Lessons from the Chef’s Table

One of my favorite things to do is to watch shows, documentaries, or movies about cooking (or just food, in general) while I eat. Sometimes I settle for a carton of chicken tikka masala, delivered to my door by the nearby Indian restaurant, while I watch Chopped. Other times, I will slowly savor a home-cooked meal as I rewatch Les saveurs du Palais, a movie based on the true story of Danièle Delpeuch, the first woman appointed as private chef to French president Francois Mitterrand. I’m not sure why, but this pastime is incredibly relaxing for me, especially if I choose a more artistic production over a fast-paced kitchen competition.

Lately, I’ve been watching Chef’s Table, the Netflix documentary series that highlights top chefs from around the world. The stories of chefs such as Dan Barber, Alex Atala, and Gaggan Anand stand out to me as deep and inspirational. But last night, I watched the first episode of the new season, which took me far from any Michelin-star restaurant and into the forested mountains surrounding the Baekyangsa Temple, South Korea. And for the first time, I learned about Buddhist monk and world-renowned chef, Jeong Kwan.

I cannot even begin to describe how profound this episode is. Even though it focused on Jeong Kwan’s cooking, it was also very philosophical, moreso than other episodes. Naturally, Buddhism heavily influences Jeong Kwan’s commentary. She talked about how food allows us to share and communicate our emotions, how cooking can allow us to connect with our ancestors, and how to respect each ingredient — and, therefore, harmonize with nature. Watching her serenity and listening to her wisdom left me in tears.

My relationship with food (and, tangentially, cooking) has evolved over my lifetime. When I was a child, I hated eating; it took away from more fun activities, like reading or playing. My father would chastise me for taking my time while eating or for bringing books to the table. But I honestly didn’t understand why food was so important. It was so boring. I don’t think I started to appreciate food, at least on a basic level, until I got to college.

In a similar vein, I found cooking to be boring and tedious while I was growing up. I understood its value, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it worth my time and energy. It didn’t help that my parents’ kitchen was not the best environment for learning how to cook. So this mindset continued well into college. By the time I traveled to Japan in my senior year, I still had no idea how to make anything beyond scrambled eggs and rice (and only in a rice cooker, no less). I bought all of my meals, or I ate what others cooked, for those four months.

Living in Japan certainly deepened my relationship with food, though. There, food is art, and the preparation of food is art. There is an exactness and a tradition that seems required of every meal, something alive and enduring. The final presentation alone makes you stop and feel gratitude for all of the hard work that goes into a dish. Subconsciously, I started elevating food as something very near to the divine. I started to realize that food is a way we interpret and interact with our world, that people who cook and eat together form incredibly strong bonds, and that cooking is a form of artistic expression.

I didn’t start cooking until after I’d graduated college. My sibling Kai and I cooked dinner every Friday together, not only as a way to explore various international cuisines, but also as a way to bond. Our age gap and my time away at college left us feeling disconnected from each other, and so cooking began to fill that hole. We made all kinds of dishes: Greek, Chinese, Dutch, French… more than I can remember. I realized that cooking must be both a performance and a service for me to truly enjoy it — a performance, because I am putting my skills on display for others, and a service, because I am feeding others. The reason cooking seemed boring before is because I had only been exposed to the notion of cooking for my own sustenance.

Nowadays, cooking exercises my creativity, relaxes my mind, and makes me feel accomplished. As Jeong Kwan says in her Chef’s Table episode, “I make food as a meditation.” Meditation involves maintaining full consciousness of the present moment. That’s what “mindfulness” means. A chef with a distracted, wandering mind will not produce a good meal. And as Jeong Kwan says, if food can calm the mind and bring peace, it is a form of enlightenment. Now that I’ve watched the full episode, I can clearly see the connection between Buddhism and cooking, of the way food can bring about a greater spiritual connection to the world. And I can finally start putting into words just how much those things mean to me.

“Creativity and ego cannot go together. If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly. Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment. You must not be your own obstacle. You must not be owned by the environment you are in. You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you. You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind. This is being free.”

—Jeong Kwan, Chef’s Table

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