This isn’t going to be one of my photo heavy recipe posts. This is just an exploration of thought I’ve been trying to form. It’s not a new thought. Others have had it before me, and shared it out loud, even. But it’s important to me to say it here, on my blog, because I’m on a bit of a journey. So, indulge me, if you will.
Maybe you remember the first time you cooked something and were really proud of it. You spent time, and effort, and money, and there it was, this delicious thing you created. You probably served it to someone else, breath held as they took the first bite, and heart soaring as they smiled and declared it delicious. From that moment, you were hooked. You wanted to cook it all. You wanted it to be amazing every time, so you started looking for ways to make it all special, to put your unique stamp on everything from peanut butter and jelly to Thanksgiving dinner.
And then, maybe, if you were like me, you thought the way to really stand out, to really get the applause every single time, was to make it all incredibly complicated. You thought if you didn’t chop and dice until your plastic, three dollar Ikea cutting board had Grand Canyon sized cut marks in it, if you didn’t have to strain something at least three times through five layers of $20 unbleached cheesecloth (i have no idea if that exists, just go with it), if it didn’t take you at least 10 minutes to explain to your guests every single specialty ingredient in each dish, there was no way anyone was ever going to believe that your food was good. It had to be hard work or it wasn’t real cooking.
I remember feeling defeated so many times because I’d spend hours in my kitchen putting together the most ingredient laden, technique heavy food, only to have someone eat it and not immediately stand up and declare me “The Best Cook Ever.” I truly thought that all that energy should translate into just a bit more fanfare, and a lot more appreciation. As I got even more frenzied, trying to best myself, always searching for the pat on the back, the accolades came even more infrequently. The more time I spent adding things, the less appreciative my audience became.
And then I took this little trip to San Francisco. I ate at a restaurant near the water, and I ate my very first perspective shifting meal. I didn’t realize it immediately, but those steamed crab legs, straight from the water; that warm, fresh from the oven sourdough; that ice cold Anchor Steam beer, were the beginning of the end for about half the gadgets in my kitchen, and all those complicated, over thought meals that I thought made me, and my food, so special. THIS meal was special. This meal was simple, straightforward, and made all my culinary pleasure spots tingle with excitement and pure, unadulterated joy. I was eating with my hands, I was chewing with my whole body, or so it felt. I was humbled.
When I got back home, I found myself backing off the ingredients list… de-cluttering my recipes. I slowly figured out that being able to identify each ingredient in a meal didn’t steal its mystery, but added to its enjoyment. I learned that there’s nothing wrong with using just a little salt and pepper instead of half my spice cabinet to create, and bringing forth, flavour, and in fact, if there are so many seasonings in a dish, instead of creating a flavour profile, I was really just creating the culinary equivalent of mud.
My food is better now, because my brain takes a back seat to my heart, and my instinct— one that more often than not now very wisely tells me when to tweak, when to taste, and when to just leave it be.
I’m thinking about all this, and that long ago lesson, because I start culinary school in about eight weeks, and much like in other aspects of life, I’m realizing that in order to be a good student, and to really learn, I’m going to have to get over the fact that I don’t know everything. That all my years of cooking, and serving, and learning that came before this are what brought me to this point, but to make this next phase of my education valuable I have to bring the skills but leave the ego at the door. I am going to fail at some things, maybe even some things I thought I already knew how to do. That basic meal of crab, bread, and beer will be the thing I remember when I start to get ahead of myself, or when I get frustrated because I’ve missed the mark, as all students will, and must, in order to eventually learn the lesson. And really, that’s why I’m doing this in the first place, right?