Keep It Moving

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The professional kitchen has a reputation for being loud, busy, sweaty/on fire, and mired in what looks like absolute chaos but is in fact a precise choreography (affectionately called “the dance.”)
Not all kitchens have this vibe though. Some high-level chefs enforce a “silent kitchen-” where if you are not calling orders, calling back orders, or otherwise describing the tasks immediately at hand, you are to be silent and focused utterly on your work.
For the most part, pastry kitchens are considerably more quite than the average, line kitchens. The very best ones are almost like medieval scriptoriums- lines of bakers focused quietly and diligently on delicate work.

In all kitchens, though, there are times when it MIND NUMBINGLY BORING.

No matter what’s being made, when or how- nothing comes from nothing. SOMEONE had to stand in one place and peel all those potatoes for your vichyssoise. It was SOMEONE’S job to painstakingly peel an inconceivable number of oranges in order to get that delicate candied orange peel garnish on your chocolate cake. Certainly it’s tasks like these that most chefs- particularly those with restaurants who need to focus on quantity as much as quality- prefer to farm out. They buy Candied Orange Peel decor, or peeled and cubed potatoes in a 30 lbs frozen bag.

In some cases, they go REALLY deep. The very first day of my professional career consisted of cutting 30 frozen, pre-decorated, Italian Rum Cakes. 30 cakes, taken out of cardboard boxes, sliced in 12, placed on boards… and set up to be served to about 300 hungry casino-goers.

For THIS I went to culinary school….

My own personal traumas aside, the point is- when you go to a fine restaurant, no matter what you order, SOMEONE was standing in one place for hours at a time grinding through the same task. It is possibly the single most obvious, inescapable, and soul-crunching part of my professional life.
In the last few days, I:

  • Diced 6 lbs. of bell peppers
  • Diced 1 gallons of onions.
  • Individually zested 50 lemons to make lemon poppy bread and scones.
  • Individually scooped and dipped 80 Buckeye truffles.

Sound like a lot? THIS IS LIGHT. Compared to the work in banquet and resort kitchens, this is practically nothing compared to tray upon tray of petit fours, all necessarily IDENTICAL, or chopping onions by the 50 lbs bag. This is generally the work that falls to the lower rungs of kitchen hierarchy- the prep guys, the new kids, or the student/stagieri who’s there “for experience.”

No matter who or what it is, though- it’s easy to go into autopilot. Your brain shuts down, you move automatically…and then you slow down, or make mistakes. The Zen master Dogen wrote about just such situations.

“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.”

Those of old tell us, “For the tenzo [head cook], the mind which finds the Way actualizes itself through working with rolled up sleeves.”‘

– Tenzo Kyokun, “Instructions to the Cook” by Eihei Dogen, trans. Anzan Hoshin roshi & Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi

Like so many things, “easier said than done.” Eventually your neck starts to cramp from looking down for hours. Your back hurts from hunching over the table. Obviously you can make some ergonomic changes- change your stance and posture regularly. None of that helps your mind though.

​So how to keep focus?

I normally can slip on some headphones and listen to music or a podcast, but that’s obviously a rare exception. Most kitchens forbid their cooks from wearing headphones even in one ear for obvious reasons. Therefore the options are generally music/technology free.
1. Keep Your Brain Busy
Sometimes just keeping your mind busy helps the work go faster. My friend Karen would do math problems while she worked at grinding tasks- how many lines of 15 pieces could she do? 14?
Being a bit of a literature/storytelling nerd, I tend to think of old stories and try to come up with how I might retell them later given the chance.
2. Go full-on Zen
As Dogen suggests, cooking and food preparation can be seen as holy work and the act itself as meditation. As you work, find your rhythm. Simultaneously focus on each aspect with due diligence, and also let them pass.
In Taoism, there is a concept called “Wei wu Wei” that I have discussed previously. It translates as “doing not doing,” or “Effortless Action”- the point at which there is no difference between the actor and the act. Motion becomes as simple and thoughtless as breathing. This is something I like to believe I approach when doing prep. When my wife and I cook dinner, there’s an unspoken agreement that whoever had the worst/most stressful day gets to do the prep work for dinner- the feeling of quiet, rhythmic industry can be meditative and soothing, to the point I actually got a bit salty when Em shoved me away from the cutting board and took over prep because she was in a bad mood.
She apologized later, though- I did the dishes. Not quite as satisfying as chopping, but still very soothing.
3. Go HAM on the task.
When all else fails, go HAM and GET IT DONE. Actually, this is probably the FIRST thing you’d wind up doing- figuring out the fastest and most efficient way to chop a pepper, or zest a lemon. Analyze your motions, figure out the best way to move to get the job done quickly and completely- and constantly reevaluate the task. Especially for zesting lemons, I have found that- by moving only my right hand, and keeping the “to do” lemon bowl in front of me and the “done” bucket to the right, it takes me roughly 30 second to completely denude a lemon. 30 seconds times 50 lemons is 25 minutes.
I could probably get faster if I stopped looking at a stopwatch.

Those are the music-free methods that tend to work for me- but frankly if you’ve got a job that doesn’t mind you having a set of earphones (and you’ve got a LOT to do,) I heartily suggest Welcome To Night Vale, Myths and Legends, and Fictional for your listening/storytelling/vegetable chopping pleasure.

Whatever you choose to do, however- remember to make the task worth doing, and take pride in your work. If you can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter how quick, complete, or focused you are- the effort is wasted.
​Again, from Dogen:

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.

Stay Classy (and conscious),