Memories and Legacies- Looking Back, Looking Forward, and Who Tells Your Story

Good evening, friends and neighbors. I hope everyone had/is having a splendid holiday season, and are getting everything out of this time of year that you hope to.

Since I’ve grown up, Chanukah has always been just a sort of… thing that was celebrated. Eight days long, and the special stuff really only happens at night. Otherwise, everyone just goes to work or school and life continues.

There aren’t any hilarious or tragicomic movies about trying to get home to light the menorah- that’s what I’m trying to say here. We got some awesome stories about religious freedom, tasty fried foods, and one of my favorite Herschel of Ostropol stories– we’re good with that.

(The less said about “Eight Crazy Nights” the better.)

I suppose that’s something that DOES make Christmas kind of an enjoyable time for me- it’s only one or two days.

This year, Christmas was fantastic.

Emily and I went out for Chinese, then stayed home and did absolutely NOTHING.

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The Way of the Warrior

Good morning, friends and neighbors.

Not long ago, I decided I was going to go on a bit of an Eastern Philosophy bender and read all the texts I could get my hands on.

It may have been my state of mind at the time, or just a desire to spend more time reading interesting stuff and less time trawling social media.

In the past, I’d read and re-read several Buddhist texts- a couple sutras, the Dhammapada, and the Buddhacarita. I’ve also previously read (and love referring back to) the Tao Te Ching and Dogen’s “Tenzo Kyokun.”

In this latest push, however, I decided I was going to tackle some of the more well-known works: Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure.”

It was… a lot, and it got me thinking-
“Why do we look to books on war for lessons on life?”

hagakure quote one becomes two

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F***ing Up With Style

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

In sounds cheesy and ridiculous, but up on the wall behind my desk at home- the one I’m sitting at right now, in the shade of Miss Cleo’s cat tree- is a sectioned pegboard.

I don’t use it to organize my day- I have apps and reminders for that. Nor is it a “visionboard”- something where you tack up all the things you dream of one day making a reality. A neat idea, to be sure- but it feels a little hollow.

Instead, I have it sectioned in four. The first is called “Good Vibes.” It’s got memories of things that- duh- make me feel good. Mostly it’s reminders of cool moments in my life- the menu from my first Chaine dinner, a thank-you note from one of my patients back when I was a nurse, letters from distant friends.

The second is “VICTORY!” This is my “trophy” wall, so to speak. It’s got the menu where I was first called “Chef Matt Strenger” over the desserts I served. It’s got my tags from runs I’ve done, and the program from my graduation from culinary school.

The third is “Inspiration.” Mostly it’s poems I like- especially “Invictus” by William E. Henley, and “Air and light and time and space” by Charles Bukowski (as much of an admonishment to me as anything- I think ALL creative-types should have that up in their workspace somewhere.) There’s a couple things about Tony on there too, of course.

The last is called “Failures.” Don’t be surprised- Stephen King used to collect all of this rejection letters from publishers. Michael Faraday used to do same thing with failed experiments, a reminder of the lesson he learned and to stay humble. It could probably have more on it- the sad thing is that most of my rejections came in the form of “form” letters… so less-than-rife with feedback.

In fact, there’s only one thing up on that board right now. I make sure it’s completely visible at all times. It’s a black-and-silver debit card- thoroughly magnetized and wiped, for a closed account, and with the thumbtack pounded right through the strip to be sure.
It reads “Black Hat Baker, LLC.”

Here’s a story about how to dream, fall short, f*** up, and work with what’s left.

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Non-Culinary Books That Belong In a Professional Kitchen

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

Since my previous book-related blog was about cookbooks that are just fun to read, I figured I’d keep wading in the literary sea and pull out another- albeit smaller- list for you!

A professional cook and chef has to do more than just cook. They need to manage people, time, and materials. They need to lead, teach, and learn from themselves and others, and know how to use EVERYTHING at their disposal.

Here are a few books that maybe weren’t intended for the kitchen, but can help with exactly that.

Animated GIF from Mary + Max

I don’t know if this book exists, but it might be useful for some cooks I know too.

1. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (trans. by Stephen Mitchell)

The cover of Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Ironically, sometimes the best way to get everything done, is to stop TRYING to get everything done and just let yourself do it.
In the Tao Te Ching, a fundamental text of Taoism, Lao Tzu teaches that things go wrong when we force them (or ourselves) to be something they are not. When you stop forcing things, or letting your ego, anxieties, and preconceptions get in the way, you achieve wei wu wei, “doing not-doing”, or “effortless action.” In the kitchen, we might call it soigne– but it’s the point where there is no difference between the cook and the act of cooking.

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”


2. Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions to the Cook) by Eihei Dogen zenji

Eihei Dogen

Painting of Eihei Dogen, from Wikipedia

If you are reading this post, it is likely that you have chosen/ are considering choosing cooking to be your career. It’s definitely not a glamorous life. We’ve chosen to work and to serve- very hard, and often in obscurity. It’s easy to get down on yourself about that fact.

In the 13th Century, however, Dogen- a Japanese Zen master- wrote “Tenzo Kyokun”, instructions for those who would be the head cook at a Zen monastery. Far from being work for menial servants, Dogen extols the position as requiring a capable and accomplished monk. He elucidates the virtues of cooking. How the responsibility, attention, and mindset necessary to cook can lead one to enlightenment and incredible karmic merit through service. He reminds the cook to take responsibility- oversee everything personally, and treat everything in his care- tools, ingredients, people- with care and devotion.
Some people sit on a cushion or a sun-lit porch to meditate. You can certainly do so while cooking risotto and chopping onions.

“If you only have wild grasses, from which to make a broth, do not disdain them. If you have ingredients for a creamy soup, do not be delighted. Where there is no attachment, there can be no aversion. Do not be careless with poor ingredients, and do not depend upon fine ingredients to do your work for you, but work with everything with the same sincerity. If you do not do so, then it is like changing your behavior according to the status of the person you meet: this is not how a Student of the Way is.”


3. The Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (trans. by William Scott Wilson)

Cover of Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Speaking of service, that was the calling of the samurai, and of bushido- the Way of the Warrior. in The Hagakure (“The Book of Hidden Leaves”), former samurai retainer-turned-Zen monk Yamamoto Tsunetomo reflects upon the life, conduct, philosophy, and death of a samurai. To do one’s work, to live with absolute sincerity (another name for the book) and to act always with decisiveness, bravery, and compassion- it’s hard to think of anyone that couldn’t stand to learn how to live ones life, or manage the fast-paced labor of a professional kitchen, with intention and devotion.

It is spiritless to think that you cannot attain to that which you have seen and heard the masters attain. The masters are men. You are also a man. If you think that you  will be inferior in doing something, you will be on that road very soon.”

4. The Boy Scout Handbook originally by Lord Baden-Powell

Norman Rockwell painting of a Scout and the Scout Oath

No, I’m not kidding, and anyone who has ever been or worked with a Scout knows exactly why.
This isn’t just about philosophy or inspiration- though it absolutely can and should be. The BSA Handbook is about PRACTICALITY.
In “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell, we learn the word debroulliard- what everyone in a kitchen worth their salt wants to be. The guy who can pull an answer out his back pocket and make it work. The resourceful one that makes it happen.
Between minor medical emergencies, fixing a broken sauce-dropper with fishing line, weaving a net over a shelf to keep bowls from falling off, and more, my time as a Scout has helped me out more in the kitchen than I can begin to describe. Beyond skills, the resourcefulness, work ethic, discipline, and code of conduct I received from the Scouts counts for plenty on it’s own.
A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.”

This is just a few of the books I could think of right now, but I’m certain there are more. What about you all? Any you think I should mention?

Stay Classy,

The BHB’s Top 10 Cookbooks That Are Just Plain Good Reads

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

Did you know that a cookbook can be more than a collection of recipes? It can actually be… A BOOK.

Yes, yes, how shocking.

 

If you think about it for longer than a second, cookbooks don’t need to as dry and dull as your college textbooks. Food is an extremely personal and social thing, and so people who choose to write a book of recipes have the opportunity to fill in the gap, so to speak.

A cookbook can absolutely instruct- “This is how you make my favorite jambalaya.” Much more interesting and enjoyable, however, is “I make this jambalaya especially for rainy, crappy days, because it reminds me of when I worked in this great restaurant in New Orleans. Let me tell you, the chef there was so particular….”

See that? The recipe became a story. It had a background, and a special meaning for the writer, which they just offered to you. Maybe you’ll never make that jambalaya except once or twice? Maybe it’ll become your favorite, and you’ll want to go to NOLA yourself one day, find the authors old restaurant, and taste the real deal.

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A Wedge Salad Kind of Life

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

A few weeks ago, I was in a bit of a state. It was a cloudy day, I had run out the door relatively early in the morning to make an appointment- the kind that requires a tie, vest, and pressed slacks. It required me to remind myself to pick a briefcase that matched my attire. My shoes were shined, and I’d even remembered to floss.

The appointment was… underwhelming, I should say. If you were to put a gun to my head right now, I couldn’t tell you want was said at any point in the meeting. All I remember is that I walked out at the end, looked up at the street signs, and decided I needed lunch and a beer.

Fortunately, I was near a restaurant that Emily and I had heard great things about, and throughly enjoyed dessert at. It was close enough, the menu and price were right- and I was certainly ready to walk in to something that felt certain.

“Down on His Luck”, Frederick McCubbin, 1889

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A Wake Of Fire, Flour, Blood, Butter, and Ink- In Memoriam of Anthony Bourdain

Around 8 years or so ago, I was staying in my girlfriend’s apartment for the weekend. We have just finished making some chocolate cookies for after dinner. At the time, I was still working as an EMT- my work weeks were pretty grueling, and I found relaxation in cooking and baking at home. Often, I would bring in the results of my work to the Rescue Squad- they were usually very thankful. The EMT diet tended to be odd things at odd hours, washed down with way too much caffeine, and getting something home-cooked and half-decent just delivered to you was a rarity.
    While the cookies were cooling, Amanda said, You know, there’s this great show I’ve been watching recently on Travel Channel I think you’d like. This guy used to be a chef, and he just goes all over the world and talks about the food and culture and stuff. He just did a really funny episode about Prague. Hang on, I’ll pull it up.”
    I shrugged and crashed out next to her on the couch. It had a been a long day- a busy shift, and then driving the hour to get to her, I was eager to get as much sleep as possible on my days off.
    She pulled up the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”- and my world tilted.
    In the weeks to come, I would start cooking and baking at home even more, trying out different recipes with Tony joking and laughing in the background from whatever corner of the world he was in. I would pick up “Kitchen Confidential,” and a number of his other books, devouring ALL of them. All the while, I’d bring in stuff for the squad- and I’d hear them say,Matt, this is REALLY good. Why are you running on an ambulance? You should be doing this!”
    8 years and a few days ago, I was informed that I’d been accepted to culinary school.

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