Tag Archives: right-livelihood

Crafting Non-attachment

The restaurant business is largely about ego. As a venue or chef builds an identity, egos become inordinately inflated. The maintenance of an ego requires the subjection of other egos. Subjection can be voluntary, or it can be coerced. Voluntary subjection often involves admiration and fawning. Coerced subjection is an uneasy thing, always ripe for rebellion.

Taking the position of Executive Chef requires that one have highly developed skills of coercion, for admiration comes in small numbers. One must be ready to squash any person, or group of persons, who wish to overthrow the regime. There are plenty of other egos on the rise.

I simply don’t have the interest in such matters. The time dedicated to cultivating an ego is better spent marveling at how things work: I mix my doughs. I let them rise as they will. I bake them. I let them go.

The ‘letting go’ part actually happens during the entire process. I bring together the elements. They work together as though I am not present. They develop towards their natural outcome. I am their servant more than their master. I can manipulate fermentation, but I certainly don’t own it.

As they work, I acknowledge that it is not me doing the work. It’s the yeast. The wheat. The water. The salt.

A craftsman will know just when and precisely how to interfere with working elements. And more importantly, a craftsman will know when not to interfere. Music works without a single person playing a guitar. Plants grow when we get out of their way—and they have shown that if we interfere too much, they will cease to nourish us.

Pride of craftsmanship is not equivalent to arrogance. Arrogance must speak loudly, of its own volition, about its own attributes. A craftsman can remain silent and let his work speak. This is how I wish to direct my energy. There is much more grace in it. It is a worthy goal to pursue: the heart of poetry, the core of craft, the essence of artisanship. It is the art of non-attachment.

Kobayashi Maru on Wry

I want to pick up the thought I left at the end of the previous entry. The idea that I appeared as my own ‘deus ex machina,’ and rescued myself from a situation that was ethically compromising.

I’ve been in this type of compromising situation before. It was at the core of my flight from high tech into cooking several years ago. In fact, my entire life at that point was in violation of my own ethics. So I walked into my own headquarters and announced my departure. I resigned from the life I was living, and set out to determine my own terms.

It’s a classic Kobayashi Maru test, the famous Star Trek scenario which presented an iron-clad no-win situation. Every cadet at Starfleet Academy was required to pass this test as a show of character. Obsessed with beating the system, Kirk hacked the computer and rewrote the program.

In rewriting the program, or redefining the terms of engagement, we must proceed fearlessly. We must have a clear concept of who we truly are, for we are defying those that have a semblance of authority over us. It can be career-threatening, it can limit our life choices, it can end other relationships. It can put a strain on everything—especially our self-worth.

But at its core, it is about reclaiming one’s self-worth. Sometimes you must risk losing it in order to win it back. (It lends itself to all manner of trite ‘motivational speaker’ pronouncements, as you can see.)

By informing my employer that I no longer wished to serve in my executive capacity, I left the institution without a leader. Further, informing them that I would assume bread-baking duties was quite presumptuous, a heady dose of hubris.

It’s a stroke of self-actualized Tao recursion–the perfect way to manage any no-win program.

Deus ex machina

There are these moments of realization.

Some come swiftly: Sitting in your hermitage above Mendocino, staring at the Pacific arc, vision folds in upon itself and reveals that you have finally reached the starting gate.

Some come slowly: As you work through your daily routine, minding the store in meticulous detail, the list of things awry becomes a bit too lengthy. The resistance has a fierce tenacity. You breathe a resigned sigh. Of course this is where it’s going.

The identification of a pathogen hinges upon perspective.

I reviewed my notes. I recalled conversations. I added 2 and two. I checked the temperature and barometric pressure. I realized that my workplace was in complete opposition to my personal momentum. I needed to move in a direction that was harmonious with my own integrity. I needed to present myself as working in full concert with my beliefs—especially since I share those beliefs with others. And especially since I really truly fervently believe my beliefs.

I have a view of the world that I wish to inhabit. It is idealistic, it is realistic in small proportions only. I don’t expect the world to ever be what I want it to be. But this is a far remove from supporting a pathogen which is working against my own view.

I did truly come to view my employer’s institution as a pathogen, a causer of disease. From the support of industrial agriculture and therefore industrial toxicity at every level of food production, to the endorsement—implicit and explicit—of unfair labor practices to the absence of commitment to a better way of doing all things, they are indeed a pathogen, empowering other pathogens, in cultivating a sick world.

However, there is another perspective.

I was the pathogen, threatening the health of their institution. And they would take the necessary measures to limit the damage I could do within their system.

It was a slowly developing realization, but the moment of clarity was crystalline. Pathogen that I was, I needed to prolong my stay, to end the possibility of two-way harm, to maintain my functionality while preparing for my own (self-induced) expulsion.

Summon the deus ex machina, garbed not as Euripides might have him, but as a simple gentleman baker. Nietzsche may sneer, but only from jealousy.


Effecting a Coup

In the past few weeks, I effected—and was affected by—a coup d’etat. I was both the usurper and the usurped. I survived victoriously.

I want to spend a few entries on this, to explore what happened and why, and how the benefits will likely far exceed my own expectations.

First, the basic facts: I resigned my position as Executive Chef at an Asheville institution. The reasons were numerous, and all centered upon ethics. I can’t identify a single shared ethic between the owners and me, and I found myself in an uncomfortable dilemma: either compromise my own ethics and continue to represent the café, or resign. Accepting Shakespeare’s encouragement to be true to myself, I chose the latter. It’s much easier to sleep at night that way.

Ethics are a serious matter, and so often we find ourselves in situations that violate ours. My patience with such scenarios has dwindled to zero, and though it poses financial risk, I am content with my chosen solution.

Now for the punch line: I didn’t just resign. I repurposed myself to the role of bread baker. I abdicated the command post so that I could be a worker. It’s a change that I am proud of. I vacated a compromising position, and took on a role that allows me, daily, to look at the products of my honest day’s work. I go home a little tired from the physical movement, feeling in my muscles the accumulation of lifting and kneading. I spend my work hours in meditative craftsmanship. I go home and sleep an honest round of sleep.

Like Moses leaving the Pharaoh’s palace to join his people in the brickyards, I feel at home among the workers in the kitchen. We are kindred. I have always identified with them, for in my DNA I am one of them. I am happy as I rediscover the joy of making food, of using my hands, of smelling fresh bread as it develops through so many stages.

I see it from so many kaleidoscopic angles. Each image illuminates the coup, providing greater depth to both the action and the reaction, confirming the gut feel that I have done the right thing.

More to come.

Small Faces, a baker, and your dinner…

This entry first appeared at Crazy Sexy Life, Oct. 15, 2010


In an increasingly-obscure song by the Small Faces, circa 1968, a man follows his internal hunger and aching in order to fulfill his destiny.

He becomes a baker.

He sees the necessary elements around him: Wheat in the field, water in the stream, and salt in the mine. No longer able to just stand and wonder, he gives himself to the purpose that beckons him.

It’s obvious from the singer’s intensity, and the power in his simple words, that it’s not a job he just applied for. It’s an all-consuming purpose, which descended upon him in a flash of epiphany. He realizes that he can do nothing else. As he proclaims in the third stanza, “The baker will come, and the baker I’ll be.”

Ronnie Lane once stated that the song, in spite of its poetic life’s purpose and fulfillment, actually stemmed from the idea of “how hard you’ll work if you’re hungry.”

However, to me, “Song of a Baker” gives a very clear illustration of the concept of ‘right-livelihood,’ reflected not only in the means of income, but comprehensively in all that one does. It’s a full integration of belief, action, work, daily living, and meditation. The singer has chosen to ‘be,’ and through his ‘being,’ others will receive.

Also in the third stanza, he shows us the linchpin: “When thinking of love, love is thinking for me.”

This “thinking of love” begets a very legitimate offspring: Love will also think for us. It will serve as the powerful motivation behind all that we do. To allow love to determine our actions we must possess clarity, daily awareness, and the ability to let go of personal agendas. It requires non-attachment to outcome, and encourages being present in the moment.

At times it might seem that it requires relinquishing a goal. But then again, it can encourage the embracing of a different goal: That of always doing what love would do, in any situation. I’ve found that this goal supersedes any other that I can pursue.

Okay, so what do the Small Faces have to do with my dinner?

The culinary program I attended in Boulder was all about the ‘heart center.’ For all its culinary weaknesses—the Francophobic director scoffed at all things Escoffier–this one message came through loud and clear: Cook from the heart.

It’s not a new message, nor an obscure one. But it is one that is seldom seen in practice. It requires constant awareness, which is not really that compatible with commercial food production. When it is present, people notice it immediately.

For a short time, I operated my own small café in Denver. The menu was grounded in a soul food ethic, focused on nourishing, with lots of room for pleasure. There was one lady who came after work each day, always ordering the same plate: Grilled polenta cakes with tomato ragout, Anasazi beans with epazote, and steamed kale.

After a couple of weeks, I went to her table and introduced myself. I thanked her for her business, then politely expressed my curiosity at her consistent order.

Her answer was simple: “It makes me feel good. There’s love in this food.”

That’s something you don’t hear often in a commercial setting, but we were small enough to make it work. It’s the way I trained my staff. It was one facet of right-livelihood that I wanted them to have, just as much as I wanted to have it for myself.

But this idea, my thinking of love so that it can think for me, is bigger than food, and it’s bigger than a career. It expresses itself in personal matters, in all relationships, informing one’s life purpose. It’s a form of selflessness, but it is not self-sacrificing. It is malleable, fitting each scenario, allowing all participants to be nurtured. If I yield so another may flourish, I know that my strength, patience, presence, and love are growing. My own endeavors, as important as they might be to me, are not so important that I must hinder another person as they peacefully seek theirs. And vice-versa.

It’s the recipe for a wonderful world—and yes, it requires over-the-top idealism. But it’s quite simple, too. Our purpose, at a very basic level, is to nourish ourselves and our species so that we may grow. I maintain that our unique evolutionary position also encourages us to nourish the other species around us, or at a minimum, to do no harm to them. This is what love would do.

Sure, Ronnie Lane de-romanticized the song shortly after he sang it, but I’m willing to overlook his mundane interpretation. I much prefer the song’s grand philosophical view, of love growing through the tangible seed, water, and salt, coming together in the bread. Through this universal nourishment, love directs us into a life of purpose.

Is my view somewhat optimistic and fantastic? It certainly is. But I’m compelled to live that way.