist who uses fire to turn the base elements into the Elixir of Life. Cooking and eating binds us to ourselves, to each other, and to the sacred source from which all things come. Learning how to work with food teaches us how to work better with the whole world. Who knew all of that could begin in the kitchen?