The new season of Gordon-Ramsay-themed cooking shows has begun. Yes, OK, I’m addicted. Thank goodness I don’t KNOW him, or work for him, or in any way have to interact with him on a professional or personal basis. But as a craftsperson myself, I admire dedication to craft.
I’m with Michael Ruhlman on this one, by the way, when he talks about the CMC test for chefs:
Cooking is a craft. Oh, I know how the foodie blowhards–and even a lot of chefs–love to talk about food as art! (But….don’t talk to me about food as art or chefs as artistes.) As with any craft, there were artful levels and shared standards of excellence. The test’s very existence implied that great cooking….was not art, was only craft, the result of physical skills that were consistenlty measurable and comparable from one chef to the next.
The only thing I’d quarrel with there is his use of the phrase “only craft.” Craft is stinking hard. What I do is also craft. (More on this when I come back to my reflections on The Courage to Write.)
My oldest son got hooked on Master Chef in Australia and told me I HAD to watch it. Now I’m hooked on the American version. Like all those ambitious home cooks, I love to cook. In fact, when I heard about the casting call for the first American season, I said to my husband, “Hey, wouldn’t that be fun? What if I just went down and tried out? For fun?”
(My husband said, “Are you nuts?”)
Watching the current season, I’ve become clear about something. I will never really master the craft of cooking, because I don’t care enough about the tiny details. My meat has more sear on one side than the other? Whatever. My ravioli are irregular? I couldn’t worry less. My exact flavor combination isn’t quite right? Well, it still tastes good, doesn’t it?
Part of this, I’m sure, is the by-product of years cooking for teenage boys. Not much point in laboring over the exquisite details of something that’s going to get snarfed down in thirty seconds with a chaser of Doritos. But the larger issue is that I’m not essentially absorbed by the craft.
I compare this with what I do when I write.
I revise and revise and revise.
I change single words and then change them back and then change them back again and read sentences out loud over and over to see what version is better.
I spend hours and sometimes days locating an authoritative source that confirms some tiny detail that might or might not even make it into a final draft.
In other words, I take infinite pains. It’s a compulsion.
I think there are a lot of people who want to write, or talk about writing, or even publish, who write the way I cook. Pretty competently, that is. In a way that gives others pleasure, which is no small thing. But they don’t feel the (painful and obsessive) compulsion to polish the corners and crevices, to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, to aim for perfect clarity: the prose version of taking the time to melt your onions for an hour over low heat with a freshly made herb sachet instead of doing a quick olive oil saute, because the tiny change in flavor will make the final dish sing just a little more clearly.
If I cook something and it’s good, but not perfect, I don’t have the slightest hesitation in plopping it on the table. (Even for company.) But it takes me a long time to get a book out the door, because so many little flaws that need mending pop up every time I reread.
So, back to work. Need to find the perfect word to describe a king who blinds his five-year-old nephew in order to assure his own son’s ascent to the throne.
Sometimes cooking is more fun.