But there’s another component to this, too. It’s a little more esoteric.
When I encounter the product of people’s skill and vision—real skill and genuine vision—I will often feel a sense of wonderment.
In 2002, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective. My mind was on fire in the midst of those paintings. I went back three times. One night two years ago, Nelly and I sat watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, clutching each other in awe at what we were seeing. When I read Denis Johnson’s Angels or Fiskadoro, or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or hear Miles Davis’ trumpet on A Tribute to Jack Johnson, I feel the same thing.
Would it be too weird to say that something of all that comes through when I read The French Laundry Cookbook or Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking, or Le Guide Culinaire?
Whatever you do that’s an extension of yourself, whatever springs from your mind and hand, aspires—or should aspire—to that state. There’s not that much of a dichotomy in my head between writing and cooking. Or I should say, not much difference in the approach. You want a word to function perfectly, to unleash every connotation and nuance it has, and resonate alongside the words on either side. Is it that different from what you want an ingredient to do?
And in both cases, when you see someone with the skill to do it, to make a sentence unleash itself, or a dish unleash itself—it can bring that wonderment right out.
Skill is what I’m bent on.
When the weather turned last fall, my good friend from school came over and we were cooking. We’d gone to the Kingston Farmer’s Market and bought venison, butternut squash, pears, anything that looked good. We’d done our prep work and were outside on my porch, sipping scotch. We were talking about our externships, a long spell working for minimum wage in a restaurant, which every student has to do in the middle of the curriculum, and where we wanted to go.
“Why don’t you try for a magazine test kitchen or something,” he asked. “Wouldn’t that make the most sense?”
“What does that mean?” I said, sensing what might be coming and getting slightly riled.
“Well, you’re a writer, so aren’t you just going to write when you’re out of school? You don’t need the same chops that you would in a restaurant.”
“You’re really missing something here,” I said.
“What? I’m just saying that it’s less important.”
“No, it’s not.” I drank the rest of the scotch. I was kind of peeved. “I am a writer and I’ll always write, the same way I’ll always cook. Who knows—maybe I won’t own a restaurant. I might not end up being Ferran Adria. But that’s not the point. I am going to cook for people. I haven’t figured out the fine print, but that isn’t the point, either. If I never cook for another person in my life, I’m still completely fucking determined to be as good as anyone else—as good as you, as good as whoever. I refuse to fail. And this isn’t a goal-oriented thing. It has nothing to do with—“ I was waving my hands—“ ‘I need this and this to achieve this.’ It would be a pretty strange way to spend my time if that’s all it was. There are easier places to be.”
“I came because I couldn’t stand not knowing anymore. And I refuse to not know, and I refuse to not be good.”
“Okay. I figured. I was just checking.”