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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.

Photo via iStock.

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.

Photo via iStock.

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.

Photo via iStock.

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?

Photo via iStock.

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.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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