Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

Zen and the Art of Cooking: Eric Ripert, Chuck Norris and Riding the Wave

Hopefully the title got your attention. I stumbled across an interesting post today (courtesy of Michael Ruhlman’s blog) by Chef Shuna Fish Lydon on the subject of becoming lost in “the weeds” (see links to both blogs below).

Work smarter, not faster. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that catch phrase. More than once I’ve been tempted to reply “I’ll work faster if you’ll work less stupid”. If the goal to working faster is more done in less time, how does one accomplish it? In my experience, being smarter doesn’t help because a person rarely has time to use brains in a “fire-fighting, get-out-of-the-weeds as fast as possible, do-or-die” type scenario. There simply isn’t time to apply intellect to the situation, one has to react instinctively. To the ancient Chinese a man with a library full of books was a scholar, useful for providing solutions which could be derived through book learning. But the man who had moved beyond books, beyond applying lessons learned, the man who could react instinctively to any situation – such a man was a sage. The Chinese knew the difference between being smart and being wise. It’s a very Zen like concept. In fact, in it’s heart, it is Zen.

I was watching a podcast the other day from Chef Eric Ripert of the three Michelin starred Le Bernardin restaurant in New York (recommended, check it out at In preparing dishes as simple as broiled snapper or parmesan zucchini he said repeatedly “The way I’m seasoning I’m not too far, I’m not too close to the fish – maybe five inches from the top of the fish – and I’m very focused on it… I make sure when I’m doing the seasoning that I’m very focused.”

Chef Ripert should trademark the move and call it “The Anti-Bam”. If you saw the Anthony Bourdain’s: No Reservations episode where Bourdain stepped back into the kitchen at Les Halles, you heard him say how freaked out he was by how well Chef Ripert, manning the grill station, was doing in handling the pressure and volume of orders, all without making any sudden moves. “Worse,” says Tony, “he actually looks… happy.” At my office we call it zen mode. Bourdain calls it “riding the wave”. We’re talking about the same thing, that focused level of intensity where all your knowledge and experience comes oozing out of every pore of your body instinctively without any thought process happening at all. Sometimes, you are not even aware of what you are doing.

There is great story in Chuck Norris’ book The Secret Power Within. Yes, the man can write, and we all know you don’t mess with Chuck. He recounts a time when he and pal Bruce Lee were training in Bruce’s backyard. Despite Bruce’s ability, Norris was able to land every kick he threw at Lee . Finally Lee stopped to ponder why all his attempts to block the kicks had failed. The answer Norris gave him was that by speeding up his blocks his timing was thrown off. The lesson was that to go faster, you must first slow down. The next time you see someone getting lost in the weeds, pay attention to how fast they are moving. Watch how many times they have to back up, retrace their steps, or are forced to do something over again. In most cases such second attempts are caused by not taking the time to do it right the first time. Speed is relative. Doing something now in such a way that it will cause you to have to do it over a second time in order to get it right takes more time than moving more slowly and getting it right to start. By messing up and having to correct your mistakes, you create an endless spiral of rushing around because you are behind, rushing to re-do what you did wrong, then rushing more because now you are further behind than ever.

It’s not an easy concept to grasp. Try teaching that to a room full salespeople, all Type A personalities. Believe me, I’ve tried. Eventually it does sink in for them. To get out of a ditch you’ve dug yourself into the first thing you have to do is stop digging. The act of stopping is the key point. Once you have stopped, you are not rushing. Equilibrium starts to return to your brain. You begin to breathe normally. Your vision clears, and instead of looking down at your task you find yourself looking up at your surroundings. Once your eyes are open to the bigger picture, the solution to your troubles very often presents itself. Once your realize that going faster sometimes involves first slowing down, you take the giant step from being a scholar only capable of applying book-learned lessons, to acting instinctively without conscious though. You become a sage.


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