Thomas Keller, on starting out as a dishwasher in his mother's restaurant:
"What resonated with me was rituals and repetition...So many of the things that I learned as a dishwasher you do as a cook. The idea of being efficient, being organized, the rituals of being a cook, the repetition...and of course the more you do something, the better you become. That's why I became a good cook, because I enjoy the repetition, I wasn't always trying to seek something new...You tend to always want to do something new in the kitchen, but there really isn't anything new."
When I was younger, I was impatient in the kitchen. I'd throw things together as quickly as possible, taking as many short cuts as I could get away with. It was all about getting to the end piece, the final product. I easily grew bored with repetition and squirmed under the weight of ritual.
I suppose I've grown up now or at least matured in some way that's allowed me to appreciate the whole event of cooking, from the creative act of first conceiving a dish (or a whole diner party menu) to the final washed and dried plate finding its place in the cupboard. The ritual and repetition that Mr. Keller speaks of so highly is now inspiring and grounding, almost reassuring.
Remember that pile of onions in front of Meryl Streep playing Julia Child in the film Julie and Julia? She was just getting started. There is perhaps no more simple, everyday task in the kitchen than chopping an onion. And yet, there is nothing more important, more integral to cooking than knowing how to chop an onion. And the only way to truly master this is to first learn the proper technique and then repeat the hell out of it until mind, body and activity are seamless.
So in other words, ironically, the path to freedom often means chaining yourself to the monotonous activity of practice and repetition. Repetition, endless repetition, is the only way to learn how to chop an onion or diaper a baby or play the violin. It's the only way to mastery, to a state of being that's calm yet bright and focused. It's the only way the body learns.
From percussionist Fugan Dineen: "We spend time working on something--often a simple pattern or even a singlestroke--for weeks, months, and sometimes years. After all that work, this something gets inside us, to a place before thinking, where we can use it freely."
Ritual, in the sense of religion or spirituality, is at its simplest just performing an act, often in a repetitive way, in order to fully engage with something sacred. In ritual, you're not just thinking about it or talking about it, you're actually doing it, physically enacting the sacred. Ritual spans all religions, cultures and borders, and has been with us forever. It is a deeply human endeavor.
Is it helpful or even interesting to think of repetitive kitchen work as a ritual? I suppose that depends on you and what you consider sacred. Sometimes it's not very beneficial to spread a thick layer of meaning on ordinary activity. Sometimes the ordinariness of that activity is what shines, standing on its own, without fuss and bother. Nothing extra.
We're alive and on this earth for an achingly brief moment. This particular life, this manifestation, is our single chance at being human. So much of our daily life is repetitive, so much activity is devoted to ordinary maintenance. Why not investigate beyond our habitual assumptions and see what's there to be discovered? What is it that your hands know, in a way that's just a little different from the way your mind knows? And what has that got to do with freedom, happiness, creation? If this knowing and discovering and bringing forth is not sacred, then what would you call it?
Related: How To Learn Great Knife Skills
Listen: Thomas Keller's complete interview with Evan Kleiman on KCRW, here.