Just Cut The Carrots!

An old Zen story: One day, Wuzhaon was working as the cook at a monastery in the Wutai Mountains. Whilst cooking rice, the Bodhisattva Mañjuśri, (the Deity representing Wisdom, pictured above) appeared above the cooking pot… and Wuzhaon beat him! Later Wuzhaon said ‘Even if Shakyamuni [Buddha] were to appear above the pot, I would beat him too!’

This seems such a crazy story, but I’ve come to take it as a teaching that reminds us to pay attention to just what we are doing. If I am in the kitchen and my job is to prepare lunch, then nothing should distract me – not even the appearance of the Buddha himself! This story came to mind today, as I was reflecting about a conversation I had yesterday evening with one of the managers at the retreat centre where I’m soon to be working as Cook – the Wangapeka. It seems (again!) that unofficially, cooking isn’t the only task, even for the cook; it’s dealing with the personalities, attachments and desires of the people at the centre.

I wonder how well I will be able to stay focused on cooking, and not be pulled into the worlds and dramas of all the wonderful people who are booked on to this forthcoming retreat?

I very much like another, modern, Zen story which is from the 1960’s and the early days of Tassajara Centre, in California – Edward Espe Brown was appointed as Cook. The Zen Master of course was Suzuki Roshi.

Continue reading “Just Cut The Carrots!”


Why Not Try Something Different?

Here is a real gem of an interview. Michelin starred chef Eric Ripert, of New York City’s Le Bernardin which is one of the world’s most prestigious fine dining restaurants, talks here to Guardian Food Writer Joshua David Stein. Talk turns to Ripert’s management style. Ripert was trained in France ‘the traditional’ way, which meant he was humiliated and terrorised by the chefs, who believed you had to break the young recruits before you could rebuild them into champion chefs. Ripert reflects that he too treated his staff this way for years – with shouting, anger, and overbearing control. His moment of realisation came 20 years ago, whilst running the magnificent 400-year old Tour D’Argent in Paris – he was miserable, his staff were miserable and he knew there must be another way. Around this time, he began to study the Buddha’s teachings and took up a daily meditation practise.3744

Now, Ripert says, he doesn’t really get angry, although he does still get frustrated when dealing with young chefs in his brigade who are still honing their skills. Stein wanted to witness how a Buddhist would act in the high pressure environment of a New York professional kitchen at the top of it’s game, so Ripert invited him to come into the kitchen and observe the evening’s service. At one point, Ripert had cause to send back to the station a piece of fish that was not cooked. Stein reports that there was no shouting and no humiliation. Ripert’s gentle but firm intervention guided the young cook. No more, no less. “Kindness” says Ripert later, “does not mean I am going to hug you, it means I am going to guide you”.

Continue reading “Why Not Try Something Different?”

Studying With A Warm Heart

Today I found myself on the roof-tops of Auckland University’s School of Hospitality & Tourism. Invited in by friends who teach the Hospitality and Culinary Arts diplomas and BA’s, we were up and out in the blazing sunshine tasting herbs I never knew existed. They had tubs of Winged Beans (a cool Asian plant with edible leaves, pods, flowers, seeds and roots), Betal Leaf (heart shaped glossy edible leaves that you can use as a wrapper for yummy fillings, not just tobacco!), Cha Om (fern-like feathery fronds, commonly used in South East Asia), Vietnamese Mint (not a mint at all, but fresh and tasty raw or cooked), alongside all the common herbs and some very hot chilies. I had a guided tour of the professional teaching kitchens, the lecture rooms, the fine-dining restaurants where the BA Culinary Arts students cook for paying guests, and saw how they brilliantly they managed all the food waste with effective composting and large worm farms (best fed worms in NZ without a doubt!)

Who does all the washing up I wondered, (and wished I had asked). There is a lot you learn about yourself when facing a mountain of washing up day after day.

Zen master Suzuki Roshi emphasized; “We have to study with our warm heart, not just with our brain”. For many of us, we may have to go looking for our warm heart – it can often be rediscovered down in the basement of our being, rather ignored, whilst we’ve been living on the roof-tops; in our heads. When you’ve located it and re-familiarised yourself with your own goodness (meditation helps here) then we can live, study, work, interact from our true nature. Our core essence. Have you noticed how your warm heart has different motivations and goals than our busy, bossy brains?

6903711925_88ee295a0c_zAuckland University has seven (SEVEN!!) spiritual / multi-faith chaplains who are available to assist with spiritual and personal development. There is a Zen priest who leads interested students in regular meditation sessions. Wow, what a fantastic education these students are having.

It was a really fun and interesting day, made more so by the friendliness and passion of the lecturers who took care of me. It must be no coincidence that it’s a school of Hospitality as well as a school of Culinary Arts. Thank you, friends, for such a inspiring day.


Baby Herbs photo by Abby

Finding Balance…

With this very first post, I am contemplating balance. I have just been asked to contribute some thoughts to a Hospitality Business magazine article about ‘Chef burn-out’. I’ve felt the burn myself at times, and it becomes pretty obvious I need to pull back. What are some of my strategies? To remember that relationships are of the highest importance – it’s hard to be a perfectionist-control-freak in the kitchen without pissing someone off. To set boundaries – say ‘no’ to extra work that I know I can’t cope with. To let go of the idea of perfection. To have passions and interests outside of work. And to remind myself – it’s only lunch. What else helps you?

Balance is something we are taught in meditation as well – not to strive too earnestly, yet on the other hand, not to relax our attention so much that we lose our inquisitive awareness. We need similar balance in our work life. Or perhaps I should just say, life.

Sneh Roy, who has written a wonderful cook book Tasty Express and continues to post fantastic recipes on her blog Cook Republic recently wrote about how she lost touch with the real meaning of food after 11 years of writing, blogging and publishing. She writes in her post:

cook republic“I saw the world of food change from discovering the thrill of sharing your Grandma’s secret recipe on your blog and starting a meaningful conversation about kitchen memories and the taste of food to the mindless and excessive sharing of every meal dolled up with the most insane garnishes across all social media every minute of every day. Over the years I felt a loss for the true meaning of food. I believe that food is a privilege. And those who have it are very blessed. I also believe that with the way things are now, many people have forgotten the true meaning of food. It is not to complicate lives. It is not to create envy or depression. It is not to create anxiety or build pressure. It is definitely not to create confusion and resentment. It is not to show off a lifestyle or preach lack of one. It is not to make one feel like a failure. It is simply – to nourish.”

Hear hear!

This is a great subject for me to contemplate this week, as I begin a new cooking venture having just resigned my position as Head Chef at a restaurant I’ve been at for the last 3 years. I am setting a strong motivation to not lose sight of what is meaningful for me in the realms of cooking (or blogging about cooking for that matter.)

From a Buddhist perspective, still on the subject of finding balance and avoiding burn-out, here’s some pointers, lifted from the Indian sage Atisha’s 7-Point Mind Training:

  • Be grateful to everyone
  • Don’t brood over the faults of others
  • At all times, simply rely on a joyful mind
  • And finally – Don’t expect a standing ovation

Have a great day, and may your food be offered and received with love.

Cool pic of a balancing egg, by Mike