Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lessons from the Philosopher Chef

Paring back to essentials is a liberating act.  It focuses the mind and muscles.  In times of crisis, complexity, and competing demands, it is often helpful to go back to things, the nuggets in our memory, that intuition that this just feels right, or it doesn't.
 Chef Moreno of Il Caminetto, high in the hills above Varenna, Italy, teaches a cooking class that is more than creating great pasta.[1]  He is also part historian of the local culture, part philosopher, and part humorist.  It is no wonder how he has built the highest rating in Tripadvisor for a wide area in the lake region of Italy and beyond.[2] 
While making the dough for tortellini, he first creates a circle of flour and hollow out the center to hold the eggs.  He begins the mixing with his fingers only, moving from the center outward, taking in more and more of the flour. 
“How can you tell if the dough is mixed well.” we ask?
“Close your eyes and touch the dough. Think of a beautiful woman, and touch the dough.  You will know when it’s ready.”
This is the building of the visceral, the “muscle memory” that knows the texture without a measure or timer, or—God forbid—a dough machine.  With Chef Moreno you are out in the wilderness of the Outback with only a swag and a book of matches. 
He goes on to say, “Usually when you follow your instincts, the first thing you do is the right thing; with too much technology, you lose touch with that instinct.”
Someone asks, “How do you know when the dough is rolled thin enough?”
“When you can see the wood grain [of the table] through it, it’s thin enough.
How do you measure that?  “In a recipe, you must do interpretation.  A recipe is a base, but without passion, it is nothing… [you must] show out who you are, what you are.”
Lest we think that he is not a perfectionist, he corrects someone who says the tortellini is perfect: “Not perfetto! Everything can be good, but it can be better.”
This kind of connection with the soul is a well-spring of creativity that leads us to make things, to share what is simple and basic and visceral is easy.  Ask Chef Moreno.
A priest once told a story of an amputee, still flexing the toes of a lost limb.  The muscle memory was so strong; it was present even in its absence.  That’s the kind of visceral connection with our instincts to share that we need to develop in our organizations.

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