Kitchen Zen

     Good evening, friends and neighbors! This has been a busy last few weeks- there is a new menu on the website, and soon I will be adding a feedback page, where you can review your experiences with the Black Hat Bakery! Enjoyed a cake I made for you? Like what you read here? Soon, you’ll be able to tell me- and everyone else- easily! Keep an eye out!

    A while back, I assembled a basic booklist that every cook, culinary student, or pastry chef should have in their kitchen. You can find that list here, and I’m certain there will be more additions soon. Today, I began reading what might be the briefest, but most enlightening, entry on that list.

“From ancient times communities of the practice of the Way of Awake Awareness have had six office holders who, as disciples of the Buddha, guide the activities of Awakening the community. Amongst these, the tenzo bears the responsibility of caring for the community’s meals. The Zen Monastic Standards states, “The tenzo functions as the one who makes offerings with reverence to the monks.”

     So begins an essay written in 1247 by a Zen Buddhist monk named Dogen, entitled “Instructions to the Cook.” In Zen monasteries, the tenzo (cook) was not a low-level position, or one that the young and inexperienced were saddled with. The cook was one of the six administrators of the monastery, and was generally an older, accomplished monk with great clarity, serenity, and wisdom.

     “The tenzo handles all food with respect, as if it were for the emperor; both cooked and uncooked food should be cared for in this way.” 

      “Do not just leave washing the rice or preparing the vegetables to others but use your own hands, your own eyes, your own sincerity. Do not fragment your attention but see what each moment calls for; if you take care of just one thing then you will be careless of the other.” 

 Excerpt From: Dogen, Eihei. “Tenzo Kyokun.” Feedbooks, 1237. iBooks. This material may be protected by copyright.

     As I read further into the text, I realized- what is this but mise en place? Respect for your art, for your tools, and your ingredients- common sense things that would be reiterated by such luminaries as Carême and Escoffier over 500 years later?

     “Taking up a vegetable leaf manifests the Buddha’s sixteen-foot golden body; take up the sixteen-foot golden body and display it as a vegetable leaf. This is the power of functioning freely as the awakening activity which benefits all beings.” 

    “Having prepared the food, put everything where it belongs. Do not miss any detail.”

     In Dogen’s view, the work of the cook was vital in a way beyond the obvious need for edible food. Throughout the day, the monks may meet for prayer, or lecture, or meditation. Meal times, however, are the most absolutely primal moments when a community IS a community- and the cooks job was to foster and provide for these moments. 
     By applying the mindfulness and awareness they were learning and practicing at the monastery, the tenzo could not only feed his community well- through his work, he could find enlightenment, and share it with others. 
     In addition to the rules and concerns he lays down, Dogen offers several stories- humorous and humbling- that illustrate the relationship between food and spirituality.

“When I was staying at Tiantong-jingde-si, a monk named Lu from Qingyuan fu held the post of tenzo. Once, following the noon meal I was walking along the eastern covered walkway towards a sub-temple called Chaoran Hut when I came upon him in front of the Buddha Hall drying mushrooms in the sun. He had a bamboo stick in his hand and no hat covering his head. The heat of the sun was blazing on the paving stones. It looked very painful; his back was bent like a bow and his eyebrows were as white as the feathers of a crane. I went up to the tenzo and asked, “How long have you been a monk?” 

 “Sixty-eight years,” he said. 

“Why don’t you have an assistant do this for you?” 

“Other people are not me.” 

 “Venerable sir, I can see how you follow the Way through your work. But still, why do this now when the sun is so hot?” 

 “If not now, when?” 

 There was nothing else to say. As I continued on my way along the eastern corridor I was moved by how important the work of the tenzo is.” 

 Excerpt From: Dogen, Eihei. “Tenzo Kyokun.” Feedbooks, 1237. iBooks. This material may be protected by copyright.

     There are also bits of wisdom that echo of others, far separated by place, time, and culture.

“A rich buttery soup is not better as such than a broth of wild herbs. In handling and preparing wild herbs, do so as you would the ingredients for a rich feast, wholeheartedly, sincerely, clearly.” – Dogen, “Instructions to the Cook”

 “Better a meal of herbs where there is love, than a fatted calf where there is hatred.” – The Bible, Proverbs 15:17

     Food truly is a universal experience- as is its connection to spirituality.

     One final little koan for you all- my personal favorite:

     “A man once came before the Buddha and asked, ‘Tell me something that transcends all knowledge, all the wisdom of the ancients and the sages across time.’      The Buddha smiled and said, “Sesame flatbread.”

Stay Classy,