Like many, I was introduced to cooking when I started college—to survive. Since then I have traveled many miles, experienced many cuisines, and cooked many meals. Along the way I have learned a few things about food, the process of cooking, and the impact it makes on our mind, body, and soul during good times and bad.
Food is the most fundamental of needs for our survival, and almost every major event in our lives revolves around it. It plays a vital role in the development of social interactions and social relationships. I find food to be sacred and the process of making food to be awakening and insightful. Although I am not professionally trained, cooking has become a joyful passion.
The process of making food has taught me to be mindful, embrace creativity, and push for mastery. Below are a few lessons that might make you think differently the next time you enter your kitchen.
Along with billions of others around the globe, I suffer from the daily grind of life. My affinity with mindful living is not grounded in any kind of scientific research, but rather from constant self-analysis.
I have found cooking to be a means toward that journey of mindfulness. It’s been said that the only two jobs of a Zen monk that are more important than sitting zazen (meditation) are cooking and cleaning.
Cooking is a great way to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. It simply means living in the moment and awakening to experience. And it takes practice to be mindful. I have found that when I ritualistically cook on a regular basis it enhances my ability to be mindful about everything else I do.
In the 13th century, Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote Instructions for the Tenzo, or head cook. In examining the manners and methods of preparing a meal at the monastery, he reveals how to “cook”—or refine— your whole life.
Dogen instructs that we put our entire minds into each task that comes with cooking, from washing rice to preparing vegetables, concentrating deeply and doing them intentionally and completely. He writes, “You should practice in such a way that things come and abide in your mind, and your mind returns and abides in things, all through the day and night.”
When we are mindful, it allows us to better connect with what we have completed, the task at hand, and how our task at hand moves us forward. I believe, if we consciously think about the ingredients we choose, their preparation, the way we cook, and the way we eat, it can contribute toward the development of mindfulness.
I don’t ever follow a recipe for my cooking. I like to experiment, mix and match, and “design” my meals. I make my decisions based on availability, my eating companions, and the hour of the day.
Over the years this awareness of resource, audience, and need helped me hone how I think. When I started cooking at the age of 17, just like life, I was unsure of the kitchen. Now I try to create my food with confidence. It is entirely natural for me to mix Japanese mirin with Indian turmeric and Mexican chilies.
In 2006, chefs Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se, and food writer Harold McGee put forward what they termed “the international agenda for great cooking,” and while its focus is food, it could well serve as a manifesto for anyone who is in the business of creativity:
We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.
Just like making music or poetry, cooking requires understanding interconnectedness and harmonies. Anyone can mix and match two random sets of ingredients together, but not everyone can cook. Understanding the relationships between the ingredients and their interactions is crucial to creating a successful dish.
This conscious openness is precisely what is at the heart of any creative process regardless of what we do and the medium we use.
Most mornings I prepare my son a balanced breakfast and a lunch pack between 6 a.m. and 6:15 a.m.
I have about 15 minutes to cook eggs, toast bread, chop fruit, and make a sandwich. Not much time, right? Actually, it’s plenty.
Through skill, practice, confidence, and organization, I’m able to prepare my son’s food quickly and well. I begin by breaking down the process into mini goals:
- I first decide what I want to cook based on what’s available
- I do all the prep work needed to create the meal
- I start cooking based on the cooking time and how I will serve the meal
Along with clear thinking, being productive requires skills. And mastery comes from enthusiastic, repeated, and devoted practice.
In the film Julie & Julia, we see Julia Child’s character demonstrate what 100 pounds of onions and deliberate practice can achieve. She began with one onion and continued to use deliberate practice to master one skill at a time until she became known as the best teacher in French cooking.
I have come to believe that whether we like to cook or not, these same principles apply to just about anything else we undertake. It’s about the awareness we experience, the devotion we apply, and as a result, how we create.