Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sisyphus and the Cook

One of the great chefs in the latter 20th century was Marco-Pierre White. In the late 80's and through the 90's he was one of the chefs who set the bar for the rest of us. He was a brilliant cook who took the quest for perfection as far as one could. In the end he had this to say as one of the primary reasons for hanging up his apron, "The nonstop process of refining dishes and striving for perfection was exhausting. I didn't want to push myself anymore. Even when you have three stars, you still have to keep raising your game. People look at you as the top chef and their expectations become greater. It's all about taking yourself as far as you can. It can seem never-ending." This quote comes from his autobiography The Devil in the Kitchen. If you haven't read it yet, then go out and get yourself a copy. The last sentence is what caught my attention and has me made spend some time thinking about the pursuit of perfection in the kitchen. Chef White was one of the gods, so when when he says anything about the kitchen we lesser mortals should set up and take note. Why do chefs who cook at the highest levels continue to do so if they know they will never reach the goal of perfection? Why do chefs put themselves under so much pressure to perform? Why are they willing to spend so much time away from their families and friends in their pursuit? How can we explain their relentlessness in the face of such an unattainable quest? I have spent not a few hours thinking about this and have finally found a solution in the myth of Sysiphus. For his craftiness and trickery in dealing with the gods, Sysiphus was condemned to an eternity of rolling a massive boulder up a steep hill only to have it roll back down again as he reached the top. Albert Camus in discussing Sisyphus points out that the real test was not in rolling the stone up the hill, but in the time spent walking back down the hill to only begin anew his appointed task. Even though Sisyphus had an impossible task ahead of him, Camus believed him to happy, "I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." The cook who pursues perfection is much like the anti-hero Sisyphus. He has a task ahead of him that will never find completion. But I believe it is the task that is important, not the goal. In spite of the fact they will never cook the perfect dish, great chefs cook anyway.

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