The Kitchen Stoic: A Beginner’s Approach to Stoic Thought by Andi Sciacca

You participate in a society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions—all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension. Like the man in the Assembly—a faction to himself, always out of step with the majority. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.23

Stoicism and the Culinary Arts

In March of 2011, the great French Chef Paul Bocuse spoke to students and faculty at The Culinary Institute of America.  He was on campus that month as part of a mighty trifecta that also included world-renowned Chef Ferran Adria and technology-geek turned chef-scientist Nathan Myhrvold.  These three visitors – celebrities in the culinary sphere, and beyond – spoke in celebration of their achievements as experts within the industry.  Their presence on campus was marketed by the CIA as being representative of the past, present, and future of the culinary world.  As part of their respective addresses to an enthusiastic audience of culinary hopefuls and practiced educators, each of these men spoke about their own paths into culinary prominence, and their unique views on culinary education.

As a student of philosophy who was then working as the founding director of the CIA’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, I had the opportunity to attend all three of their lectures – and I recall being struck by how dramatically relevant their shared experiences and the information they provided was to the study of philosophy.  Their advice on what makes for a good culinary worker was clearly connected to ethics and moral philosophy, the long-studied works of classical thinkers, the interdisciplinary range within the history of ideas, and continental philosophical thought.  

And now, understanding a bit more about Stoic practice, and having had the opportunity to further reflect on my own experience, it is even more clear to me how so much of what they shared in their lectures connects not only to what makes for a successful restaurant worker (whether chef or server or dishwasher) but also to what the thoughtful application of Stoic writings and Stoic teaching can offer to an industry that impacts so many – whether directly or indirectly.  For as Scott Hebert’s recent article reminds us in his examination of farming and Stoic practice, food and its preparation offers important opportunities to connect to the kinds of experiences that are central to us all.

Act Well the Character Assigned You

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s. – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 17

When Chef Bocuse spoke, he was then a man of eighty-five years old, and had served as mentor to many award-winning chefs himself.  Bocuse is responsible for having created the current grand medal of culinary achievement, the Bocuse d’Or, which has inspired olympic-style training on an international platform, and is seen by many as the premier award for any culinarian. When asked by one young culinary candidate what qualities are most essential in the training of a young chef, Bocuse responded, “la crème, le beurre, et le vin.”

Thinking something to have been lost in translation, his son Jerome – who was serving as a translator, himself a graduate of the CIA – asked again.  He was barely able to begin rephrasing the question, and Bocuse responded – in his heavily accented English – that he is a chef, not a philosopher. He would repeat this response repeatedly whenever he was asked for his opinions on issues of health, obesity, and school nutrition, stating he was – again – a chef, not a medical doctor, or a practitioner of public policy.  At one point, he went on to say that he left it to other schools and other lines of education to respond to these issues – as his job was simply to attend to his craft, and the best that he could do would be to inspire these students to do as he had done, and continue in the long line of traditional French apprenticeships.

As the afternoon Q&A he hosted following his lecture came to an end, Bocuse reminded our culinary students to treat their graduation from the CIA’s degree program not as the end of their education, but as the beginning – encouraging them to train with as many chefs as possible, learning from each what keys to the tradition of culinary arts might carry them into their intended path. This was more than simple lip-service, as Bocuse clearly valued the accumulation of historical knowledge and seemed to view achieving what he called his own “small place” within the long and esteemed link of his culinary forbearers being its own reward.  Having been given an Augie the night before – an Augie being the culinary equivalent of the Oscars (including the statues, made by the same goldsmith as the Oscars themselves) – and having been declared the Chef of the Century for his contributions – throughout his speech to the students, Bocuse never lapsed into complacency or arrogance, and consistently pointed to others – including his mentor, the corpulent Fernand Point – as the men to whom he owed his own achievement.

Bocuse did not, as Epictetus warns us, behave in a manner “prideful with any excellence that is not [his] own” (Enchiridion, 6).  In an academic culture where the mantra is simply, “Yes, Chef!”, Bocuse – despite his professed inability (or unwillingness) – to grapple with questions of philosophy, had nonetheless suggested that the students embrace some key elements of Stoic thought.  Here was a man who had achieved much, was globally celebrated as an expert in his craft, recently reminded by the industry in which he worked that he had achieved significant honor in his lifetime, had even been declared the Chef of the Century – and yet, his response and the advice he gave to those who sought to emulate him was that they should focus their attentions on acting well the character they had been assigned, and continue to seek knowledge from those who might act well their own roles of mentor, teacher, competitor, and friend.

Turn Each Setback Into Raw Material

We have various abilities, present in all rational creatures as in the nature of rationality itself. And this is one of them. Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.5

Whereas Bocuse is of the past, Ferran Adria is completely of the present.  Adria is a modernist in the sense of culinary movements – with culinary modernism being what culinarians choose to use as a referential term for what the early proponents [but now only fringe participants] have come to call molecular gastronomy.  Adria reacts against tradition by creating and recreating food into representative models.  It is not enough to have an olive in Adria’s kitchen.  His olive must be extracted and reduced, its juice gelled into an outer shell that resembles itself – its meaty flesh liquefied into something that fills that gelled, juice shell – with both components being served as a whole, on a spoon, doused in its own fragrant oil, which has been extracted and compressed.

In Adria’s kitchen-laboratory, using chemistry and art, a glass of wine becomes something deconstructed on a flat plate into solids. Adria would ask, “Why drink the wine and speak of what your palate can tell you about its terroir, when you can experience it visually in three-dimensions and consume it with your fork?” And while the world at large, attempting to make sense of his particular approach to food might choose either term when referring to this particular craft, Adria calls himself neither a molecular gastronomist nor a modernist. He sees himself as a deconstructivist, and has been famously quoted as saying that diners came to his famous restaurant, El Bulli, not to eat, but “to have an experience.”

If Bocuse celebrates cream, Adria eliminates it – making meat foams solely out of a genetically- extracted protein base, compressed air, and nitrous oxide that serve to capture the sensation of meat – but devoid of anything we might think of in terms of its substance or content. Even though his dishes are impeccably prepared and incredibly delicious, Adria seems to see the food itself as little more than a means to an end – and his influence has polarized culinarians on either side.

In 2010, Adria and one of his most noted mentees, Jose Andres, co-taught a course on culinary science at Harvard’s school of Engineering and Applied Sciences to a capacity class of four-hundred students, firmly cementing his work in structural engineering and applied physics – far removed from the apprenticeships at the hands of expert chefs as recommended by Bocuse – choosing, instead, to recruit the brightest students for further work at the food-synthetics company Adria owns with his brother. All the same, over the course of his career, Adria has won the highest possible ratings of three Michelin stars for El Bulli – and in terms of his influence on culinary education, perhaps it can best be seen in the content of the debates his approach and achievement tends to inspire.

Recently, two culinary discussants were arguing on a blog about Adria being defined as chef or artist – and what these definitions tend to imply. One blogger, when questioned on Adria’s tendency to see the product of his work as art, responded, “Why shouldn’t an artist just be someone who endeavors to make art? Some will do it with great genius and some will fail. Let them all be artists. Save all the philosophy and the critical apparatus to decide whose art is most significant, and for whom, and for what reason.”

His opponent responded, “Would any or all other cooks or chefs who endeavor to make art be equal to him in terms of being an artist then? The critical apparatus is being used no matter whether it is separating or including in any category . . . whether that category is the one of ‘what one is’ or whether it is in terms of ‘how well one does it’. Apply the mind to something and one has already applied the critical apparatus in some fashion.”  

Clearly, the lack of tradition in Adria’s case creates an anxiety that seems to posit itself in the space between art and craft – and between tradition and revision or mutation. As with the questions left unanswered by Bocuse as symbol of the past, Adria’s role as symbol of the present includes a kind of unanswered (perhaps unquestioned) structure of education that could well be served by Stoic thought.

Some might argue that the increasingly blurred boundaries between the work of the chef and the work of a scientist are doing damage to the whole of either or both professions.  As example, how many times have we seen parodies of artisanal products, petulant chef-characters, and seemingly inedible concoctions served up in absurd platings?

But the third speaker in that celebrity panel, Nathan Myhrvold – who was meant to represent the future beyond Adria’s present – acted as an unlikely catalyst for synthesis between Adria and Bocuse. Myhrvold’s claim to fame was not his Ivy league college career, which he began at the age of fourteen, earning a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by the time he turned twenty-three, nor was it working for Stephen Hawking, or founding Microsoft Research. It is true that he holds, or has applied for, over six-hundred patents – but he also is a two-time world champion barbeque winner, the former chief gastronomic officer for the Zagat survey, and has apprenticed under James Beard Award winning chef Thierry Rautureau.  

Myhrvold has also written a six-volume, forty-six pound, two-thousand-four-hundred-thirty-eight page text entitled Modernist Cuisine – in which he explains in exacting detail how, once a culinary enthusiast has learned to make a perfect soup stock in the traditional sense, he might be inspired to clarify that same stock using centripetal acceleration in a hemastatic centrifuge.

How do these two celebri-chefs contribute to Stoic practice?  By showing their abilities to work within the fields of culinary art and science to take “every obstacle, every impediment, and [work] around it—[turn] it to its purposes, [incorporate] it into itself.”  Rather than be limited – and potentially frustrated – by the obstacles they faced in their respective fields, the chef turned scientist and scientist turned chef show us how embracing the challenge and relinquishing attempts to control the boundaries that may exist can produce a more integrated whole.  Through their extraordinary efforts, both Adria and Myhrvold provide clear examples of how a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.

But what about those of us who wish to seek lessons from the world of food without dedicating our lives to its study and practice as have Bocuse, Adria, and Myhrvold?  And how can we find Stoic inspiration if our goal is simply to work in a professional kitchen in our own neighborhood – or, even more likely, the kitchens and/or occupations we choose for ourselves – whether at home or in the workplace?

Mise en Place as a Form of Stoic Practice

So by keeping in mind the whole I form a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. And because of my relationship to other parts, I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t. If I do all that, then my life should go smoothly. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.6

In the culinary industry, we speak of having mise en place as a governing component of the craft tradition in culinary education and culinary production.  Literally meaning to “put in place”, the concept of mise en place is one owed to one of the most influential French chef-educators, Auguste Escoffier.  In simple terms, the goal of mise en place is to have the ingredients ready and par-prepared, the ovens pre-heated, and the various components of a dish ready and neatly organized well before your shift is scheduled to begin.  The completion of setting up your workstation and gathering your mise en place is, quite simply, the defining preparatory work that separates the successful restaurant shift from the unsuccessful one.  Having your “mise” done early and skillfully; working fast, quietly, and clean; stepping up where and when needed – these are desirable skills for any cook to have, but in a busy, successfully run professional kitchen, they are not simply desirable, they are absolutely essential.

Given its emphasis on organization, proper planning, and previsualization of what is required for the successful completion of the task at hand, the term has grown to include what could be seen as a quality of preparedness in not just culinary education, but also in life – involving skills that drive toward excellence – but also involve virtues like justice, humility, and courage.  As a way of approaching work, or life, from a Stoic perspective, mise en place can be the underlying outlook involved in completing your tasks appropriately; working as a member of a team; trusting your mentor to assign you tasks that you may not understand; following the orders of a master (whether that be a parent, a union boss or a kitchen brigade); keeping your tools neat, sharp, and ready to be used; keeping your possessions and your surroundings clean and well-presented (whether that’s kitchen whites, or a uniform, or your own clothing), and so on.  

For many, mise en place becomes a way to define a lifestyle choice, or an approach to living and acting well.  When used as a guidepost, mise en place includes a sense of preparedness, rightness of being, and an ordered way of approaching the day.  

In the culinary classroom or teaching kitchen, mise en place permeates the entire process of teaching, learning, and production.  In the professional kitchen, restaurant, or culinary workspace, it defines the order of relationships.  In the general workplace, it means showing up early, with your work prepared, and a sense of order and calm.  At home, it includes the use of processes and actions that facilitate peace, order, enjoyment, and harmony.  

And in connection to Stoic thought, mise en place is about recognizing that your business if to “act well the character assigned you” – while understanding that choosing it is indeed another’s.  For if you are applying Stoic principles and mise en place in concert with Stoic frameworks, you will recognize that this combination provides the foundation for a practice of preparedness that most readily permits you to be ready to assume whatever task you are assigned.  

Finally, with an understanding of mise en place as a guiding tool, with the addition and adoption of a Stoic outlook, you can be reassured that you will accept your assignment, and perform it as you should, even if that assignment changes suddenly, or if the drama in which you are acting requires you to assume a new part without the luxury of warning.  At its most basic level, mise en place could also be seen as a form of “acting well.”

But what about after the shift begins, and the rhythm is set, and the group is working together?  How do we approach the nature of the kitchen, and the necessary opera of movement, sound, function, and form that takes place?

If we wish to be truly successful in our performance, we are required to do much more than simply have the tools in place to complete the task – we must do the work required to see it through to the end.  And in a kitchen space, this often means we are working with others on interdependent and co-dependent tasks connected to one assembled whole.

We must be willing to give up control.  We must fulfill our roles and be willing to step into the role of another when directed, or asked, to do so.  We need to see the pressure of the busy kitchen, the challenge of heightened emotion in a shared workspace, and the requests of the clients and customers as opportunities to be part of a larger whole – one in which we are acting, thinking, and desiring in accordance with that whole and its purposes.

In the kitchen, as in life, if we choose to practice Stoic ways of thinking, acting, and being, we should take the lessons we can learn from the great chefs, and the server who seats us for our next restaurant meal, and the person who puts our dinner on the table this evening (whether that be another or ourselves) with a sense of appreciation for the part-whole relationship we are called to examine so that we can be reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius who tells us:

So by keeping in mind the whole I form a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. And because of my relationship to other parts, I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t. If I do all that, then my life should go smoothly. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.6

 

Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement.  She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought.  She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative.  She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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