Celebrating What You Accomplish While Looking Forward to Improving

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post over on Faster Than 20 entitled, “Made of Love.” All I wanted to do was to tell a brief story of a remarkable moment I experienced at a meeting I was shadowing and how that moment made me feel. It turned out to be more complicated than that. I wrote a long, confessional draft that made me feel raw and vulnerable, I asked people I trusted for feedback, then I sat on that feedback for a while, before finally deciding to revise and publish the post.

I’m really glad I did. I got a ton of thoughtful, moving responses from friends and colleagues, which has me thinking and wanting to share a lot more.

For the most part, I’m thrilled about everything I cut and rewrote. However, there’s one tiny story that I wanted to share here, because it’s a bit of a North Star for me.

There’s an episode of the PBS cooking documentary, Mind of a Chef, that follows Magnus Nilsson — considered one of the best chefs in the world — through the process of conceiving and creating a dish with a young protege. (You can watch the episode on Netflix if you’re a subscriber. Oh, how I wish for more open access, so I could easily share video clips. Another blog post for another time.) It’s mesmerizing to watch, partially because of the beautiful setting (a frozen lake in the Swedish countryside), partially because of the creativity and skill of execution.

Two things jumped out at me in particular. First was the delight that Nilsson expressed throughout the process, including when he tasted the final product. He clearly was not satisfied by it, and he methodically walked through how he wanted to make it better. But he still seemed really happy about what he had done. Second was the the relationship between Nilsson and his protege. The latter seemed nervous (perhaps more because he was on camera than because of his mentor), but he also seemed… safe? Excited? It’s hard to describe exactly, but it felt productive and loving.

That’s the balance I personally want to strike for when I create something. I actually think I’m a lot more joyful about iterations than others see, but I definitely could let myself appreciate and celebrate more. More importantly, I can let others see this appreciation and joy. I definitely hold back because I don’t want me or others to get complacent, but I think I can strike a better balance.

Panettone from Roy

Yesterday, I tried my first panettone ever. It was delicious! It wasn’t mind-numbingly delicious, and I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to buy one again, but I enjoyed it, and I’d definitely eat it again.

I had never eaten panettone before, probably because of its reputation as a dry and terrible mass-produced holiday tradition. I was drawn to this particularly panettone thanks to a David Chang podcast, where he interviewed Roy Shvartzpel, its creator. Chang’s podcasts are an acquired taste. They are borderline insufferable, a weird see-sawing act of self-aggrandizement and self-flagellation. I’ve recommended episodes to a few friends, and they all complained that it was too bro-y. Still, I’ve enjoyed several of his interviews for their insights into those who are obsessed about craft and, to some extent, the Korean-American psyche.

This interview almost struck the wrong side of this weird balance. I was intrigued by Chang’s bold pronouncements about this panettone and also hyperaware of his proclivity to exaggerate. I was intrigued by Shvartzpel’s origin story as a hoop obsessive, but put off by his comparing his game to Steph Curry’s. I almost turned off the podcast several times, but when they finally got around to talking about Shvartzpel’s story as a cook, I was entranced. His story about how the Italian panettone master, Iginio Massari, took him in made me weepy. And I’m a sucker for honest stories about the grind, especially when they’re about small businesses.

His story made me interested enough to look into buying one of his cakes. They cost between $30-60, outrageous in comparison to the $5 monstrosities you can find at your grocery store, but within the realm of reason when you compare them to buying a high-quality cake at a good bakery. Still, I wasn’t compelled enough to buy one.

That changed earlier this week. I’m in Southern California visiting family and was shopping for groceries when I saw boxes of his panettone on sale. It’s the holidays, I was with family, and it was right there, so I ended up springing for a box, praying that I would not be filled with regret later.

Last night, after a delicious dinner, we finally opened the box and had a taste. As I said, it was delicious. I could see how it might be easy to overlook the craft required to get it to taste as good as it did. However, it was nowhere close to The New York Times’ assessment, which I found hilarious:

His domed wonders are unworldly in their featherweight texture: the tender crumb dissolves on your tongue, almost like cotton candy, were cotton candy spun from butter. They seem paradoxically rich and ethereal at the same time.

I’ve only had one experience that I can remember where a baked good lived up to its hype. When Arsicault Bakery opened in my neighborhood in 2016, I wasn’t super interested. I’m neither a croissant nor really any baked good fanatic. When Bon Appetit named it America’s best new bakery later that year, I was even less interested. I’m hype-averse, and I’m even more line-averse.

About a year later, I finally tried one, and I couldn’t believe how incredible they were. I’m usually a chocolate or ham-and-cheese croissant guy, but when I go to Arsicault, I always order the plain, because I don’t want any of those other adornments to interfere with the light, flaky, buttery goodness of these masterful creations. For the most part, folks I’ve shared them with agree with my assessment, although, I hear the occasional, “They’re just croissants,” or, “They’re not as good as they are in France.”

There have been studies showing that the more expensive we think a bottle of wine is, the better we think it tastes. The brilliant J. Kenji Lopez-Alt showed that we all think farm-fresh eggs taste better, even though we can’t actually taste the difference. I guess what it comes down to is that we like what we like, regardless of the reasons why. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Learning How to Boil Eggs: From Toni Morrison to J. Kenji López-Alt

Deviled eggs courtesy of Dina and Lola. They were as tasty as they look.

I learned how to boil eggs from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I first read 30 years ago. Every time I boiled an egg, I could see her vivid imagery in my head:

In the heartbeat of silence that followed his shouts, Pilate laughed.

“You all want a soft-boiled egg?” she asked.

The boys looked at each other. She’d changed rhythm on them. They didn’t want an egg, but they did want to be with her, to go inside the wine house of this lady who had one earring, no navel, and looked like a tall black tree.

“No, thanks, but we’d like a drink of water.” Guitar smiled back at her.

“Well. Step right in.” She opened the door and they followed her into a large sunny room that looked both barren and cluttered. A moss-green sack hung from the ceiling. Candles were stuck in bottles everywhere; newspaper articles and magazine pictures were nailed to the walls. But other than a rocking chair, two straight-backed chairs, a large table, a sink and stove, there was no furniture. Pervading everything was the odor of pine and fermenting fruit.

“You ought to try one. I know how to do them just right. I don’t like my whites to move, you know. The yolk I want soft, but not runny. Want it like wet velvet. How come you don’t just try one?”

She had dumped the peelings in a large crock, which like most everything in the house had been made for some other purpose. Now she stood before the dry sink, pumping water into a blue-and-white wash basin which she used for a saucepan.

“Now, the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing. One can’t get the upper hand over the other. So the temperature has to be the same for both. I knock the chill off the water first. Just the chill. I don’t let it get warm because the egg is room temperature, you see. Now then, the real secret is right here in the boiling. When the tiny bubbles come to the surface, when they as big as peas and just before they get big as marbles. Well, right then you take the pot off the fire. You don’t just put the fire out; you take the pot off. Then you put a folded newspaper over the pot and do one small obligation. Like answering the door or emptying the bucket and bringing it in off the front porch. I generally go to the toilet. Nor for a long stay, mind you. Just a short one. If you do all that, you got yourself a perfect soft-boiled egg.”

Of course, my cooking conditions were never quite the same as Pilate Dead’s, so I had to adapt. For example, I never bothered “knocking the chill off the water.” I figured that my tap water wasn’t as chilly as hers, but mainly, I was too lazy. For a long time, I followed her “one small obligation” rule, but my obligations were too inconsistent, and I often ended up with a harder yolk than I wanted, so I switched to using a timer.

Still, it pretty much worked, and I had the satisfaction of learning how to boil an egg from Toni Morrison. There was only one problem, as demonstrated by my nephew, Benjamin, a few years ago.

The egg white would often stick to the shell when I peeled my eggs. For many years, I thought that it was because my eggs weren’t fresh enough. Then later, I thought it was because my eggs were too fresh. This is what happens when you rely on hearsay and homespun wisdom (which includes much of what you’ll find both in books and on the Internet). Of course, I never bothered attempting to research something that felt definitive or to experiment myself. (See above re: my laziness.) I even own Harold McGee’s classic, On Food and Cooking, but I never bothered checking to see what he had to say. (That worked out in the end, because McGee’s advice and explanation are wrong.)

For years and years and years, I tolerated my pock-marked boiled eggs. Then, a few months ago, I came across the brilliant J. Kenji López-Alt’s debut article for The New York Times, where he chose to tackle this time-honored problem. I finally knew how to boil eggs correctly. (Read the article, and you’ll understand why I trust him so much.)

The water and the eggs should not be on equal standing. The water should take the upper hand. Boil it first, then add the eggs. Better yet, steam the eggs rather than boil them.

I didn’t have an excuse to test this myself until this past weekend. I had to make a butt-load of potato salad for a friend’s party, and there was no way I was going to sit around picking egg white off of the shell. So I gave López-Alt’s technique a try.

IT WORKED!!!

There’s undoubtedly more to say about the nature of epistemology in these times, but that will have to wait for another time. For now, I’m just happy to have solved the final piece of the puzzle regarding boiled eggs. And I’m still grateful for Toni Morrison after all these years. Who else could have emblazoned such a clear picture on my impressionable mind about something as mundane as boiled eggs?

David Chang on Integrity

I’ve never met David Chang, the hotshot chef/owner of the Momofuku restaurants in New York, nor have I ever tasted his food. From the various profiles I’ve read of the dude, he seems like the kind of guy I’d either be best friends with or wouldn’t be able to stand.

My all-time favorite story about him comes from this 2008 New Yorker profile:

At Noodle Bar, a junior line cook had been cooking chicken for family meal—lunch for the staff—and although he had to cook something like seventy-five chicken pieces and the stoves were mostly empty, he’d been cooking them in only two pans, which meant that he was wasting time he could have spent helping to prep for dinner. Also, he was cooking with tongs, which was bad technique, it ripped the food apart, it was how you cooked at T.G.I. Friday’s—he should have been using a spoon or a spatula. Cooking with tongs showed disrespect for the chicken, disrespect for family meal, and, by extension, disrespect for the entire restaurant. But the guy cooking family meal was just the beginning of it. Walking down the line, Chang had spotted another cook cutting fish cake into slices that were totally uneven and looked like hell. Someone else was handling ice-cream cones with her bare hands, touching the end that wasn’t covered in paper. None of these mistakes was egregious in itself, but all of them together made Chang feel that Noodle Bar’s kitchen was degenerating into decadence and anarchy. He had screamed and yelled until a friend showed up and dragged him out of the restaurant, and his head still hurt nearly twenty-four hours later.

The following afternoon, Chang called an emergency meeting for the staff. Something was rotten in Noodle Bar, and he meant to cut it out and destroy it before it was too late.

“I haven’t been spending that much time in this restaurant because of all the shit that’s been going on,” he began, “but the past two days I’ve had aneurisms because I’ve been so upset at the kitchen. On the cooks’ end, I question your integrity. Are you willing to fucking sacrifice yourself for the food? Yesterday, we had an incident with fish cakes: they weren’t properly cut. Does it really matter in the bowl of ramen? No. But for personal integrity as a cook, this is what we do, and I don’t think you guys fucking care enough. It takes those little things, the properly cut scallions, to set us apart from Uno’s and McDonald’s. If we don’t step up our game, we’re headed toward the middle, and I don’t want to fucking work there.

“We’re not the best cooks, we’re not the best restaurant—if you were a really good cook you wouldn’t be working here, because really good cooks are assholes. But we’re gonna try our best, and that’s as a team. Recently, over at Ssäm Bar, a sous-chef closed improperly, there were a lot of mistakes, and I was livid and I let this guy have it. About a week later, I found out that it wasn’t him, he wasn’t even at the restaurant that night. But what he said was ‘I’m sorry, it will never happen again.’ And you know what? I felt like an asshole for yelling at him, but, more important, I felt like, Wow, this is what we want to build our company around: guys that have this level of integrity. Just because we’re not Per Se, just because we’re not Daniel, just because we’re not a four-star restaurant, why can’t we have the same fucking standards? If we start being accountable not only for our own actions but for everyone else’s actions, we’re gonna do some awesome shit.”

Fuck yeah. Fires me up every time I read it.

 

Technique, Practice, and Craft

Last week, Sports Illustrated published an article about Georgetown’s basketball program and its coach, John Thompson III. Georgetown has a long tradition of producing skilled big men, starting with Thompson’s father in the 1970s and 1980s. And while Thompson has continued that tradition, he’s gained a reputation for something different:

Much has been made about the Princeton-style offense that Georgetown runs under Thompson, about how difficult it is to defend and prepare for. But what is unique about Georgetown’s system has little to do with anything that is written in a playbook. Everything the Hoyas do offensively is based on reading the defense and reacting to those reads. Most systems involve a player being told something along the lines of: cut here, run off of that screen there, set a pick for him and roll to the basket, lather, rinse, repeat.

Georgetown’s theory is different.

Thompson doesn’t tell his team what to do on any given play. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, rather he teaches them, from the day they set foot on campus, how to make that decision for themselves based off of what they see on the floor in front of them. In his words, “the ability to just be a basketball player is something that we stress. Don’t be a position.”

And that is the most difficult point to get across.

“A lot of freshmen want to be told specifically what to do,” he said. “The difficult part becomes understanding that they have to make the read, because they’re so used to being told where to run in the play next.

“It’s new for most players to have to make reads and have to make decisions based on how they’re being played and how the defense is set. But once you grasp that way of thinking, I think it is very simple.”

I’ve loved basketball my whole life, but I’ve never played it competitively. So I’m intrigued by what this actually means in practice. I totally agree with it in theory. However, before you can learn how to make your own decisions, sometimes you have to learn things by rote.

I recently heard chef extraordinaire Jacques Pepin on the radio talking about cooking, and he gave a wonderful definition of technique:

For me, technique is very important. Technique is really a repetition, repetition, endless repetition of a certain movement, whether you use a knife or whatever, so it becomes so engrained, so part of yourself that you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.

You learn a certain movement, a certain reaction over and over and over again until, as Pepin said, “you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.” That, to me, is the essence of craft, whether it’s sports, cooking, or my own craft of collaboration. Learning certain things by rote ultimately gives you the freedom to express yourself.

After a recent playoff game, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had this to say about his point guard, Rajon Rondo:

“He’s got to be in attack,” Rivers said. “I thought the second quarter he was attacking and attacking. I thought he was reading a lot instead of playing on instincts. I think sometimes his IQ hurts him at times. He’s trying to read the defense, but you can’t read and play with speed at the same time.

“We go through it a lot — at least Rondo and I — about, ‘Rondo, just trust your instincts. Your speed has to be part of it. Your instincts will take over. You’ll make the right decision.'”

Doing any craft well is all about trusting your instincts. You get those instincts by doing your thinking in practice rather than in the moment.