“It’ll Be Fine”- The Top 10 Worst Excuses Used in Kitchens Today

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

Even as affairs in American kitchens are slowly changing from the bad old days, one aspect of the Kitchen Life still holds up:

The professional kitchen is a meritocracy.

You either can do the job, or you can be TAUGHT to do the job, or you can’t. Doesn’t matter where you went to school, who you know, how many cookbooks you have.

You can either show up, on time, in the right state of mind, and do the job like you said you could… or you can’t.

That said, the space between arrival and the last two week of a position can be… colorful, to say the least.

Close up of a man in nice boots who just stepped in gum.

Continue reading

Mentorship: What The Apprentice Actually Learned

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

Mentoring has become a bit of a catchphrase recently, hasn’t it?
A buzzword, thrown around by people in suits at “networking” events where attendance and business cards are expensive and the beer is cheap.

What do you think of when you hear that word? Most people probably think of someone they met who’s a bit farther along in their field and gives them their number for when they get in a tight spot.

In the kitchen, “mentor” means something fundamentally different. It’s the difference between learning a business and learning a craft.

It’s one huge reason the culinary industry is still around- and it’s not straightforward or easy.

Continue reading

Killing Norman Rockwell

Hello, friends and neighbors.

There’s a lot to be said for (and against) going to culinary school if you want to become a cook or chef.

Most of the arguments in favor of it include a basis of skills, the amount of knowledge acquired in a short amount of time, dedicated teachers, and the connections that come with being part of a community.

The arguments against include going into debt, that school won’t teach the life skills that come with the kitchen (some of which are as necessary as technical skills), and wasted time and money for a piece of paper that, while impressive, doesn’t match up to hands-on experience in the eyes of employers.
To get a loan from a bank to start your own business, that’s arguable.

Both of these camps come from a point of emotionality and pride, and I can see the honest merit in both. I went to a local, excellent, less-expensive culinary school before I had my first cooking job, and I can tell you right now the first thing I learned there:

Norman Rockwell had to die.

Rockwell's

“And The Symbol of Welcome is Light” (1920)

Idealism Breaks Like Bad Custard

Don’t get excited. I love Norman Rockwell’s work, and I’m certain it will live forever. The man depicted the America we wish we could see out our window. The unofficial-official artist of the Boy Scouts of America, I grew up looking at his work with honest love and respect. His depictions of small-town America- the Mayberrys and Main Street, USA’s we all imagined of a “happier,” “simpler” time- are part of the national consciousness.

Even his darker, more evocative paintings had an idyllic serenity to them:
“Yes, THIS is what life should be like. THIS is how things need to be.”

My first visions of being a baker- handing over pies and cookies to mothers and their kids in my own little shop, swept clean and full of clean glass and wood shining brown like a pie crust- had that dream like quality. Like someone who wants to own a restaurant, and dreams of tasting the food, wandering through the dining room and greeting patrons- it’s the end product.
The “good bits.” Getting to that point is rarely pretty.

We got dragged into reality after the first year.

“You are in for it now. You’re not going to be Emeril. You’re not going to be Nigella. You’re not even gonna be Jamie Oliver. When you graduate, you will be someone’s b****. You will be someone’s b**** for years, and if you’re good at being their b**** you might have some little b****es of your own one day.
You may even become the biggest, best, and baddest b**** that the world ever saw- and you’ll still be someone’s b****.”

Understand, no teacher ever said ALL  these words verbatim… but it was understood.
“When and IF you graduate… you are at the BOTTOM. You will STAY there until you demonstrate the ability to crawl up.”

Rockwell's

“Daydreaming Bookkeeper (Adventure)”, 1924

The Pit

We were taught to cook and bake, of course. That was the job. Some teachers were easier than others- to varying degrees of success. We were also told some of the horror stories of the job.
We were taught to write our own.
We were given the “jail, hospital, or the morgue” mantra.

“You want to own your own bakery one day? Strap in, kid- here comes recipe costing, labor costing, suppliers, food safety, OSHA, tax law, local and state certifications…
What, you thought you’d just be baking pies all day? Hah, maybe if you’re working for someone else, and never want to do anything more.”

We got fed the reality. Convenience products. Suppliers. Cost management.
We read Down and Out in Paris and London, Kitchen Confidential, and ​The Apprentice. We mucked out trash cans,. We scrubbed dishes and cookware. The stronger guys had to carry out the stockpots heaped with 100 lbs of bones.

Because of my school’s proximity to the casinos and resorts of Atlantic City, the majority of us figured one of them would be our first gig out of school. For the most part, they didn’t need creative thinkers and dreamers. They needed warm bodies that could crank the recipes out and not mess it up.

Years later, I’d lament to a friend of mine here in Oregon that I did as well as I had at that- that I had pushed to get into some other creativity-based courses, and maybe not simply tried to gather “all the skills I could.”

My friend, who didn’t go to culinary school, disagreed. “Too many kids who graduate from schools leave trying to be artists first in everything, and craftsmen second. They wind up having issues with the menial stuff, and getting repetition and replication down. It’s AWESOME you got used to that first.”

We didn’t work ALL the time though. And some of us still dreamt. Maybe not the Norman Rockwell ideals we had… but something similar. Something NOT what we were led to accept.

Rockwell's

“The problem we all live with” (1963-64)

Rockwell Invictus

Most of us did go to the casinos, and some stayed for a while. Others built our names working for small restaurants and cafes.

Some of us started our own businesses, repainting Rockwell in our own image.

Some of us packed up our knives and began a wandering career, chasing the tides and where life might lead. We had skills, after all. Give us a kitchen and an oven, we could find work.

As I write this, I’m crashed on my couch with an absurdly snuggly black kitten. My wife is sleeping in the next room. We’re two thousand miles from anywhere we FIGURED we’d wind up. I found work in a restaurant, and when I’m not baking, I’m telling stories.

There isn’t any Rockwell hanging on my walls. Instead, I have my awards from culinary school.
A Ralph Steadman print of a man on a bicycle with baguette, wine, and a cold.
A poster from the podcast Emily and I binged on the drive from New Jersey.
Drawings by my friend Lillian, inspired by kimchi.
and an old tourism poster of Atlantic City.

I don’t think Norman Rockwell ever put any of his paintings IN his paintings either.
He painted a reality he wanted. WE made them dreams.

Rockwell's

“Relaxing in Chair”, 1923

How close to reality we can get them… that’s on us too.
That’s the tough bit.

​Stay Classy,

The BHB’s Top 5 Personal Development Books

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

“I really think that reading is just as important as writing when you’re trying to be a writer because it’s the only apprenticeship we have, it’s the only way of learning how to write a story.” – John Green

Back when I was in high school, one of my English teachers used a similar quote that I can’t remember the source of- “I’ve known many readers who don’t write, but I don’t know a single writer that doesn’t read.”

The logic then follows:
If you want to write stories, read a LOT of stories…
and if you want to write books that will help people, read a LOT of good personal development books.

PictureHunter S. Thompson pointing a gun. Caption reads

Great life lesson… maybe a bad role model.

Growing up, my mother had a veritable library of these- mostly about dieting, exercise, keeping calm, and personal empowerment.
I mean, she WAS a stay-at-home mom with three kids and a busy spouse for most of my childhood. So it kinda makes sense.

For a long time, I didn’t really give a hoot about “self-help” books. They had, and to a degree still do, have a stigma about getting them-

  • “Just a cash-grab.”
  • “…for people that can’t handle reality.”
  • “Common sense s***, put in a pretty cover and sold.”

Well I can say that, since growing up a bit, paying bills, and working in blue-collar field where you’d swear common sense was a friggin’ superpower sometimes:

  • If someone is honestly trying to help folks, nothing wrong with making a little money from it.
  • Reality SUCKS, and people who “handle” it maybe aren’t handling it so well.
  • and as distracted as we can get, sometimes a slap to the back of the head- “DUDE, FOCUS”- is needed.

In the last few months, my sister Stephanie Cansian has been on a bit of a personal development book-bender. Between trying to get her own business as a wellness coach going, being a barista, and keeping house, Steph tries to get in at least one hour of quality reading each day. Her husband Kevin, another side-hustler in progress, does the same. Personal development reading in the morning, and leisure reading at night before bed.

With me trying desperately to be a writer, the bug didn’t take long to jump over to me, so here’s a little list of my favorites so far!

1. “Born for This” and “The $100 Startup” by Chris Guillebeau

Chris Guillebeau is no stranger to this blog. I’ve referenced him and his works many times before, and he has the distinction of writing the first development works I ever bought for myself. These were them, and that’s why this is a two-fer:
The $100 Startup is business-minded, and offers the philosophy, concepts, and inspiration you might need if you want to kickstart your own small business. While perhaps a bit light on actionable steps (something he corrected in “Side Hustle”,) Startup  plants the seeds for you, and gets you to ask that all-important question- “Why not?” This is the book that inspired me to start The BHB. What happened afterward, I’ll say was a flaw in execution rather than intent.Born For This is a bit more focused on the personal. Perhaps you don’t want to be an entrepreneur, but you DO want to be more satisfied with your work and life in general. In this book, Guillebeau outlines his “Joy-Money-Flow” philosophy that he finds practiced by people who won the “job lottery”- folks that always seem excited to work, do it well, and make a happy living. You won’t get rich, possibly- but if you’re living a good life you love, who needs to be?

2. “Creative Struggle” by Gavin Aung Than

Gavin is also no stranger to this blog. I’ve loved and followed his main project “Zen Pencils” for years now, and always take joy and inspiration from his depictions of famous quotes.
In this, his third book, Gavin compiles cartoons he’s done about some of the great artists and thinkers of history- Leonardo DaVinci, Stephen King, John Coltrane, Mary Shelley, and more.
His cartoons are on-point, of course- but the additional histories he offers give them even more impact. For example- did you know Tchaikovsky HATED writing “The Nutcracker?” It was a total pot-boiler for him. He hated the story and the work itself, but it was a royal commission. However he “mastered his disinclination” and turned it in. Every Christmas, theaters fill around the world to watch it be performed.
If you just can’t womp up the will and inspiration to get your projects done, this might be what you need.

3. Endless Light: The Ancient Path of the Kabbalah” by David Aaron

I’ve written about my fraught relationship with my faith before, and about other texts on Judaism and Kabbalah. So throw the celebrity, red-string-bracelet, woogie-woogie crap out the door for a minute and get this:
Sometimes what you don’t need is “ANSWERS” per say, or “INSPIRATION”- but a RESTRUCTURING. What helps isn’t specific advice, but more a realignment in how you look at the world that lets you see answers in yourself that were hidden before.
In this book, Aaron offers that realignment through the lens of Kabbalah- Jewish mystical philosophy that bucks some of the staid, moralized lectures we are used to.
With amazing insights into Judeo-Christian thought, and helpful self-reflection questions for each chapter, you can start piecing things together- by removing yourself from the center.
Case in point- in Hebrew, the word “het” is translated as “sin.” In reality though, it literally means “miss”- as in “to miss a bullseye.” Crime, or mistake?

4. You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero

Stephanie SWEARS by this book, and this author. Sincere makes no bones about her personal journey, and doesn’t shy away from the real, weird, and looney moments along the way- going into debt doing self-help programs, jobhunting, impostor syndrome, the works.
With an acerbic wit, engaging voice, and enough of an understanding for the negatives of life that it’s hard to lump in with “positivity culture,” Sincero’s advice- if it doesn’t immediately inspire you- will at least encourage you to look at your stressors in a different way.

Also, Loincloth Man.

5. Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, MD

Remember 20 years ago or so when EVERY businessman and CEO was reading this book, and “well, SOMEONE doesn’t like their cheese being moved” was a decent burn?

Well, there’s a reason for that. The book is THAT simple, and THAT good

A simple fable about mice, tiny humans and track suits, a big maze, and dealing with change- personal, professional, economic, etc.

The power of this book comes from the ease of its parable- and the starkness of the lessons. A reminder to keep on top of things, not to get too comfy with anything, and prepare to move on rather than wishing change wouldn’t happen.

That’s what I’ve got for you right now- what books do you all turn to? Think you’ll read some of these?

Stay Classy,

A Crash Course in Chocolate Work

 Good afternoon, friends and neighbors.

I am annoyingly active on Facebook. “Annoying” certainly for myself, since I’d like to believe I have better things to do than scroll through an increasingly bleak news feed and let fear/ anxiety/ envy consume what remains of my energy. (Fun fact: I do, I just kinda suck at reminding myself to do them.)

One thing that Facebook HAS done for me, however, is connected me with a community of fellow professional cooks and chefs from around the world. I tend to haunt these conversations more than I talk- you wouldn’t believe just how much of being a good storyteller is listening, rather than talking.
The other day, though, I felt the need to pipe up.

One chef in the community was working in the kitchen of a hospital and had recently been put in charge of their pastry department as well as their hot kitchen. He was okay enough with the baking aspects- he knew how to follow a recipe, do the math, and so on. There was only one thing he was concerned about with his new duties- chocolate work.

The hospital had an EXCELLENT food program. They make chocolates and truffles in-house for their OB-Gyn unit- new mothers get a little box of specialty chocolates. The chef had chocolate on hand, tools, materials, equipment… but he knew NOTHING about working with chocolate.

Myself and another chef leapt in with a host of advice- tempering, flavoring, handling, sourcing, the works. The majority of my knowledge came from culinary school, and occasional experimenting in the casino under my friend Karen, but apparently it was more than my friend had ever gotten to hear.

Afterward, I got to thinking “You know, this is probably something a lot of folks would like to know. I should write something about it.”

Here we go, then. Strap in.

 

What is Chocolate?

Cacao Bean Podsfrom Wikipedia

Wikipedia defines chocolate as a typically sweet, usually brown, food preparation of roasted and ground cacao seeds. It is made in the form of a liquid, paste, or in a block, or used as a flavoring ingredient in other foods.”

That’s a good start. Chocolate begins its life as the seeds of the cacao plant, which are then fermented, washed, dried, and ground, and then combined with any number of additional ingredients to make the chocolate you find at your favorite candy store. Commonly, this is chocolate liquor (not alcoholic- this is the name given to the raw results of processing cacao), cocoa butter, sugar, and occasionally dairy product in order to make milk chocolate.

Often, people will describe a chocolate bar or a kind of chocolate with a percentage- 35%, 65%, 70%, and so on. This percentage indicates how much of that chocolate is the liquor in relation to everything else. While it absolutely has flavor and chemical ramifications for the professional to think about, for the average chocolate lover, you can think of this as “how chocolatey/bitter this will be.” 35% is where milk chocolate usually lands. 55% is semi-sweet, 65%-80% is “dark” or “bittersweet” chocolate, and 100% is baking chocolate- USUALLY inedibly bitter on its own. My former roommate Andrew can attest to this, as the previous gerbil for my culinary experiments.

Sorry, Andrew- I’m sure you’ll be able to taste things again one day.

Chocolate has a long and varied history as well, dating back to it’s first recorded usage as a drink by the pre-Olmec civilizations of Mexico as far as 1900 BC. Of course, its history is tragically colored by the impacts of colonialism, European exploitation, and slavery- even to today.

Buy small and local, folks… it doesn’t just stimulate your local economy, but also MUCH more likely to be ethically sourced.

While there are only three varietals of cacao harvested right now, the permutations of their growth, location, season, and harvesting process invite limitless flavor profiles and terroir not unlike fine wines or other crops.

No, not ALL chocolate tastes alike.


Keeping You In Suspense: Tempering, Blooming, And Using Chocolate

When you hold a chocolate bar in your hand, it seems like a single, unified substance. It is… well, “chocolate.”
Now you KNOW, however, that it’s a mixture of chocolate solids, cocoa butter, and probably a mess of other ingredients- sugar, dairy, emulsifiers, flavorings, childhood dreams, etc. All the same, it seems like one, unified solid. You’ve probably seen a case where that wasn’t quite true though- and I don’t mean melting.

If you eat chocolate (especially as a little kid,) you’ve probably poked around your house and found old Halloween candy, or a forgotten chocolate bar in the bottom of your bag that you got as a snack. You’ve picked it up, it felt solid, and went “Woo! Bonus chocolate!” You go to unwrap it and… wait, that doesn’t look right.

It’s all weird and mottled-looking. There’s white stuff on on outside, and it feels spongy. You break off a little bit, and it… just kinda bends and pulls? No satisfying snap. It’s dull-looking, not the shiny chocolate you remember.

Dang it… it’s gone bad” you think, and go to chuck it out.
Well, I’ve got good and bad news for you- the bad news is that, no, you wouldn’t want to eat that chocolate. It probably wouldn’t hurt you or make you sick, but it just won’t be enjoyable.
The good news is that, if you want, you can probably bring it back.

The chocolate you buy, in order to make sure it can sit on a shelf at room temperature for a good long while, goes through a process called “tempering-” where the chocolate is melted down, then cooled and reheated very carefully to make sure it can tolerate reasonable temperatures and stay one uniform mass. When chocolate is warmed up and DOESN’T cool down properly (such as being stuck in a wrapper at the bottom of your bag for 8 months), it loses its temper and “blooms.” The cocoa butter and sugar separate and rise to the surface on their own, creating that mottled look and gross taste

As melted chocolate cools, the cocoa butter in it starts to reform and crystallize. It may sound weird to think of fat “crystallizing”, but if you’ve ever fried bacon, poured off the fat into a container, and noticed that the surface of the fat looks sparkley, it makes more sense.

Cocoa butter crystals can take up to seven different forms, each more temperature-stable than the last, with the 6th and 7th ones being the hardiest and most resistant to temperature abuse. Tempering chocolate is a process where you do two things at once:

  1.  Raise and lower the temperature of the chocolate so that only those toughest, firmest crystals survive.
  2. Through physical manipulation (i.e. stirring and moving the chocolate), those crystals are constantly broken down to be as small as possible- so small that your tongue can’t detect their texture, and you wind up with smooth, tasty chocolate!

Bakeries and confectioners have large tempering machines- essentially a big spinning bowl with a thermometer and scraper that they can control the temperature of very slowly and keep it moving throughout. These machines can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars- but the process itself can be done very easily on a small scale with equipment you have at home!

You need:

1. Chocolate (duh.)

2. A double boiler– two pots of similar size, one of which rests securely inside the other.
Direct heat from a stove (even on low) is WAY too hot for handling chocolate and will burn it quickly. Using a double boiler, the lower pot is filled with water, which steams up and makes sure the upper pot (holding the chocolate) doesn’t get above 212*F (100*C.) If you don’t have two pots, you can use a heatproof bowl that fits instead. Just be careful grabbing it!

3. A heatproof spatula or wooden spoon (my personal favorite)

4. A good thermometer.
They make special glass “chocolate” thermometers, but you can absolutely use any instant-read probe thermometer- the kind you use to make sure your roast chicken is done.
Some folks, including me, have used infrared laser thermometers. They are cool and all, but they only tell you the SURFACE temperature of the chocolate, rather than of whole thing, so use your own discretion. Those can be bought at home improvement stores (they’re USUALLY used to detect drafts near windows.)

It’s kinda crazy how many great kitchen tools you can get at a hardware store.

Bending the Arc

Like I said above, tempering chocolate is just a matter of warming and cooling the chocolate and stirring it constantly to make sure only the strongest crystals of cocoa butter survive. There are multiple techniques for exactly HOW you do this:
  • Tabling– The melted chocolate is poured onto a heat-absorbing surface (like a slab of marble) and pushed back and forth across the surface. Quality of the temper is determined by the appearance and thickness of the chocolate as it cools. This is very much an “old world” method, and while it’s still used today, you need to have a LOT of experience with chocolate to do it reliably.
  • Inoculation/Vaccination/ Seeding Method- This is the method I use and the one I was taught in school. After being melted, chunks of already-tempered chocolate are pitched in as the batch cools. Their presence A. helps the chocolate cool (like dropping ice cubes in a hot drink), and B. inspires Stage 6 crystals to form by introducing some into the batch. This is the best way for a beginner, though it will require a little math and calculation if you are trying to only melt a certain amount of chocolate. It also, of course, requires having already-tempered chocolate on hand.

  • Resting– This “method” isn’t really a method, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it being used outside of my old textbooks. The melted chocolate is put in a bowl, at room temperature, gets stirred occasionally, and otherwise just sits there. Results are variable to say the least- I’ve never worked anywhere where this method was used- or even taken seriously. If you’ve had success with it, let me know.
      For tempering chocolate, different types (and indeed, different BRANDS) have certain temperature ranges they need to pass through in order for those good crystals to form, and all others get wiped out. This is called a “crystallization arc” or “tempering arc”- some brands like Callebaut and Valrhona will print a specific one for that chocolate on the back of their commercial packaging.

        For most purposes, however, temperature ranges are pretty consistent across brands for different types of chocolate- dark, milk, and white. This chart from the good folks at ChocolateAlchemy.com is the best I’ve found on the net:

A QUICK NOTE ABOUT DIFFERENT TYPES OF CHOCOLATE
Not all “chocolate” is CHOCOLATE. There are bunch of different types- from real chocolates formulated for specific purposes, to “chocolate-flavoured” candy melts. This is the kind that you find at craft stores more often than not. They’re not actually chocolate- just artificially flavored candy with a high amount of fat to make them easier to handle for the hobbyist or for simple decorative work. They do not need to be tempered, but if you decide to use them, follow THEIR heating instructions. Believe me, you don’t want to waste your time tempering crap, OR have a foul-smelling gritty mess on your hands.

Using whichever method you choose, once you’ve taken your chocolate (slowly) through those temperature ranges, you will notice the characteristics of properly-tempered chocolate!

  • It’ll be shiny.
  • It will harden up quickly at room temperature. You can drop a little bit on a sheet of paper and, within 5 minutes, see it harden, darken, and shine.
  • When cooled, at room temperature, it’ll break with a satisfying “SNAP!”

How To Use Chocolate (and generally not f*** it up)

Awesome! So now you know what chocolate is, what it’s made of, and how to temper it so it’ll stay firm and shiny!

Now… what do you do with it?

WHATEVER YOU WANT!

What follows is just a couple tips and ideas for what to do with chocolate:

Tips For Chocolate Working!

1. WATER IS THE DEVIL.
Water will cause your melted chocolate to cool way too quickly and “seize.” It’ll become gritty and gross, and there will be NO rescuing it. When tempering or using chocolate, keep water away as much as humanly possible. That includes the humidity of a refrigerator!

2. Oil-based Colors and Flavors
If you want to flavor your chocolate somehow, or color white chocolate, your colors and flavors will need to be oil-based, because WATER IS THE DEVIL. The most readily-available brand of oil colors I know is “Chef Rubber,” and you can use whatever flavored oil you’d like. Just be aware that flavored oils are expensive, and you will NEVER be able to make chocolate taste like anything BUT chocolate, with the addition of whatever flavor you are going for. Colors might need to be mixed with melted cocoa butter first, THEN added to white chocolate in order to make an even tone. You can buy cocoa butter bars separately from most suppliers (they look a lot like white chocolate, but lack sugar or dairy.)

3. Mise En Place!!
Once ready, chocolate needs to be held at it’s appropriate, “working” temperature. Unless you are REALLY sure of your ability to maintain that temperature, chocolate isn’t going to wait for you to get your tools, molds, bags, etc in order. Have all of your tools and materials ready and nearby! Once that chocolate is ready, it is GO TIME, and you don’t wanna be running around with chocolate on your hands trying to find the right tip for your piping bag.

4. Ganaches
Ganache is a beautiful thing. A mixture of hot dairy and chocolate that, depending on the ratios you make it with, can be a filling, a decoration, an icing, or whatever you need! It is pretty forgiving of flavoring (especially with liquor! A whiskey or rum ganache can be amazing), and can be piped, spread, or warmed up and used to enrobe!

Generally, ratios for a soft-solid at room temperature ganache are as follows:
Dark: 1:1 chocolate to dairy by weight.
Milk: 2:1
White: 4:1

You can tweak these ratios for the consistency you need. If you need the final product to be a bit more firm, use a little more chocolate, etc.
As for your dairy, you’ll likely find it easiest to start with heavy cream. Heat up your cream till it scalds, and pour it over the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Cover in plastic and let it sit for a bit, then whisk till uniform.

Ganache is NOT shelf-stable, and DOES need to be refrigerated! It’s also VERY sensitive to temperature.

That’s about all I’ve got for you for right now! I’ll probably come back at a later date with some more pictures of this stuff when I have a chance.

In the meantime, there are TONS of blogs and chocolatiers out there who you can get more information from, and chocolate companies almost ALWAYS have information on their products available on their websites and in catalogs!

Best of luck, and

Stay Classy,

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,