In the years since I quit my job in Ottawa, returned to Winnipeg, enrolled in culinary school, embarked on a second career, I’ve been asked this question countless times. Why cooking? It’s a question asked of cooks all the time; between them, too.
Some say it’s the thrill of working a busy line; the adrenaline rush that comes with pounding out a string of bills a mile long. Others say it’s the gratification they receive the instant they put up a finished plate; no lag between output and input, effort and reward.
For some, it’s the promise of living the rock-and-roll lifestyle they read about in Anthony Bourdain’s classic, Kitchen Confidential; for others, the promise of celebrity like they saw on the Food Network.
Heck, even a few get into the game… to make money.
Then there’s the group who cook because they love food—sourcing it, preparing it, serving it, eating it. And why not? What could be more natural, more instinctual, more primordial? On Maslow’s hierarchy, nourishment is about as basic as it gets.
And for an increasing number, that love has inspired an interest in the how of food: how it was raised and harvested, slaughtered and butchered, packed and transported. The why, too: why seasonal, local, sustainable, ethical.
This is why I cook. For the how, the why, and the love.
In my early twenties, newly graduated from university, I was swept up into the world of capital-P politics. It was an exciting time for me: I was young, living on my own in a new city, on the fringes of the political establishment and in the shadow of the political elites.
For a time, the work was satisfying, challenging in a positive way, worth the mounting number of sacrifices. Somewhere along the line, though, the worm turned. The work was no longer satisfying, challenging in ways that were damn-near toxic; the sacrifices too many to abide. I was spent.
Nevertheless, ten years on, what I learned from my time in Ottawa is this: my work must express a set of values, and those values must align with my own.
What do I value? Honesty. Humility. Hard work. Good humour. Being open to new ideas and unafraid of failure. Respecting the natural environment and our place within it. Just giving a damn. Courage.
What to do to practice those things? How best to showcase them? For me, it was a toss-up: go back to university to become a teacher, or to college to become a cook.
To teach or to cook?
I first fell in love with teaching shortly after graduating high school. At that time, I’d been enlisted to start a speech and debate program at a local private school. And while I had no formal teaching experience—let alone any sort of professional experience—I did have an extensive background in debating and public speaking.
They were a challenging two years, but a spark was ignited and was further fuelled by my work with the World Schools Debating Championships as an international adjudicator and assistant coach to the Canadian team.
Speech and debate will forever be my first love. How could it not be? To be an excellent debater or coach requires hard work, humility, good humour, being open to new ideas and unafraid of failure, giving a damn, and, yes, courage. It’s multi-disciplinary in its approach, requiring a wide base of general knowledge; draws equally upon logic and emotion, critical thinking and theatricality. Above all, it is an art and a science. Like cooking.
So why not teach? Aside from the fact there isn’t really a market for, specialization in, or certification of a dedicated speech and debate teacher, I knew in my heart a school wasn’t for me. Not yet anyway. I’m impatient. Easily irritated. Intolerant of assholes and idiots—and especially idiot assholes.
Yes, I realized that while I’d spent nearly a decade working with young people, coaching and judging them in speech and debate, I’d been privileged enough to work almost exclusively with the best, brightest, maturest and most articulate among them. To be thrown into the proverbial lion’s den with a motley crew of teenagers wouldn’t be a good fit for me, or for them.
More than that, though, I yearned to be my own boss, to set my own course, make my own schedule, do things the way I wanted to do them in the manner in which I thought they should be done. Not exactly the mandate of today’s teacher. Definitely today’s chef, though.
The road ahead
Restaurant kitchens demand honesty, hard work, good humour, courage. Being a good cook takes humility, being unafraid of failure, being open to new ideas. And what better way to demonstrate respect for the natural environment than through food—by what we choose to use, how we choose to use it, and so on.
Sure, I’m not yet a chef, and I have a ways to go before I earn that title. I’m not my own boss yet, either. But I am mindful of those values I hold dear when I put on the apron. And while I can’t tell you where the road ahead will lead me—certainly not at any great distance—for the moment anyway, at least until the next bend, you’ll find me in the kitchen. Cooking.
And so long as what I’m doing and where I’m doing it remains consistent with what I believe and how I believe it should be done, I’ll be a happy camper and the road ahead a smooth one.