In cooking, like in many things in life, there's technique and then there's heart. One is driven by dedication and discipline and the other by the desire to connect and express love. Is one more important than the other? Are they opposites? Two sides of the same coin? Mutually supportive? What's more important to you: the perfect bowl of soup or the person you're serving it to?
When I think about technique, I think about mastery and skill and precision. I think of years of disciplined study and dedication, hours and hours of practice and refinement. Mastering technique requires patience and the ability to focus on the long view. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for someone who can deliver their talents in such a carefully crafted vehicle. Like watching those TV talent shows, it's thrilling to see someone at their pinnacle, their talent honed and polished until it is as precise and perfect as possible.
Heart, on the other hand, is about love, a wilder, more unrestrained expression. It comes when you relax and allow your actions to come from somewhere deep inside, guided by the basic human need for connection and expression. Heart is often messy, for it isn't overly concerned with discipline and it is often impatient for it 'knows what it wants.' It can be very tender, too. If technique is an TV contestant, then heart is Antony singing Leonard Cohen, his eyes squeezed shut and his voice wavering with emotion.
Of course, technique and heart don't have to live on opposite sides of the room. In fact, in ideal conditions they actually support each other. Technique and precision can give heart a steady platform in which to shine bright and heart can remove some of the eye-blinding glare off of technique and allow for connection. Ideally, they will be both be present and when that happens, it's golden. (Mahalia Jackson, for example.)
The kitchen, like the stage, is a natural place for technique and heart to find their balance. If a cook is all about technique, if she concerns herself solely with competence and the tyranny of precision, then she is blind to the basic reason for cooking, she will have missed the very precious opportunity to engage in one of life's most pleasurable acts: to cook with love, for love. And her food will reflect this. It will look gorgeous and probably taste really good, but something essential will be missing.
But it's also true that knowing the best way to handle your ingredients and utensils, knowing how and when to add salt or how finely to chop the onion, is necessary to make something that is truly delicious. If you want to connect and express your heart, wild and willful as it is, then you need a container, something to hold it steady so that your expression can be met and appreciated.
If you love someone, then you want them to be happy. And good food, prepared with attention and care, will always be a way to make someone smile, be it a complex, multi-layered dinner party dish or a bowl of perfectly cooked oatmeal eaten in bed on a foggy morning, with just the right amount of salt and maple syrup and, of course, served with love.
(Image: Dana Velden)