We have a long weekend this week with Monday (19th May) being Vesak Day - a public holiday. I was supposed to spend the time reading and writing. Alas, I spend a good deal of it watching Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen instead. I'll put it down as research, since one of my main character is a sous chef.
What do I know about being a sous chef in a fancy restaurant? Very little, unless you count my part-time stint as a clerk in a French restaurant from 9 years ago. (It was a fun job, actually - brought to an abrupt end when the owners got into a dispute with the landlord over the rent and the restaurant was forced to shut down.)
I'm reading Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone right now. I've been the buyer for our Lifestyle section for the past few years, and while I do not claim to be an expert, I will admit to a growing interest in the area - especially for food writings. I read M.F.K Fisher's The Art of Eating last year. It was interesting, and it made me want to explore further the emotional relationship we have to food.
One of the erronous assumption people make is that because I am vegetarian, I am indifferent to food. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. It was when I became vegetarian that I started really paying attention to what I eat. I become more conscious of my meals: the ingredients, the taste, the texture, how they are prepared. It's not just about avoiding the meat - you also have to make sure you have a balanced diet that keeps you healthy. When I am not eating right, I can feel the difference in my body.
I am also curious about the the preparation of a meal - because it is one of the most intimidate and personal food experiences. Since I turned vegetarian, I find myself having to cook more. I am still not very good at it, but I try.
A friend once told us this story, of how her sister was in Korea, and she sought out this old lady who was renowned for her kimchi. When she asked the old lady about how to make good kimchi, the old lady replied: You have to season each cabbage leaf individually. As you massage the seasoning into the cabbage leaves one by one, imagine your family happily enjoying the kimchi you made for them.
Her method of preparing kimchi is a lot of work. Most of us just pick up a pack of kimchi from the supermarket instead; it's easier, so why bother, right?
I am not an expert here, but I think there is something to what the old lady is telling us. Just imagine if we can put that much love and mindfulness into preparing a meal, it would be something extraordinary indeed.
I was also looking through my old magazines over the weekend. I found the Yoga + Joyful Living article that spurred me to want to write this story about a farmer and a chef. (Right now the story stinks like ripe blue cheese. You see why I would be embarrassed to have people I know learn about this? :p)
It's a small feature on Deborah Madison, whom I know as the author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. What surprised me was that in her younger days, Madison practiced at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre, where she served as inaugural chef of Greens restaurant, as well as its head monk.
Asked what anchors her, Madison says without hesitation, "Sitting. Zazen." She pause and adds, "And my garden. It's literally grounding. When you grow your own food, it's clear what's for dinner."
It's as simple as that. A short article in a yoga magazine, about a woman who believes in growing your own food for dinner, because it anchors her. It just struck me - there is a love story here (or it's probably just my brain at work.)
And just in case anyone is interested, I drew up a reading list yesterday. For research purposes, of course. :)
- Gardening at the Dragon's Gate, Wendy Johnson
- Heat, Bill Buford
- The Art of Simple Food, Alice Waters
- Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Thomas McNamee
- The Soul of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman
- The Reach of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman
- The Devil in the Kitchen, Marco Pierre White
- On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee
- Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain