Go Your Own Wei Wu Wei: Taoism in the Kitchen

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

Early this week, I was talking to my friend Karen at work. The day was promising to be hectic- we were two people short, and everyone was doing at least one other person’s job along with their own. I had just amassed my production list (a.k.a. my to-do list), and was beginning one of the jobs when Karen told me I was “getting in my own way” and it was driving her crazy.

“Getting in my own way?”, I asked, looking down at my station- a bit crowded to be sure, but clean and organized.

“Yes! You have things out for jobs your not doing yet, and it will take you forever!”

At that moment, I realized she was right- I had plates, tools, and all manner of things piled up on either side of my workspace, limiting me from a 2.5′ x 7′ table to an actual workspace of maybe 2′ x 2′.

I had worked myself out of working.

When I was in school, our chefs would constantly remind us to work clean, but two chefs in particular- Chef Tree McCann and Chef Annmarie Chelius- would remind us to work ORGANIZED, and have NOTHING on the tabletop that wasn’t important to what we were doing AT THAT MOMENT. It didn’t matter if we were going to be using it for the next thing, or picking it up again just as soon as we were done- if it wasn’t being used, it didn’t belong on the table.

At first, it seems like a pain in the neck, and a load of extra steps to take. After clearing away what was not immediately necessary, though, I found I had more space to use on the CURRENT task- I spread it out, and wound up completing it in a third of the time it might have taken me as I was used to.

Those who know me, or who have read this blog for any amount of time (thank you!) know that I have a penchant for comparative theology and philosophy, and that recently I have been enamored of Taoism. In a nutshell, Taoism is based on the idea that there is a specific nature and order to the universe, the Tao (the “Universal Way”) The Tao says that winters are supposed to be cold, summers to be hot, flowers are to bloom in spring, and leaves are to fall in autumn. When people expect things contrary to the natural order, or try to fight against it, that is when people have troubles.

I mentioned one of the key practices of Taoism in the title of this entry (typically in a horrible pun- I apologize)- wei wu wei. This translates as “Doing Not-Doing,” or more inaccurately as “Doing Nothing.” At first blush, many people interpret this as passiveness and inaction, when nothing can be further from the truth.

Wei wu wei is perhaps best described as “effortless action,” or “perfect flow.” It occurs when a person is so devoted and involved in a given activity that the action because as natural and effortless as breathing. Put poetically, it is when we can no longer tell the dancer from the dance, or the musician from the music they are playing. They are doing, without doing- refusing to let their intellect interfere, allowing the motion and music to flow from them as easily as a sigh. This comes from devotion, practice, patience, and the perfect mastery of oneself and one’s art.

Many cooks will talk about their “flow” or about “the dance” of a working kitchen- the motion of people around each other that looks like madness and chaos, but is in fact (at least in the best cases) a delicate choreography- every person in tune with what they are doing, and what their teammates are doing where. In a way, this is the same thing.

When you bake, focus on what you are doing. Let nothing distract you… and then stop thinking. Move in the way you need to move- no more than necessary, no less than required. Proceed through one thing at a time- the future will be along soon enough, and THEN you can deal with what comes next.

Stay calm.

Stay centered in yourself,

and of course-

Stay classy,