CIA Chef-Instructor Tony Nogales shares his thoughts on learning, and perfecting, your skills.
Every four years excitement in the futbol (soccer) world comes to a head as nations around the globe start to make their way to the World Cup. This year it happens to be in Brazil. Last week, I attended a futbol coach’s conference where one of the breakout sessions was “Brazilian style” passing drills. During his presentation, the coach spoke about his experiences in Brazil observing the various coaching techniques around the country. One of the biggest takeaways that he shared with us was the amount of repetition that the young players go through; bouncing and kicking the ball literally for hours against a backboard. He said that this constant repetition led to a more artistic and creative game.
The learning process of any craft has a lot in common with the learning process that those young soccer players experience. The value of repetition and perseverance, along with the constant analysis of product and process, are distinguishing traits that help differentiate the good from the great. There has been a lot written these days about traits such as repetition, stick-to-itiveness and grit. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers he states, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” To Geoffrey Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated, “The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won’t do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.”
However, I think one of the most poignant points is from one of my favorite chefs, Thomas Keller. In Keller’s book, The French Laundry, as he goes through the introduction and describes his journey to opening his restaurant, there is a section called “Pleasure and Perfection.” This section epitomizes the feeling that cooks go through every day: the joy of repetition, the quest for perfection, and the pleasure in the task. To quote Keller, “This is the great challenge: to maintain passion for the everyday routine and the endlessly repeated act, to derive deep gratification from the mundane.” Whatever the task may be— peeling potatoes, washing spinach, dicing carrots—it should be done not with drudgery, but with the respect and analysis that comes with constant improvement. While it is important to have the end in mind, it is just as important or even more so to enjoy the process.
As we approach our everyday repetitive tasks in the kitchen—peeling vegetables, making stocks, fabricating proteins, practicing our precise vegetable cuts, making soups and sauces—the attitude in how we approach these tasks is extremely important. The joy is in the doing over and over and over, seeking constant improvement.