I Am Not A Chef

Earlier today I watched the episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, featuring the Korean Buddhist Nun, Jeong Kwan.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Kwan, here’s a very short intro. At the age of 17 she presented herself at the entrance to a buddhist monastery and asked to be ordained as a nun. Ever since she has lived at Baekyangsa Temple, 169 miles south of Seoul, and in addition to spending many many hours every day in meditation, she takes care of all the meals. She came to global prominence after Michelin starred chef Eric Ripert met her during his research trip to Korea. That was back in 2014, and Ripert has since brought her to New York to cook for the city’s foodie elite. It’s been said that her food is ‘life changing’, and on a par with the food being created at any of the world’s top restaurants today.

As I watched the episode, I became aware that I was yearning for the bit where we are offered something concrete from her repertoire – just one complete recipe maybe, or a close up of one of her gentle and elaborate techniques. How long did she ferment her kimchi for, and what exactly are those spices that she says are essential? But nothing was offered other than serene images of her tending her garden, adding the finishing touches to a lotus flower tea, or talking in the most compassionate and respectful terms about her parents.

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Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better

I don’t like making mistakes. I learnt when I was very young that the way to get approval from my parents was to do well in school exams. So I studied hard, and regurgitated the info that the teachers gave me… and got lots of A+’s. I wasn’t really learning anything fundamentally useful, but that didn’t seem to bother me or my parents. I wasn’t making mistakes, and that seemed to be important.

But this strategy isn’t working for me anymore. I can devise a menu plan and work on my recipes, but with so many variables (mainly of the human-kind) there is always a dish waiting to be ruined. The belief that I’ve failed feels kind of raw. It’s very unpleasant. My first reaction, the reaction to the feeling of raw vulnerable-ness in my heart, is obviously (!) to blame someone else – the kitchen assistant, the person who distracted me at a critical moment – or even something else – the oven, the blunt knives, the humidity (yes really!!).

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And of course there is no one actually to blame but myself, but that’s even more painful. Who wants to feel that incapable? Maybe I should never have been hired as a Chef, I am definitely, totally incompetent.

Pema Chodron chose the topic of failure for her commencement speech at Naropa University in 2014.  Her speech was entitled Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better. I thought it was interesting that she wanted to prepare these young adults for the failures they would experience, and not take the more usual approach of emphasising the desirability of success. Classic buddhist! Continue reading “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”

How To Cook In The Dark

Suzuki Roshi said that Zen is like feeling your way along in the dark. I think this means – go slowly, go carefully. Keep all your senses open, feel your way with tenderness. Pay more attention to where you are now rather than focusing on the destination.

I’ve been hibernating of sorts lately and not doing much, or so it would appear. This is not that typical of me really, I am often more of a “get out of my way I have somewhere I need to be!” type of person, and how different it feels to take tiny steps (or no steps) instead of rushing forward. I can’t really say I am able to see any progress at all.

There is an expression in Zen – take off the blinkers and take off the saddle bags; i.e.  you’ve arrived. Unpack. There is no further destination to focus on, your belongings can spill out of the saddle bags. Sit still. Take a look at what you’ve got. What serves you? What might actually be unnecessary baggage?

Cooking wise, I’ve been loving Emma Galloway’s latest book A Year In My Real Food Kitchen and have made many successful meals, led by her hand. It can sometimes feel too much of a stretch to try out brand new recipes when we’re low on energy, doubtful, but I also find that following the guidance of someone you trust feels very supportive, a way of being kind to yourself.

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Pure & Perfect Soup, The Great Teacher

I’m going to share with you an old Italian soup recipe. It has only 5 simple ingredients and simmers for just 10 minutes. It costs less than a dollar per serving, yet is a life-changer! What are your expectations? I came across it on Food52 who labelled it ‘genius’ – opinions are divided.

The recipe is credited to the father of the legendary, Italian-American cookery writer Marcella Hazan. Marcella was born in 1924 in northern Italy, so we can confidently say that this recipe belongs to a certain era and tradition. It’s said, that from necessity as well as inclination, Marcella’s father, Giuseppe, was an extremely frugal cook. At the time, apparently the most expensive ingredient in this soup was the salt. The context is important and should be taken into consideration before we judge it.

Or on the other hand, we could decide to not judge it. We could just cook it and offer it with love and sincerity. Receive it with love and sincerity. Maybe it’s a bit bland, or maybe it’s heavenly, but we are a step closer to magnanimous mind. But it’s soooo hard not to judge, isn’t it?

In the Tenzo Kyōkun, Zen Master Dōgen taught that we should handle all food with respect, as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor. ‘A dish is not superior because you have made it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens,’ Dōgen teaches. Why is this attitude so important?

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Step Away From The Recipes!

Rolling around my mind this week are two dharma stories. First, this line from Suzuki Roshi, who was commenting on how he got to a place with his American students at Tassajara where he didn’t want to give so many formal teachings. “It’s like giving you a recipe” he said to one student, “it doesn’t work. You cannot eat a recipe”. Instead he emphasised practise – zazen – living and working together, and investigating things for oneself.

When I began cooking, back in my late teens, I would come across a recipe that appealed, try it once and if it ‘worked’ and was tasty and enjoyable I would faithfully copy it down. If I wasn’t impressed by the result, it would be discarded and forgotten. I thought this was an absolutely acceptable and sensible way of ‘learning to cook’. But how much was I really learning, or was I just collecting recipes? Now when I look back at how I ‘learnt to cook’ I realise I wasn’t learning much at all. Which is the same mistake we can make with dharma too, memorising complex doctrinal teachings and profound buddhist psychology, without deeply knowing what we are knowing. Although of course, we all need to start somewhere.

suzuki2I think most of us study Buddhism like something already given to us. We think that what we should do is preserve the Buddha’s teaching, like putting food in a refrigerator. We think that to study Buddhism is to take the food out of the refrigerator. Whenever you want it, it is already there. Instead, Zen students should be interested in how to produce food from the field, from the garden, should put the emphasis on the ground. If you look at the empty garden you won’t see anything, but if you take care of the seed it will come up. The joy of Buddhism is the joy of taking care of the garden – Suzuki Roshi.

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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.

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