I love to cook.
I love to cook so much that I did it, professionally, for a decade- first, in a local restaurant during breaks from college, and then later, when I graduated with an all-purpose A.B. in psychology, as my first post-grad career. I was trained by the old method of apprenticeship and worked my way from bus-girl on the floor to prep cook to garde-manger (“cold side”) to sauté chef (“hot side”) and then, eventually, to managing chef. I worked under the direction of some very gifted chefs, and for an entrepreneur-friend of mine who had great success in his career with four different restaurants. I ended my career as the Executive Chef of a popular, high-end catering company owned by a husband and wife team. Catering is not as much fun as the restaurant kitchen. In the restaurant there is a rhythm that ebbs and flows- the quiet of the kitchen in the early morning is so peaceful and productive as stock pots get going on the back burner and the fish monger waits in the alley- he shoves the chipped ice aside in the back of his truck to show his treasures: whole swordfish, bushels of clams, shiny trout that look right back at you with their glassy stares… In the afternoon, as the lunch crowd gathers there is a businesslike hub bub; feeding these folks is like a precision drill. They don’t have time to linger. Lunchtime fades into afternoon prep: the wait staff lazily re-sets the dining room, silverware gets rolled in linen napkins and the florist brings fresh buds for the tables. In the kitchen, the crew works at butchering, preparing vegetables, putting the final touches on desserts and, when the prep is done and the mis en place is prepared- it is show time! The thrill of a dining room filling up, orders spinning on the circular clipboard, the calling out of orders to the different chefs, and the pinging of the bell calling wait staff to “Pick up, Table 10!-“ There is nothing like it. The food jumps in the sauté pans, the bus bucket collects dirty cookware, the dishwashers, wait staff, and cooks move in a choreographed dance. The people are fed. It is exhilarating, fast, and beautiful. I loved it.
Catering is different. Sometime I will write about catering. But for now, allow these three pictures to suffice: 1) Catering a wedding for 150 guests in a barn in the middle of a field, 20 miles from the nearest grocery store. I taste the wild rice and leek dish to see if it is seasoned well. I get a mouthful of sand from the leeks that had not been properly washed, back in the home kitchen. 150 people are expecting wild rice and leeks without sand. 2) Catering a wedding in the Old State House in Hartford, CT. 250 people gather for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres on the lawn followed by champagne and wedding cake. The wedding cake is 6 stories tall. The end of the table on which it is set collapses and the cake slides down the table, landing on a heap of champagne glasses that had been carefully set up on the end of the now-collapsed table. 3) Catering a fancy summer “picnic” for a corporate CEO who insisted on forgoing tables and, instead, wanted his guests to sit on the lawn around the circular, pastel tablecloths. Bad idea for ladies in Lily Pulitzer sundresses. An even a worse idea when the septic field overflowed and the ground became suddenly saturated with human waste sometime between the gazpacho and the poached chicken course.
Catering, if you didn’t get it, is unnecessarily and unpredictably stressful.
Back to cooking.
The reason that I love cooking is for the creativity that it allows. I am not a baker. Good baking requires a lot of precise measuring. Cooking is about taste, feel, sound, heat, smell, sight. All the senses. After a while you just know when things are done. You can smell the turning of nuts in a sauté pan from toasted to burned. The sound of the rice pot getting quiet on the back of the stove signals that it is ready. Mushrooms in a hot pool of oil squeak when they first hit the pan, and then, as their moisture is released, turn to a soft bubble as they cook down. The feel of meat, fish, dough under the hand tells when it is ready. A sharp flick of the wrist can turn a frying egg over in a pan, and shuffle sautéing vegetables without the need of a spoon.
Sweet, savory, piquant, smoky, sharp, mellow, cloying, briny, creamy, thin, emulsified- these are all words that elicit a particular taste-form-mouthfeel. Curry, stews, sautés, roasts, slow-braised, oven-fried, sous vide, grilled- these are words that define a preparation technique.
But the stars are the ingredients: Sweet corn. Ripe tomatoes. Fresh fish. Dark green kale. Tender lettuce. Deep purple berries. Creamy polenta. Thick cream. Bright yellow yolked eggs.
Meeting the ingredients and combining them with technique, taste, and hunger is a creative gift, a creative game that just does not get old.
If you know the T.V. show “Chopped,” then you know my idea of a very good time.
Well, here’s the thing. I think that we all need a very large dose of creativity in our lives. It keeps us fresh, thinking, alert to our surroundings, in touch with our needs and the needs of those around us, and alert to our resources, be they meager or overflowing. The creative process is where the Holy Spirit engages us as co-creators with God. Using our gifts, liberated by the Spirt, we join to make something new, to make our unique contribution to the world. It may just last as long as the dinner hour, or it may end up hanging in the Louvre. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter, as long as the process is lived into, and the Spirit engaged.
How are you creative?
What is your media? Food? Flowers? Fabric? Words? Paint? Wood? Numbers? Rhythms and Tunes?
How does God move in you to make something new?
If you don’t have a creative “outlet,” then what is keeping you from trying something on?
No one ever said that the goal of creativity is to produce things worth selling or hanging on a museum wall. Sometimes it is more about process than product.
So tell us- what is your creative edge?
Please note: “On the Way” will be taking a hiatus for summer vacation and a work trip. The blog will return on Friday, September 15th!