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.