Inspired by Fear
I love reading about food. Cookbooks, magazines, newspaper articles, essays, musings, etc. It's all good. Aside from cooking and eating, reading about food and cooking is probably my favorite thing to do. When I first became interested in the culture of food and cooking, I remember often feeling intimidated when reading recipes and articles about this or that food or culinary tradition. The feeling of intimidation arose from my lack of knowledge, and over the years I've worked hard to cram my brain full of as much food and cooking-related information as possible. For the most part these days, reading about food, while still one of my favorite things to do, is no longer intimidating...it mostly tends to make me hungry, and inspires me to cook. There is, however, one part of a particular book that still manages to produce feelings of anxiety deep within the core of my culinary consciousness. The book I'm referring to is The Soul of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman, and the particular part of his book that continues to frighten me details the stress, drama, heartbreak, and occasional triumph surrounding the American Culinary Federation's Certified Master Chef exam.
As a chef instructor at a Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, I make sure to recommend this book as important reading material to each and every one of my students. In part one, Ruhlman focuses on a chef named Brian Polcyn as he struggles through the grueling ten day exam to be officially certified as a master chef by the ACF, and the feelings of terror and anxiety that I feel reading it now are no less intense than when I read it the first time almost a decade ago. Most of the applicants taking this exam are top-notch chefs, and the vast majority don't pass; it's that hard. In case you have not yet read it, I won't say anything else in regards to the outcome of Chef Polcyn's attempt at the CMC title.
Basically, the lesson to be learned from this is that no matter how much we read, or how much we practice proper technique, there is always room for improvement, always room to know more, or to be able to do something a little bit better than the last time we did it. The culture of professional cooking is one that involves a sincere passion for lifelong learning, and an openness to the idea that we are never perfect in what we do; attaining perfection is truly impossible, but striving for it is what makes each of us the best we can be at whatever we do.