Sanctuary- Reclaiming What You Love by Remembering What Matters

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

In retrospect, my therapist wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. That’s really the role of a therapist or psychologist- unpacking and untangling what’s in you, and organizing it so you can figure your own mind out.

About two years ago, I had a mental breakdown after leaving a job I had loved, but no longer felt happy working. At the time, I thought it was just me reacting to doing something out of character– leaving a job without having another right away was, to my mind, colossally irresponsible.

As I spoke, though, my therapist cast it in a new light:

“Yeah, that WOULD be really irresponsible, but you did that before- when you moved out to Oregon. You got a new job way sooner this time too… why the drastic reaction?”

”I think it’s because you enjoyed this job so much. You loved the kitchen and felt at home. The kitchen has always been your safe space, and losing it regressed you- to the scared, overweight kid bullied on the schoolyard. All your work and self-improvement felt like nothing.”

It’s been a while, but I feel like I’m finally reclaiming the kitchen in my life. Here’s how.

Missing What Was Lost

As far back as I can remember, the kitchen was where I was always happiest.

As a kid, my parents cooked, and family dinners were mandatory. Holidays meant gathering around my grandmother’s big knobbly-legged dinner table, and a regular visit involved sitting in the kitchen over matzah ball soup.

Living on my own, visiting friends meant puttering around the kitchen fixing drinks and food. I always loved the idea of the kitchen being visible to the dining/sitting area simply because- while I wouldn’t always want help- company and conversation while I worked was always welcome. That’s the way my apartment is set up now.

When visiting friends, I always gravitate toward the kitchen. It’s where the beer is coldest, where I can feel useful, and where the best conversation is- normally because it involves food.

And as a professional baker, my kitchen- draining, exhausting, and work though it is- is where I feel in control. Everything makes sense. I know where I need to be and what I need to do, and I have an answer to everything. Whatever’s going on beyond the door can get bent- there has always been a feeling of “this is my domain.”

Even when something takes forever to mix.

That’s really it, I suppose. That feeling of control. Cooking is “the art of control” after all, and I love knowing where everyone and everything is in my kitchen, where I can make things work to my will.

The job I left had robbed me of that- turning a place and activity I loved, already under stress due to being how I make a living, into a place I dreaded, and activity that exhausted me with no reward.

So I left. I left the environment I called “home”, with no prospects, because the potential pain of leaving was welcome compared to the pain of staying.

Rebuilding and Refocusing

After another misadventure in another kitchen, I landed at my current spot. After a year and change, I’ve earned a promotion and a small team to lead.

Even though I’m writing a book on mentoring and leadership in the kitchen, it’s hard to put into words (convincingly, anyway) how I train and motivate even a small team and get them excited about their (admittedly boring and repetitive) work.

I encourage my team. I give them guidance, critique, and advice. Best by far, though, I try to give them interest and love. I try to help them make the kitchen their sanctuary too. Most of the time, it’s already there. They wouldn’t have tried making a job out of this work if they didn’t love it on some level- or at least been the kind to cook at Super Bowl parties and poke their head out of the kitchen door for commercials.

Love of the craft will carry a team when practicalities will not- but only so far. I’ll teach them to tell when a tart crust is ready. I’ll demonstrate the fastest way to fill an almond croissant. I’ll show them how, when a quiche is finished, it jiggles like my old chef Victoria would say “a nicely toned ass.It’s up to them to find the rest of that love in themselves.

Much like I’ve had to do these last few weeks.

“Chop Wood, Carry Water.”

Very recently, in my quest to read more, I finished an excellent adventure novel titled “Cinnamon and Gunpowder.”

I won’t go into deep detail (I’d rather you read the book and got what YOU needed out of it), but the book can be summarized thus. In the early 1800s, a British chef is kidnapped by pirates after they murder his boss, and he is forced to prepare an elegant meal for the captain of the ship once a week, or else he gets killed/thrown overboard. The book is told through his journal entries, and he documents the crew, their voyages and adventures across the globe, and his numerous attempts to escape.

What he ALSO documents, however, is what (and HOW) he manages to cook for the captain in the barely-equipped ships galley and using the unusual provisions (notoriously lacking in things like fresh vegetables and meat, butter, eggs, etc.) It includes:

  • Bribing a sailor to provide him with fresh fish.
  • Using coconut water and a dried fig to make a yeast starter (kept warm by his body heat)
  • Sealing lard and shortening in a waterproof jar and towing it behind the ship on a long rope to chill it in the depths of the sea… so he can make tart crust, rolled out with a cannonball.

Along the way, the chef is forced to “return to basics,” learn about new ingredients he finds, get creative with methods, and- most importantly- find comfort in (and refine his philosophy of) the work he had done his entire life.

I am not kidnapped, or on board a ship skittering across the globe. No one is threatening to cut my throat if those quiche aren’t PERFECT, but I do still suffer from the same problem that strikes almost every other creative that tries to make a living out of what they love- staying in love with it.

Yeah, this again.

More often than not, the answer comes from forcing myself to bake on my off-days.

“Forcing myself” is an odd way to put it. You don’t really think of “forcing” yourself to do something you supposedly love. At the same time, work is work. It’s tiring. “I bake every day. I don’t want to spend my few days off each week in the kitchen too!”

I need to remind myself though that when I bake at home, it’s for me. It’s my opportunity to “chop wood and carry water-“ get back to the roots of this craft, and remind myself just why I love it so much. It’s my opportunity to, much like the protagonist in Cinnamon and Gunpowder, focus less on the “job” aspect and more on the craft.

“Food and cheer and song…”

I don’t entertain at my apartment nearly as much as I’d like to. My wife and I are both busy people, and the apartment is usually in some state of disarray.

So when I met a friend who was apartment hunting and invited them in to relax before heading home, it felt good on a number of levels. Not just because I knew they wouldn’t care so much if my apartment was a wreck, but because I got to look after someone for a bit. I got to offer them snacks and tea. They sat under my roof, played with my cat, and enjoyed my company.

That is why I do what I do. I love looking after others.

As I speak, there is rugelach dough warming on my counter, waiting for me to roll and fill it to bake tomorrow morning. It’s a cookie I used to make at my old job- the one I left. My boss was of two minds about me making rugelach every week. It did pull sales away from simpler, more profitable fare… but there was also a group of people who showed up every week looking for it.

I’m gonna make it for my friends this week. Just because I can, and because even though it’s literally my job to bake every day, this is still how I show my friends I love them.

No job, no string of jobs, no career can take that from me. They can only make me forget for a while- but I always remember eventually.

Stay Classy,

Taste the Rainbow- The Joy of Discovery and Beating Analysis Paralysis

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

One of the things I love most about any kind of craft or creation- food, cuisine, beer, woodworking, music, whatever- is that when you first get acquainted with that craft, it seems monolithic- until you realize it isn’t, that nothing is, and what you always thought was one solid notion is home to a universe of variety.

It’s terrifying, crazy-making, paralyzing, beautiful, and exhilarating all at once- at least to me. How do YOU address the complications of life? Well, let’s discuss it!

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Pulling Weight- Leadership in the Kitchen

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not comfortable using the term “chef” for myself even as a joke, and that I tend to correct others when they address me by it.

It’s not because of modesty or humility- false or otherwise. It’s because, by my own criteria, I have not earned that title.

Roughly every couple of weeks, someone on an online cooking group will pipe up with:

What makes a chef a CHEF?”

or some other navel-gazing, masturbatory variant- and the responses tend to vary from the crude to the judgemental/equally navel-gazy, to my personal reaction:

tumblr_ocmhrz6xx11v9zzyro1_500.gif

“Oh for f***’s sake, here we go…”

You see, the answer is in the name. “Chef” literally means “chief.” “Boss.” “Head of Operations.” 

It means “LEADER.”

How you got about leading is the real discussion that should be going on, rather than faffing about over what’s stitched on your jacket.

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The Morning Routine of a Monkey Monk

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

Thanks to (yet more) sudden upheavals in my life, I have a new job and a new schedule.

Does it really still count as an “upheaval” when they stack up so quickly? One big wave is notable, but repeated ones just mean they are the tide- to be expected and counted on, albeit at a beach that’s great for surfing.

The new schedule has meant that, for the time being, I won’t be able to play D&D with my friends on Sunday nights anymore. Going in to work at 3am means waking up earlier- and that means a game night that runs till 9pm the night before is out of the question.

Sadly, Han Wu Zhi- my latest character that I’ve had so much fun playing- will be out of action for the time being.

At least, in-game he will be. Han has already left quite an impact.

Stand by for nerdy self-improvement.

The author with his legs crossed in Lotus posture, supporting himself between two pushup bars

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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,