Hello, my name is Joy, and it's been 117 days since my last post.
In my last post, I said I was on my way to England. Just so you know, I went, I saw London, I sat in a cow pasture in Leeds for three days in the mud, and I listened to a lot of music. In London again afterward, I ate in restaurants and went to museums, and took a lot of photographs, which I haven't yet reviewed. By the time I process the photos, I hope I'll have processed the experience, and I'll have something to write about. I didn't take notes on my trip, so we'll see what bubbles up.
What have I been doing since I got home? Reading. Thinking. Going to restaurants I've never visited before. Thinking some more. Writing in my paper journal (which, as you know, is teetering on the edge of being thrown into the shredder). Sometimes, I do that. I just pack up my paper journals and throw them into the shredder and hit the reset button. I haven't done that lately; I still have five fat journals lying around, containing the thoughts too boring and embarrassing to share with the world.
I've been wanting to write about my most recent restaurant jaunt, because it came up in a message I sent to my new anonymous pen pal. (That's another thing I've been up to lately: cultivating pen pals.) I don't know who this fellow is. He's a series of photos and series of messages posted on a friendship and dating site. I'm putting myself out there to make friends, to see if anyone actually wants to talk about the things that interest me, like books, films, restaurants, photography. Though my life is full and wonderful, I have enough room in my life for friends, so I've struck up a correspondence that has inspired me to write a post about food and philosophy. How is this a new direction, you ask? It isn't; that's why it's wonderful. Here I am, back again, ready to resume writing about food and philosophy.
Craigie on Main is an upscale restaurant in Cambridge that has been on my wish list for a year. I enjoy going to all kinds of restaurants, and I very occasionally will go to an especially fine restaurant, as more of a "dinner theater" experience, where dinner is the theater. I went to Craigie on Main by myself a couple of weeks ago, and got a seat at the chef's counter. The weekend before, I ate at the chef's counter at The Mill at 2T, in Tariffville CT. If you visit the website, you'll actually see a photo of the chef's counter. That was my very first time sitting at a chef's counter, and it was a grand experience to watch the chef at work. Little did I know how wonderful it could be, though. The kitchen at the Mill was what you might expect for elegant bistro style cooking, with a sous chef, an assistant chef, and a main chef tossing things into pans with the kitchen guy ducking in with clean cookware every ten minutes, and everything manipulated with tongs in a fairly careful fashion, but eating at the counter at Craigie on Main was a different experience altogether.
I sat near the cold counter, and taped in front of the team lead was a sign in capital letters that said, "NO COMPROMISE." I have a lot to learn about kitchens, so the language I'm going to use will be ignorant of kitchen terminology. I'll make it all up, and hopefully you'll be able to follow. There were three people working what I've just called the cold counter, and one of them was the lead. He bossed the other two around. The whole kitchen was very talky; the restaurant has a tasting menu and whenever one is ordered, it's shouted into the kitchen. "Four sixes" means there are four six-course meals that have just been ordered. When the chef yells "four sixes!" the whole kitchen yells "four sixes!" back. Imagine, the chef's counter is six seats looking into the cold counter, with the dishwashers running in and out of swinging doors at the back. To the right is the grill, with four people dancing around each other, and further to the right four more people are managing the things that take a longer time to cook. At the back, people are feverishly keeping up with various prep activities. At the front, the chef stands directing the whole thing like a conductor directing a symphony. He yells for octopus, the octopus is brought to him, and with a practiced touch, he plates it beautifully, wipes the rim of the plate and yells for a runner. He does quality control. He keeps the trains running on time. He yells at the team leads to yell at their teams to keep up the pace. He's focused, an artist, a stage manager, a passionate tyrant, and he still has time to smile at the guests as they thank him on their way out past the reservation desk. He wears a perfectly low white toque (that's the chef's hat).
No compromise. I knew what it meant after watching the people at the cold counter. I don't remember my entire meal, but I remember what they prepared at that counter; I watched them moving through their routine, order after order. After a few passes, I think I could have given it a shot, but I could never have kept up. No compromise meant that each time the chef prepared the starting trio for a 6- or 8-course tasting menu, he took sparkling white dishware from refrigerated storage, three square dishes on a long rectangular plate. He took several plastic tubs from the refrigerator, and opened each one with a practiced swipe. With a pair of tweezers, he picked up a tiny sardine filet, blotted it on a napkin, tapped a blot of hummus into a dish, rested a crouton disk the size of a nickel onto the blot of hummus, set the tiny filet atop the crouton, and with another pair of tweezers, selected a perfect spring of micro-greenery across the tiny filet. If the green was not at the perfectly harmonious angle, he picked it up with the tweezers and re-positioned it for perfection. After two more tiny, perfect tastes of something were meticulously built in the other two dishes, he swept the trio to the chef with a barked alert, "Walking!" Once all four trios were delivered, he snapped all of the lids onto the plastic containers, put them away, wiped down his counter, and got ready for the next persnickety dish in line. All this time, he danced to avoid colliding with the woman building the plates of oysters and sashimi-style scallops, danced to avoid the dishwasher, who came in to replenish cookware for the entire kitchen every five minutes. When the lead was not building a plate of something, he was baking perfect nickel-sized croutons, frying strips of sweet potato for salad garnish, slicing chives in perfect, microscopic confetti. I think if you had measured carefully, you would see that each pinhead-sized bit of chive was precisely the same size and shape.
No compromise, oh no indeed. I suspect chefs have training similar to that of bomb squads; one false move means death. There was no wasted motion, no cockeyed dishes, each scallop, mussel, micro green, oyster shell, flower petal, and hand made pickle laid purposefully and mindfully in its place. They served ketchup, pickles, and slaw with the burgers (only available from the bar), and they arranged the slaw in a dish with tweezers, each mound piled with maximum artistry. They warmed the ice cream scoop in the palms of their hands to roll out a perfect round of celery apple sorbet onto each plate, with a little pile of brilliant green candied celery, and a knotty mound of stracciatella cheese. Passion, precision, speed. They called out times, one minute and thirty seconds to plating. Once, "A REAL thirty seconds for plating!" and yes, that plate went out in thirty seconds, looking as beautiful as all the rest, a quail arranged in sections, such that its little clawed feet rose perpendicular to the plate.
I had eight courses while watching the chefs at the cold counter, but I lost track of the number of dishes they set before me. I can't recall if the sorbet was meant to be its own course, or the hot mulled cider at the very end, with the malted barley marshmallow rocking on a cocktail sword across the top of the steaming cup. There were cockels and mussels, pork belly, scallops, pumpkin soup, a trio of BANG at the beginning -- tiny intense bites to wake up the palate -- quail, a complex ragu with rich organ meat of some sort, I can't remember it all, sadly. Next time, I will take my camera and capture it all, but what really struck me was that sign, NO COMPROMISE, and how important everything felt. How these people make a living building all these perfect and ephemeral things, dancing around one another without colliding, talking to one another, making agreements, solving problems, starting over if needed with such focus, there is no room for impatience. Mindfulness, everywhere. Intensity and artistry. And then the subtle shift near the end; when the last orders wrapped up, focus turned to replenishing plundered tubs of this and that, probably for the next day, everyone still moving, but everything more languorous and sultry.
I've been thinking about that sign ever since: NO COMPROMISE. After long thought, I realize that what I loved about the experience at Craigie on Main was the validation of perfectionism. According to some, and my therapist would look askance at me for reaching yet again for "the right answer", perfectionism can be bad and it can be good. Here's an article about that. I'm sure you could easily find more if you look. I think the kind of perfectionism I saw at Craigie on Main could be good or bad; it depends on the chef. If the chef with the tweezers goes home and thinks, "Well, maybe not every micro green was placed at a perfect 45 degree angle, but I love that whole mindful experience of disappearing into the work, the customers seemed happy, nobody threw a pan at my head or quit the kitchen (tonight), and wow, my partner is great, and I think I'll spend some time relaxing with him tonight," then I think this person is not harmed by his perfectionism. If he goes home and thinks, "45 degree angle, 45 degree angle, 45 degree angle, geez, I sure messed that up, 45 degree angle, please shut up honey, I don't care about your day, 45 degree angle, 45 degree angle, I hate myself when I can't pull out that 45 degree angle" then I think maybe perfectionism has this guy in its grasp in a bad way. Maybe he has become overly attached to that 45 degree angle to the point where he's an addict. No more 45 degree angle for you, you 45 degree angle addict.
I can lose time like an alien abductee, reading a sign like that, because it presumes to advise me, and I'm always looking for advice. I'm always looking for the way out of the struggle of life. I'm always looking for the solution. Just don't compromise, this sign says. And my gut reaction is to say, "Yes! That's it! If I crack the code of NO COMPROMISE, I won't suffer any more! Because if I'm a perfectionist, all I need to do to be happy, is to accept my perfectionism, and be a GOOD perfectionist! I love great food, and there's this sign that says perfectionism is good, and so what I really need to do in order to stop suffering is to be a perfectionist who's okay with not being perfect, like the chef who can stop being a perfectionist at home, and as soon as I have that revelation, I'll stop suffering!" Eureka! It's the answer! (Cue that AAAAHHHH! sound of the gates of heaven opening.)
And this is how a great meal, and a sign at a restaurant can throw me into a tizzy of unparalleled self-absorption, and whoosh, there goes the time. There goes all of the mindful now-ness, frittered away. And I can climb onto that sad thought and ride it to hell, too. I suffer over how much I suffer, and get bummed out that I can't seem to stop. I know I need to stop trying to stop, and I stink at that, and wow, here I am again. I'm terrible at this!
From The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron:
When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are.
Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already.
One of the main discoveries of meditation is seeing how we continually run away from the present moment, how we avoid being here just as we are.
In one of the Buddha's discourses, he talks about the four kinds of horses: the excellent horse, the good horse, the poor horse, and the really bad horse. The excellent horse, according to the sutra, moves before the whip even touches its back; just the shadow of the whip or the slightest sound from the driver is enough to make the horse move. The good horse runs at the lightest touch of the whip on its back. The poor horse doesn't go until it feels pain, and the very bad horse doesn't budge until the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones.
When Shunryu Suzuki tells the story in his book Zen Mind, Beginners' Mind, he says that when people hear this sutra, they always want to be the best horse, but actually when we sit, it doesn't matter whether we're the best horse or the worst horse. He goes on to say that in fact, the really terrible horse is the best practitioner...because we find ourselves to be the worst horse, we are inspired to try harder.
Everybody who has ever felt even a moment of arrogance knows that arrogance is just a cover-up for really feeling that you're the worst horse, and always trying to prove otherwise.
And when, inevitably, I search through these phrases and stories to find the truth, I let my eyes wander to something else:
"If you are interested in these teachings, then you have to accept the fact that you're never going to get it all together." It was a shocking statement to me. He said with a lot of clarity. "You are never going to get it all together, you're never going to get your act together, fully, completely. You're never going to get all the little loose ends tied up.
You're never going to get all of the micro greens adjusted to a perfect 45 degree angle. There will always be one quail where the little feet don't stand up, with the tiny claws in the air; they'll be a little overcooked and dangle at the knees. The temperature of the bowl will be off just a little bit, and the peaks won't form in the egg white. You'll eventually find a grit in the clam. A dish will be dropped. The octopus will be burned. You'll set off the fire alarm. You'll go 117 days between posts. You'll leave a typographical error in a letter to your pen pal, wake up in the morning with bad breath, yell at your dog for being a dog. You'll want to touch it lightly with your mind, and move on, and instead you'll hold onto suffering longer than you'd prefer. You'll throw your journals away, and try to write them in a new style, a more perfect style, or you'll keep them as a reminder of failures, so lovely. If you're like me, you'll be the very worst horse, and you won't move until you feel the pain of the whip in the marrow of your bones.
Touch it, and let go.