Joe is about my age, but he’s been cooking for way longer than me- he’s a locally respected chef, running one of the best bistros in South Jersey. It’s easy to see why- watching Joe move through service, he seems to crackle with energy. He yells, swears, barks, laughs- never still for more than a moment.
I’m helping him out for a couple nights on his dessert line- towards the end of the day, he comes running up to me and drops a crate of tomatoes on the bench.
“Matt! Dude, you need to smell these!”
Joe looks at me like I just farted in church. “Matt, no! SMELL THEM.” I think he may have grabbed my head and practically smashed it into the crate of lumpy red fruit. The smell of tomatoes filled my nose- not fresh and red, but GREEN. Green leaves, freshly tilled soil, warm air and cool rain on their skins.
Joe looked at me like a Zen master seeing the light of enlightenment in a pupils eye- the big smile reserved for a kindred spirit that just “got it.”
“You smell that? Find the good ones and dice them.” It was going to be for gazpacho, and it took me forever. I couldn’t stop smelling the tomatoes. His wife Jennifer, another chef, came over with a cutting board and kept me on task.
Everything must be perfect- the butter must be frozen. The water must be ice cold. The butter must be mixed in to EXACTLY the right point, and the water added at EXACTLY the right time to make the difference between perfect dough, and a bowlful of greasy mush.
I’ve squeezed the dry ingredients and butter. They crack under my thumb, after some pressure. As the paddle moves, the contents start “cliffing” – the early stages of clumping, where ingredients against the bowl stick just enough to make cliffs of flour to look like Dover in Great Britain. I add the water.
As the dough forms, I pull a clump out and slowly pull it apart in my hands.
There are layers. Layers like the strata of rock in the Grand Canyon. A thrill of joy and beauty shoots down my spine. I let out a whoop of joy as I examined my pefect crust, and hoisted the 55 lbs. kettle from floor to bench- easy as breathing.
Victoria, the pastry chef at the cafe (and the one who actually has to use the dough once it’s portioned and formed) comes over to see what I’m so happy about. I feel that same crazed thrill up my spine as I describe the process- each detail- and show her the flaky layers her pies demand. With a nodding head and smile, she gets it.
Of course, I’ve seen her rhapsodize over the arrival of fresh chantrell mushrooms and perfectly sweet summer berries- and my old friend Kevin croon over elegantly handled cuts of meat.
Perfect pie dough.
A magnificently built violin.
A piano tuned to perfection by someone blessed with perfect pitch.
A certain shade of blue.
The smell of fresh chanterelle mushrooms (to my mind, kind of like flowers and apricots.)
The flavor of a perfect bowl of lentils.
Perhaps it’s because of that viscerality- we feel and experience everything about what we do very deeply, to a physical level- where something like a perfect slice of pie can move us to tears.
It might also be the exacting nature of our work, and the pressure we put on ourselves and those around us. When the difference between success and failure means EVERYTHING has to be “just so” (and rarely ever is,) seeing a glimmer of perfection- whether it’s a product of your labor or a contributor toward it, can sometimes feel like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day- a moment of bliss amid madness, release among constant tension.
I think, perhaps, it’s something much simpler. When your life, work, and self-worth are all invested in creating things of beauty and moments of bliss for others, finding ones for yourself can feel difficult. You take time to appreciate the beauty of what you do and what makes it possible- even if it may weird out people who aren’t “in the know.”
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
– Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Act V, Scene I