"You never actually finish writing an essay, or anything really, you just release it. You let it go... There's a reason we call it a submission."
So, I will also let it go.
Pictured below is at least a partial answer to a question I’ve been wrestling with — on the side, for the past 14 years of my life. Probably even 24 years (if you want to get really Freudian about it), but this I cannot publicly assert with full sincerity.
Having been through some reflection, I’ve come to realise that I’ve never specifically cared about restaurant cooking.
Now then… I know what you’re thinking. And it should be obvious why. The above sounds preposterous to anyone who has ever known me, for any period of time. However, the preposterous only floats on the surface. Let’s explore.
The fundamental issue I’ve cared about, and the corresponding question I’ve been trying to answer has been something else. Related? Yes. But crucially different. Initially I thought that I just wanted to learn to cook. Turns out that is sodding wide as a task. Turns out there are many categories of cooking, and they do not look or feel the same in practice. And I’m not talking about geographical differences here. This divide is finer grained. So then, after a bit of a breather, with my head back up above the water, I realise I’ve principally been interested in the distinction between restaurant cooking and home cooking all along.
Not infrequently do you hear the truism that everything happens for a reason. In a technologically accelerated environment of widespread dime a dozen spiritual peddling, it’s even become a cliché. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s completely true. At bottom, it’s a pretty mundane definition of causality.
In addition to the mundanity — and perhaps this is what most people really mean by the above: everything has its purpose(s). Reasons are basically the things we think of at the time, when we come across a decision. They are mostly knowable beforehand, are observable from the outside, and can often be traced linearly. Now then, purpose is something way different.
The best definition of a purpose I’ve been able to come up with so far is that it is the most meaningful consequence a decision or an event produces. Sometimes there are several. Seeing as purposes are thus entwined to consequences, they are obviously not knowable beforehand. Tomorrow is a mystery. And meaning is a present we mostly give to ourselves. So, purposes are subjective; often deeply personal, since their explanation is impenetrable to an outside observer. They deal with unconscious patterns and operate at scales most of us are terrible at noticing.
Far as we remember it, a few years ago was a simpler time(?). Everyone was happy and nothing hurt; pestilence and war were mirages, only existing in distant kingdoms. At the time I was decently happily involved in cooking for nightly guests with a dedicated and hardworking bunch of people. Then, as it happened, our government, among many other ones, decided that it was time to put a stop to that. Restaurants closed, I was left out of work. The first and only time I’ve been laid off from anywhere. First thing I did after receiving the news? I walked to an antique book shop I’ve been frequenting for years. It’s quite close by, just down the road from my former workplace. I can’t remember if I bought anything that day, but in present light the entire visit appears ridiculously prophetic. Many of us spent the following months at home. For me, this gave a lot of time to start thinking about home cooking again.
In some sense, I’d gone through a loop. I started obsessing over home cooking as a wee lad, for reasons I don’t know, to then briefly forging myself in some good professional kitchens, only to find myself back at home. It all went by in a flash. Interspersed by an occasional drunken haze. But home felt different now, after the loop. I found myself actually knowing how to cook for myself, to a standard I was happy with. And not only with the food either. Making food taste good isn’t all that difficult in a vacuum. But everything else surrounding the dish was better too. Efficient. Cleaner…
I was now merely applying at home the good working habits I’d accidentally formed along the way. Eventually, after stints in other kitchens, and with the help and interest of a few friends, I started home cooking at a scale yet unseen in my kitchen. Moreover, I found myself actually enjoying the act. Not getting bogged down by seeming failures or technical inconsistencies. At home these are simply meant to be worked around creatively, anyway. I had begun enjoying the act. Of serving food to people, and eating with them, in a way I hadn’t exactly done before. Something clicked. The uptightness had disappeared. I finally considered myself to be as good as I felt the need to be at age 16. Ridiculous, perhaps, but here we are. It led to a relatively profound personal discovery: I care for restaurant cooking, in the sense that I’m interested in what’s happening in the “scene”, and I’m curious as to how it develops, and why that is. I just don’t care about it in the same way I care about home cooking.
This is downright obvious in retrospect, when looking at the initial reasons for why I ever ended up in a professional kitchen. Perhaps it should have been obvious even back when. I wanted to learn to cook for myself first, and only then to other people, and I don’t know why. This is wrong-headed of course, and will not produce the results we seek of in good cooking, but here we are. An approximation of technical mastery, perhaps yes at the best times, but anything build on a shoddy intent like that won’t last. Youth is wasted on the young. The question I was trying to answer all along, on some level, despite fumbling at it, was not “how do I learn to cook?”, but specifically “how do I learn to cook at home?”. Perhaps because that was the more foundational thing for me to learn.
Point being: through my admittedly faulty memory, I can access the reasons I thought I had at the time, with respect to obsessing over cooking from a relatively young age. Now I am at a better vantage point to observe what the purpose for those reasons might be. I can see and feel some consequences after all. Though this is still constantly unfolding. And in a way… all this became possible right now, just because some tiny animal took flight on the other side of the planet. Except this time it wasn’t the flap of a butterfly’s wings, but of a bat’s.
I jest. The alleged plague probably didn’t come out of a pangolin’s spleen. And even if it did, that’s a rabbit hole we won’t enter. What I *can* say is that sometimes discovering the purpose of a thing takes a bit of digging. Perhaps it needs to be carved out of thin air, perhaps through sheer force of will. I don’t exactly know what the purpose of the current state of affairs is (or of the past few years, for that matter). I can take a shot in the dark, though. The aforementioned ordering, with the bookshop, is simply too funny to not consider meaningful. If — on a personal level, I can rest the purpose of all this in my hands now, I can’t be dissatisfied.
Learning to cook well at a professional level is difficult. This I can now tell you from experience. Excelling in cooking as an artisan deals with having an innovative yet grounded approach. It involves walking the tightrope of novelty and tradition, just as much as any other craft. Perhaps more, because cooking also deals with added expectations and memories of the everyday. Consistency is key, and respect it deserves.
Learning to cook well at home is not difficult. This too, I can now tell you from experience. It only appears to be, because barely anyone teaches it correctly. In a way, this is understandable. It’s not that you strictly need any degree of proficiency to survive. It seemed to require a detour of a good bit of professional experience to get there. So I can say, with full confidence, what may sound like a forgone conclusion to most. It requires a lot less discipline to achieve consistency and simplicity in home cooking than it does professionally. Obvious to most. Trivial, even. Only took me a decade and a half to get there. Though there is the non-trivial part, too: this is the ideal place to be for most of us. Perhaps still obvious to the lucky ones, but with the amount of time and money that’s poured into cooking entertainment these days, I find it tough to believe at scale.
And to add, as a writer I’ve long fancied myself better than most. For no apparent reason beyond a metaphysical knowing. Just comes much more naturally than cooking does. The stubborn bastard part in me finally had to prove it to the rest of me. Just to be sure.
So here we stand. It’s going to be a big decade. The Soaring Twenties, as they say, and we’ve pretty much spent a fifth of it hibernating. If we’re lucky we might find our lives getting genuinely livelier again. Though, seeing where the world’s going, this has unfortunate side potential for making us yet more busy. Directionless busyness is the malaise of the modern world, after all. Adaptation is necessary, to an extent, though I’m proud enough of a luddite to not want to concede too much ground. It’s not a long one, but just enough for modern attention spans to benefit from without additional training. The only kindling I want to see in my kitchen, however, is for starting a wood-fired hearth.
Regardless of anyone’s stance on the details of the current state of the civilised world, learning to cook well at home does not have to take 14 years. I wish this upon none of you. No one has this kind of time. Well, I did, but only through some absolutely blessed circumstance. And that’s not really a scalable plan, is it? We need to be providing nourishment for ourselves and our loved ones already yesterday. This, we know, has been true for ages. And it need not be a compromise. By applying some good professional principles at home, you can achieve the best of both worlds. In the end, nourishment and simplicity go hand in hand with consistency and efficiency. It takes some doing, but your brain, belly, and heart will thank you. This is my hope, at least.
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At worst it’ll be a little bit useful, at best it’ll be joyous, and probably it'll be entertaining nonetheless.
I went through a detour, so you might not have to.
For your health!
P.S. Subtitle quote adapted from Thomas J Bevan.