Living (And Cooking) by Feel. 4 Tactics to Learn From Failure.

I’m a cook. I’m a great cook. It’s taken years of practice to be great cook. I began my cooking career by making Hamburger Helper at about the age of 12 or so. My Mother wanted a night off and relinquished her kitchen to my novice hands. I can remember running back and forth into the living room and asking “how do I know when the meat is brown” or “what is sauteing” or “what number do I put the burner on the stove to if it’s medium-high”. My Mother was exasperated. It reached the point of my Mother saying, “I’ll just do it myself” but I prevailed. Who knew that making a meal from Hamburger Helper could be so full of questions? I’m sure my Mother could have made it with her eyes closed but I had to begin the Inquisition to make sure I did it correctly. It’s amazing how when you are new at something, it all seems so unfamiliar and foreign; like rooting around in the dark trying to find the light switch. Logic doesn’t always prevail. 1003p108-cooking-mistakes-intro-l

Flash forward 8 years and now I’m at the Cornell Hotel School and working in an institutional kitchen. I can’t remember the name of the course but we (the students) prepared food for the Rathskeller restaurant located in the hotel school. I was in charge of making a carrot cake. I burned the edges of the cake. I figured it was salvageable and then trimmed about 30% of the cake to get rid of the edges. I then inadvertently spilled some milk on the cake. I shrugged and just continued to trim and covered up all the remaining madness with icing. I took it out to the line to serve only to have the famed Professor Vance Christian take a piece. I cringed, sweated profusely and hid in the back of the kitchen. He hunted me down some 20 minutes later as I cowered in the back to compliment me on the cake. “It was so moist”. Hmmm, my hodgepodge had worked out. This was a long way from Hamburger Helper, I was flying by the seat of my pants and it actually worked out!

Sometimes I think we think that perfection equals mastery. What it really comes down to is having enough experience to be able to let go and riff. And maybe it’s not experience as much as confidence to know you can create something delicious out of failure.

So how to you let go of perfectionism and just go by feel? Here are some ideas:

1. Ask for help. We spend so much time acting like we know everything. It’s OK not to know everything, especially when you are new at something, like Hamburger Helper…or playing the clarinet…or being a boss. Ask your Mom, your best friend or a mentor for help. You can’t let go and go by feel if you haven’t learned the basics first. I didn’t come out of the hotel school knowing how to manage, I had to ask for help from coworkers, other managers, friends and my boss. Ask for help.

2. Read the book (slow down). My favorite chef is Alton Brown. He always says to read the recipe like a good book. I have to admit that most flops in the kitchen have come from not reading the recipe like a good book first. Invariably, there is some step I “skimmed” over and now the meat has to marinate overnight…for the dinner party in two hours. Oops. Read the instructions. This is helpful with anything involving upgrades on your computer to a newer version like say “Java”. I click through and don’t realize I have now committed to a new browser along with the upgrade. Slow down and read the book.

3. Experiment. Once you’ve learned the ropes, experiment. If I’m facilitating a new training, or a new recipe, or trying a new coaching model; I try it the first time by the book. Once I’ve got the hang of it? I experiment. Less stock, more salt, more cooling time, more students in the class, less time on the activity. Try it out by the book the first time, but then tweak it the next, and more after that. Now you are starting to go by feel.

4. Let go. Let go of the perfectionism, the technology, the “way we’ve always done it”. I was coaching a client recently who was able to run a personal record in a half marathon. He knew what his pace had to be to finish faster but he bailed on his running app. He “ran by feel”. He realized that “the numbers rob you of the joy”. When you are focused on what the app says your pace is or making sure you follow the recipe by the letter, you lose a little bit (or a lot) of the joy in the process. Let go.

As I write this, I’m trying to make homemade gnocchi for the first time. I have to say I read many recipes before trying this particular recipe out. I read them like good books. I’m following this to the letter, but if it turns out great, next time there will definitely be some revisions, I’ll let go and cook by feel.

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