Why cooking is a metaphor for life, from a professional chef.
"If you follow a recipe, you know exactly what you’re having for dinner."
The more time I spend hunched over my prep table surrounded by scorching hot sauté pans, the swirling winds of the convection oven, and the fryer oil that simmers away ever so patiently, the more I think about life and this world we live in.
I’ve convinced myself that the kitchen and how we approach cooking, ingredients, and recipes can be the perfect metaphor for life. By understanding the relationship between these two, I’m able to see life in a way that makes a lot more sense.
Sometimes we ask questions, and sometimes we seek answers that are hard to find. This comparison helps me, I hope it will do the same for you.
1. If you follow a recipe, you know exactly what you’re having for dinner.
But what if you let the recipe serve as a guide, instead? When you don’t follow the rules to a T, you’re much more likely to end up with something different. Different can mean bad and inedible, in which case, I hope you learn from your mistakes. However, if different means exciting and undiscovered flavors you didn’t know existed, you then realize that it can be a lot more fun to blaze your own trail, to draw outside the lines, trust your instincts, and give it a go, even if you’re unsure of how things might turn out in the end.
More often than not, taking the risk has been worth it for me — it’s never catastrophic and there’s always a lesson to be learned from failure. It has allowed me to learn something about the world and the way it works, instead of just following the directions based on someone else telling me what to do.
2. There's a lot to be said for being creative — in not playing it safe.
I love a good meal that becomes an adventure, where I know the chef or cook has really stepped out of his or her comfort zone in order to create an experience for the diner. It’s admirable, but it also takes practice — and courage — to try techniques we might not have mastered yet, or to choose to work with flavors with which we might not be entirely familiar. It takes courage because in this process we are, without a doubt, going to fail along the way.
It might take a few tries to master breaking down a fish if you have never done so, or giving that immersion circulator a try to sous-vide some steaks. It might take overcooking a few meals before getting things down pat, but through all of this, you open yourself up to the opportunity to learn something new. It’s not only a new way to prepare something or even a new dish — you now have knowledge and experience to share with other people, giving them the opportunity to learn and grow. The more you try, the more you screw up. But in the end, the more you learn, and along with that are some damn good stories to tell.
3. It's not how it looks on the outside. It's what's on the inside that matters.
Have you ever salivated over a meal like one of Pavlov’s dogs as the waiter approached the table? It all looks so elegant; however, upon trying it, it strikes you as bland, uninspired, and missing something? What a disappointment. How often do we see that in real life? We learn this concepts in kindergarten and are continually reminded of it over and over again throughout the course of our lives — we need it because so often we forget.
4. Don't skimp on the good stuff.
Have you ever read over a dessert recipe and thought: "I don’t have butter, but I’m sure I can substitute it with margarine. I don’t have heavy cream, but I have some milk. The chicken salad recipe calls for mayo — I’m sure I can substitute a fat-free version, right?"
It rarely turns out fine. Simply put, corners are there to keep you on track, not to be disregarded — it might put you ahead in the short run, but in the long run, it never seems to work out.
5. Balance is paramount.
Every single dish that comes out of my kitchen has to have some balance of flavor. Not always, but for the most part, there needs to be contrasting flavor profiles: sweets, spices, acids, salts, and umami. All of these components can be splendid on their own, carrying their own merit, but when you look at these fundamentally contrasting flavors and combine them in proper proportions, they become complementary — you’ve just gotta find the right formula for you.
Complementary means that a hint of salt in a chocolate chip cookie can be the perfect savory component to an otherwise entirely sweet treat. Or the meaty deliciousness of a good BBQ rib on a hot summer day can often be found encrusted with a mixture of spices. But they are then offset when slathered with a sweet, smoky barbecue sauce.
There are just enough contrasting elements to make it exciting. And I think that’s just how life itself works. Too much of anything can be just that: too much. It’s about finding the balance and cadence for the various compartments of your life.
6. Low and slow.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, pardon my analogy, but in the world of cooking meats — specifically in smoking BBQ — magic is found in honoring the process and time it takes to develop the flavors, break down the intramuscular tissues, and allow for the smoke to seep its way into the flesh. There are ways to try to hack the system; however, it just doesn’t turn out quite the same.
Things take time, so let’s appreciate the process we take in getting there — relationships take time, and building sustainable businesses takes time. You can try to find a path that gets you there faster, but along the way, you are bound to skip over some key steps. It’s just not the same. Life takes time.
7. It's not the final dish, but rather what we learn in getting there.
In cooking, as in life, we rush through things because we're trying to get to a certain place. But along the way, we forget to look around and notice the things that happen between the beginning and the end — what we’ve learned about the dish, how we could have adjusted things along the way. We miss those opportunities for growth.
There is so much valuable information to learn from that we often just skip right over, not realizing it’s right underneath our noses. We follow a recipe because that’s what a cookbook tells us to do. But is it not much more interesting to learn things along the way, discover what works and what doesn’t, and pass what we’ve learned on to those who might benefit from it?
In cooking, as in life, we’ll get to the end, but how did we get there? Did we follow instructions every step of the way, or did we use the recipe to guide us, allowing us to season it in a way that represents who we are? How we get there says a lot about the race we’ve run.
8. Sometimes your dish doesn't turn out right.
Things happen in the kitchen. I’ve ruined my fair share of meals and fallen short of impressing guests, dates, and, frequently, even myself. That’s part of life. Things don’t always go as planned and we certainly don’t always get what we want. But if you never had an inedible piece of fish, then you would never truly know what it meant to have one that was absolutely delicious. If you’d never tried an overcooked and dried-out steak, then you’ll never appreciate when your favorite restaurant cooks your New York strip a perfect medium-rare — just how you like it.
The less-than-desirable meals allow us to appreciate the ones we most enjoy, and the same phenomenon happens in life. It’s not always sunny outside, but if it were, it would get pretty damn boring. If we knew that we would never lose our loved ones, we wouldn’t appreciate them nearly as much.
When life could have given us a little more, we have the perfect opportunity to reflect back on the things for which we have to be grateful.