Learning from masters

Learning from masters
About a month ago, I stood over a kitchen’s granite-top cooking island with a dozen other men from our church. Normally, I’m not a fan of kitchens. It’s too much a place of preparation: someone has to think ahead about what to cook, then go to the grocery store to find the right, freshest ingredients; then, cut, chop and dice, simmer, braise and broil — all in the right order. It’s too much like work, and I’m not even getting paid.

But since Fabrice was teaching, I had to go. My wife had been using guerrilla tactics: “I know it’s not for a few weeks, but I think you should go to the cooking class.” “Are you planning to go in a couple of weeks?” “I’m glad that you’re going next week.” “Are you excited about today?” I guess she really wanted me to learn. Should I’ve been offended?

Jinhee’s insistence came because Fabrice is a world-class chef. He usually greets us at the doors of our church with hugs, a huge smile and a French accent. But he’s also prepared dishes on the famed Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, and had the privilege of serving then-President François Mitterand. In a country that’s deservedly snottish about their culinary mastery, he was in the major leagues of cooking. And about a month ago, he was willing to take a few novices under his tutelage.

I came late and missed how he prepared the mussels. But when I had a bite of a scallop — the size of a half-dollar coin, but an inch thick — flaked with fennel seed, sea salt and a little pepper, which was then pan-seared in olive oil, I knew there must be a god. And that Jinhee was the wisest woman on the planet. I was in all-out worship when I tasted the broiled sea bass, resting on a bed of leeks, pan-fried corn and sweet onions mixed in crème fraîche. Then, I almost shook with ecstatic utterances when he also grilled a roast of Wagyu — America’s version of Kobe beef — and placed them on a sauced bed of greens. I was caught up into the third heaven when the stuffed, roasted apricot and some blueberry comport landed on my tongue. I might not be a fan of cooking, but I love to eat. I know I’m not being fair, but Bon Appétit!

Fabrice kept everything simple so that we might be able to reproduce it in our kitchens, though I have yet to try one of his culinary masterpieces. I’d be defiling his creations with any attempt. That’s what I tell myself, at any rate. But when I’m forced to be in the kitchen, I’ve picked up some of his habits. I sharpen my knives before any cutting, like he did. Jinhee’s been trying to get me to sharpen the knives at least once a month, but now I’m sharpening knives perhaps three or four times a night. Fabrice never told us to sharpen our knives that much. He just did it. And I copied him.

The grill, as opposed to the kitchen, is sacred ground. It’s no accident that altars of old cooked the sacrificed meat. So when I’m grilling a peppercorn tri-tip steak out on the patio with a beer in hand, I’m tempted to take my shoes off. And while I’m there, I broil steak at a high temperature at first, searing it to lock in the moisture. Then I turn it every two or three minues, to keep its juices within. Fabrice wouldn’t have thought to teach me that, but I followed him to the backyard to see him with the grill. Then I asked him about what he was doing, and learned a lot about cooking meats. All because I was there to watch. In fact, if I only had access to what he prepared to say, I would’ve missed out on a lot of learning.

I recently read about the same type of learning, except in a completely different context. It came from a book called The Inner Game of Tennis. He said that we don’t learn to play tennis by telling ourselves how to correct our game: like, keep the racquet head low and swing up, or swing up on the serve. People pay big dollars to get great coaching, but it rarely changes their game. According to W. Timothy Gallwey, if we try to correct ourselves, we’ll have unnatural swings. Instead, he says we should watch someone who can really play. And then try to play afterward, without berating ourselves. Our bodies will naturally learn and adjust, because it learns so much more than just by listening to someone else’s instructions. Now, I watch YouTube clips of Federer before I play, but I have yet to beat my tennis partners. One day though, one day…

Now I see how brilliant Jesus is, especially as an educator. He told his students to “Come, follow me.” Back then, when a rabbi asked his disciples to follow him, they were meant to do so… literally. In one account, while a pack of disciples were following a rabbi, one wandered off a few yards. The rabbi made them retrace their steps — over five miles — and start over, a detour costing the day. He didn’t want them to miss anything. In another account, disciples followed their rabbi to the bathroom. That kind of learning seems a bit intimate to me, but it speaks loudly of dedication. Or a lack of privacy.

I think we need more following these days. Like Fabrice, he doesn’t even know the wealth of things he could tell me, like about sharpening knives. To him, it’s second nature. Every great cook knows this. But I didn’t, and he wouldn’t have thought to tell me. I learned, because I was following. I was there, watching. And it changed the way I do things. What if we moved our conversations out of the coffee shop and into real life, and we watched our mentors, observing how they dealt with an unmerited honk from an unruly driver, or how they handled the dilemma of laying off his workers to keep the business afloat, or how they treated their husbands. Perhaps we would learn less about what we might do, and let the things we learn actually change us.