Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reading The Soul

"But by Certified Master Chef (CMC) standards - those set primarily by the Culinary Institute of America, an institution that did not attempt to teach soul or happiness, but rather technique and knowledge and theory and practice - many CMC candidates did succeed. Perhaps the ones who succeeded, then, not only were technically gifted but also had never cooked to make people happy in the first place and therefore did not have that particular cord bound up in their standards. Maybe they'd cooked for money, as a job only, and happened to be really good at it. Good reason to cook: a job, a paycheck. Maybe they cooked because it pleased them personally and they were content to ride this one out. Maybe they cooked for the sport, the adrenaline rush of working a line, the way some people lifted weights or became compulsive joggers. if they had begun cooking for these reasons, cooked their whole lives this way, had never needed to make people happy to justify their work, their existence - and how many professions did? - then this absence built into the CMC test would never bother those chefs; that kind of chef would not feel its absence and would just cook as he or she always did."

- Michael Ruhlman, The Soul of a Chef, page 324

There are several books I return to and read every year or two, Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef is one of those books and each time I read it, I can't help but create a parallel between the CIA's Certified Master Chef program and the Specialty Coffee Association of America's United States Barista Championship. I've competed in the USBC six times and have never found satisfaction participating. Sure, there's the camaraderie amongst baristas and the joy of spending time with friends across the world, but I've always found it lacking. Personally un-fulfilling. Disappointing. And, at times, outright corrupt.

As I was re-reading The Soul of a Chef this week, I ran across the above quote and found the parallel to the barista world unmistakable. Substitute "USBC" for "CMC" and "SCAA" for "CIA" and "barista" for "chef" and I think it's 100% applicable. In the barista world, there are those who do it to win at competition. They claim to "love" coffee and even put on affectations to make you think they have that level of care but really they're in it for the accolades. The accolades of winning, the accolades of being loved. For many baristas, it's about slinging coffee as fast at they can while combating the line dragon forming in front of them. Never mind the mound of wasted ground coffee that's piling up in front of the grinder, they're busy slaying the dragon.

Maybe I'm just a malcontent but I've never found satisfaction in the competitions or much of the barista world. There's a certain level of disconnect for me. A wondering where the craft meets the care. Too many baristas are too concerned about being "right" and being "hardcore" for no other reason than maybe to mask the fact that they haven't showered recently.

I read and re-read Soul, and it's sequel Reach of a Chef mainly because I want to study more on Keller. I'm fascinated by the man. Not in some fanboy stalker kind of way but rather I'm amazed at the level of finesse, pursuit of perfection and adherence to standards the man possesses. I want to hone that level of standard and finesse, and maybe that's why I find the whole barista world not very satisfying.

Why, I wonder, buy commercial syrups when you can make them better in-house? It seems everywhere I turn there's a laziness to craft. Commercial this, commercial that. Claims that an automated brewer is "better" and "cleaner." Absurd rationalizations that a timer stepped grinder that doses straight down is, somehow, more accurate than an infinitely adjustable grinder. "Signature" drinks that demonstrate a near lack of understanding of cuisine: I'm adding cocoa to highlight the cocoa character of the coffee" or "Have a sip of grapefruit juice to complement the citrus-y grapefruit note in the coffee.

Never mind contrasting flavors or complimentary flavors, let's just add more of the flavor already in there. It's so mind-numbing I might as well bash my skull against a concrete wall.

At least I have The Spro where I can practice our form of coffee pursuit to my standards. I can't imagine being a barista for someone else in any of the shops across America - I imagine it would be worse than being back in the movie business.

" Keller combined extraordinary technique and knowledge with humor, imagination and intelligence, and he did so in a setting straight out of a Monet painting. It was the perfect combination, and Keller never underestimated the important of the place he had found.

This was how he saw the world, and this was how he understood cooking, with a Zenlike spirituality but with his feet firmly grounded. Cooking had never been a means to an end for Keller. That was why he never got sidetracked by money or the lack of it. The first thing was care for food.

He loved this. He loved to wipe a counter clean. Because this was where perfection began. At this clean counter was where we learned not to waste anything and not to err, because when you made a mistake or when you didn't care, or you didn't appreciate that carrot that you were peeling, it was a waste of life itself."

- Michael Ruhlman, The Soul of a Chef, page 329