Hello Friends,

Welcome to The Contemplative Chef. I’m Marcella Friel.

On these pages I’ll share with you my musings on food and cooking, sanity and insanity, as these have played out in my 10-plus years as a chef and cooking instructor in meditation retreat centers and nonprofit organizations, mixed with 20-plus years as a student and teacher of Buddhism.

“Sometimes the Worst Horse Is the Best Horse”

These days, if chefs are not the Next Food Network Star, they might as well fall on their chef knives and call it quits. Somewhere between those extremes is the lost middle way of just making good food.  I sometimes wonder if chefs ever look at their best effort and feel like they just made dog food. If so, how do they get up and prepare the next meal?

Last night I had supper solo at a trendy flatbread joint in Mill Valley. As I sat sipping my Mas Vino and noshing my organic lamb-fennel sausage bread, I felt a warm hand land on my back. Before I could turn fully, I was in the embrace of J., one of my students in the Natural Chef Program, where I am member of the faculty. J. is a tiny, energetic 20-something who tends to bounce up and down and pump her fists in the air when she talks. “Chef!!” she exclaimed with a beaming smile.

“Hey! How are you? How are you doing in class? How are you feeling about your finals?” I proctor the students’ final demos next week.

Her bright smile turns to a mock frown. “Oh God! I’m freaking out!”
“Why? Do you hate your food?” I draw from my own pathology in attempt to bond with her distress.
“Sometimes, yes! I feel like I’m the worst student in the class! My food is the worst!

After I reassure her that she’s better than she thinks she is, she’s a bit pacified, gives me another hug and a few smiley bounces, and returns to her friends at their table.

I leave supper feeling gratified to run into J. Driving home in the slogging rain, I contemplate the conviction with which she condemned herself. Why do so many of us turn against ourselves when it comes to our creativity?  Earlier in my career I had moments where I would hide under the stainless steel island, just praying, oh god as long as they don’t throw the food against the walls I’ll consider it a good night. What is this madness?

Like a whisper from the recesses of my mind, the tale of the four horses from Sunryu Suzuki-Roshi’s Dharma classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind plays through my memory:

The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

Roshi then explains that “sometimes the best horse is the worst horse, and sometimes the worst horse is the best horse.” The worst horse is beginner’s mind: open, empty, full of possibilities. The best horse is expert’s mind: tightly sealed in its own knowing, the possibilities are few.

Before Julia-mania hit fever pitch, around 2004 I watched over 100 episodes of The French Chef, circa 1963 to 1971. In those undiluted food shows Julia Child flopped her tarte tatin, lost her bag of flour and walked off screen to find it, stuck her wooden spoon handle in the blender while it was still running and sent shards flying. Her buche de noel looked like a big turd, with stumps falling off as she props them up with gobs of icing. “Oh well,” she’d say, “Life is like that.” Her motto, apparently, was never apologize. Never. Apologize.

Julia was indeed a worst horse who, through pure joy and perseverance, plodded her way into the pantheon of America’s iconic culinary masters.

Perhaps our path of mistakes is the best gift we can offer others. As a Chinese Zen master said, “Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on.”