I’ve heard so many chefs say they look for cooks with “passion,” I just kind of accepted it without thinking. But I’ve long since stopped listening to this.  What does passion mean?  That you love to cook? That you work really hard? I have no idea, which is why I try not to use the word.  Thomas Keller agrees.  Speaking about this issue a while ago, he wanted people to use the word desire.  But I think there’s an even better word, one that describes Keller’s extraordinary success in the kitchen, and it’s a quality that will lead to success in any area of life.

As ever, thanks here go to the extraordinary Diane Cu and Todd Porter, white on rice couple, who were inspired to shoot the above video in San Francisco this past fall.


49 Wonderful responses to “The Truest Indicator: Awareness”

  • emilia

    All Ruhlman.com switched to a faster server today. We do apologize if any comments have been accidently deleted by this transition.

  • Nancy@acommunaltable


    I think you are right, to be successful in any endeavor you must have awareness. But I also think that you have to have passion for whatever it is that you choose to do. Awareness alone won’t motivate you to persevere when things are working against you – but true passion will.

  • Rhonda

    I Love this! Love it love it love it.

    I think what you call awareness, I call being present.

    It is not just a lesson for the kitchen, it is participation in life – Fully.

    When we are present and aware, we can create anything and everything. When we are not present, we are unwilling extra’s.

  • lisadelrio

    “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman

  • Andrew

    I completely agree.
    Awareness is what it takes to be great, in anything really.
    How can you hope to achieve perfection if you are not constantly recognizing and evaluating everything?

  • Wilma de Soto

    Nice video. I believe what you call awareness is what musicians would call ensemble. Everyone listening to each other’s parts for tone, tempo, intonation, rhythm, dynamics while each plays one’s own part; yet each and every one contributing to to a single effect or outcome or effect.

    A kitchen line that works an an ensemble will produce the culinary equivalent to euphonious music. Pleasing to the chef, cooks and customers alike; a feast for the senses.

    • chris k

      I guess you are the bitch in traffic I am flipping off, because you’re not aware of what you’re doing.

    • Susan

      Okay, when I posed this question earlier the “Dance” video didn’t open. (it does now!) I went to the linked White on Rice site and all that was showing under the “Dance” video screen were the first two videos you made in the series. So, I assumed since they were all that was available to view on two different sites, you were somehow referring to those. It makes sense that I didn’t get it, now. Oh, nevermind..just felt I needed to explain my comment.

  • chris k

    Michael, I agree with you w/r/t the word “passion.” Its original meaning is “suffering,” as in the passion of the Christ.

    “Awareness” is better, but not powerful enough of a word. In the kitchen I’ve worked with people who are aware, but don’t give a shit. Often times, that can be even worse than passionate people.

    There a word in the English language that encapsulates this notion of focused (caring?) awareness. That word is “compassion.” As a culture we frequently confuse it with “empathy,” which is another thing altogether – relating to another person’s emotional state.

    But it’s exactly what you’re talking about. I don’t want to work with passionate people. I want to work with compassionate people.

      • John

        The one that abbreviates “with regards to.” Such a profound statement chris k. There (is) a word in the English language to describe your comment; useless.

  • Tags

    Awareness is a subset of involvement. The one who waits before moving the cutting board could just as easily speed up and cut off the other person.

    The patience of the one who waits is the product of involvement, the participation and compassion that Rhonda and Chris mentioned earlier.

  • Nicole

    Thank you for this. I have been trying for years to explain this exact sentiment to my boyfriend when we are cooking together in the kitchen. He always looks at me like I am crazy. I will have him watch this and hopes he gets it.
    When I worked in a restaurant most people got it, but there was always that one person you found yourself continuously running into. With that person you felt you always had to shout out directions to avoid catastrophe. “Sharp object on your left” “Hot pan behind you”

    I find myself doing this in my own kitchen with my boyfriend and it drives me crazy! Let’s hope this helps.

  • Carolyn Zichterman

    I feel this as mindfulness, a dedication to see what is going on around me. Now if the guy driving too close to my car got it, that would be great. But that would mean he cares about other people, not just himself. Society isn’t built like that yet. I hope for the day . . .

    Carolyn Z

  • karen downie makley

    It is so close to martial arts training….you have to see everything, even where you are not looking. And you have to sense that which you cannot see. You have to get the nuts out of the oven when they they are on the cusp, just before they burn….

  • tasteofbeirut

    true, awareness is essential, but as a previous person said, there are people in the commercial kitchen who are focused and aware, but consider what they do to be a means to an end (beer on friday nites?) and don’t really CARe. OK so if i am a famous chef, I would rather hire people who are aware and focused BECAUSE they put their SOUL into what they do.

  • brad barnett

    I’m a Pilot for a Major US Airline. What you’re describing, we call “Situational Awareness”. In a nutshell, it’s using sight, sound, training, and gut feeling, to maintain an accurate multi-dimensional awareness of the Aircraft’s position in space as well as relating that information as it relates to procedures, requirements, and outside threats.

    The situation is always moving, morphing and evolving. Good Pilots don’t even know their doing it anymore. Essentially it’s not unlike a huge computer program in your brain that runs in the background and keeps the big picture.

  • Michael

    In most kitchens I have been in we call this “not having your head up your ass” but good to see you so passionate about it in this video.

  • Kristina

    When people ask me if I “miss” being a professional chef, I usually answer with a cautious and qualified “no.” There are some things I miss and the “dance” is one of them. There’s nothing like the rush that comes with a busy night and everyone working seamlessly together. That awareness is heard to learn and even harder to teach. But once you get it, it makes your life, and everyone’s around you so much easier.
    Even for the solo home cook, awareness is critical. Awareness can be important in the planning and preparation of a meal and make things go smoother. During dinner parties, I’m constantly asking people to move out of my way in my kitchen because they’re unaware of things like hot pans and open oven doors. At that point I usually just ask everyone to “get out of my way!” LOL.

  • Micah Sharpe

    Isn’t that the truth. As the GM of a local restaurant I could ask for no better attribute of a manager than awareness. Keep speaking the truth Ruhlman.

  • Micah Sharpe

    It is almost as if it is linked in with efficiency. Similar to what you talked about in the Soul of a Chef. The two are intertwined.

  • Sherry Bellamy

    As is sometimes the case, I really disagree with you on this point. Because the ability to be technically aware, to participate in a well coordinated kitchen has nothing whatsoever to do with the passion that some people have for food and for cooking, although they can be combined, of course.

    Good peripheral vision and keen physical instincts in a kitchen are one (albeit highly desirable) thing; those who are staying up all night inventing or figuring out how to perfect a recipe or a technique, spending countless wonderful hours reading about food for pleasure and education….. because they love what they do…. because it’s the only thing they can imagine doing? Those people are passionate.

    A different thing altogether.

  • Brian Murphy

    It’s great to see someone being so passionate about being aware.

  • Mark

    Michael, it’s great that you bring up this topic. I am an airline pilot and a novice professional cook. The term “situational awareness” has been in use for many years in the aviation profession to indicate a pilot’s heightened awareness of his surroundings. It’s a critical trait in a pilot and ,as you mention in your video, it is transferrable to any task in every day life such as driving. In my years of flying, I have noticed that SA is partly innate and partly a learned behavior. Now that I also work in a professional kitchen, I have noticed that the same holds true in the kitchen. Some people just seem to have that effortless universal awareness of everything that is going on around them. I believe that the part of the behavior that is learned comes from experience and familiarity with one’s surroundings and mode of operation. I am completely comfortable and highly aware when flying my 767, but initially, in the professional kitchen I found myself clutzy and slightly aloof at times since the environment was new to me. In any event, thanks for the great post.

  • Bill Rogers

    Thanks Michael, for putting the dance out there. That total awareness of your environment and others around you in the same state of mind in the kitchen is very exhilirating. Someone ought to video a kitchen during service and sync it to music! It would make a great short subject film.

    • Carri

      And boy, when there is one person in the kitchen who is out of step it can lead to harsh consequences!

  • Hamburglar

    Tom Cruise in Magnolia… LOL! My thoughts exactly. We get it (“the dance”), but watching your solo jazz rant is like watching a baby giraffe “dance.” Stick to the written word dude….

  • Punctuation Mark

    sadly awareness has be replaced by selfishness and people think that they always come first… Now that all preparations for the SoBe Festival have begun you have given me such a strong word I can use to inspire the students as they will be faced with teh task of working with some of the best chefs in the business… hope you’re having a fantastic weekend!

  • Kimber

    Passionate desires succeed best when done with a conscious committed and prepared attitude to be the best within ability’s reach for a pleasing and satisfying outcome done with heart, respect and trusted instincts. Being more aware has significance on the situation, yet, some may have a strong love toward cooking but limited skills. This approach may not have the best outcomes or satisfy expectations, though done with enthusiastic effort and a giving spirit in an attempt to please and should be appreciated though often is considered lacking. Maybe passion along with pride and skills will produce something perfect if that is what the desired standard is. I respect one’s true aim toward a thing of desire, especially food. The word passion evokes an emotional response that’s appropriate for this time of ‘Passion toward Food . given it’s elevated status verses years ago when food was viewed a basic need of survival and passion about food would be held in and entirely different context, I’m ok with the use of the word in cooking, it’s only a matter of semantics………….

  • Liz @ Butter and Onions

    Though I don’t work in a kitchen, I do work with food and in a place that requires this kind of dance and awareness. The hardest people to work with are the ones who have absolutely no idea what is going on around them. If you want to truly excel, you have to have awareness of what is going on around you. You have to know that hey, someone that just went into the cooler is probably going to be coming back out in a second so maybe don’t just stand in front of the cooler door. You have to be a good eavesdropper and listen in on conversations going on around you so that no important information escapes your knowledge. You have to pay attention to where you are at in physical space and where others are also. But I think most importantly you have to understand the bigger picture and why you are there, that way nothing important will slip through the cracks.

    Unfortunately, I find this is something that you cannot necessarily teach. You just have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, your life in the food world is probably going to be difficult.

  • Dean E.

    Michael! You’re going Buddhist and you don’t know it! Just kidding of course. “Breakaway Cook” Eric Gower often speaks of “mindfulness” in our daily deeds, and I believe that his kitchen context is very similar to what you’re calling awareness, and you’re both right: Awareness of one’s immediate environs coupled with attentiveness to one’s immediate task will improve the quality of any endeavor. Although I live and cook alone and don’t need to worry about bumping into or synchronizing with other people, I find that I have fewer accidents when I’m focussed in the moment and on what I’m doing. Just as importantly, knife skills, estimation of approximate amounts (“a pinch,” “to taste,” etc.) and presentation all improve. It’s so easy to be in a state of perpetual distraction. Awareness takes some conscious effort, but it’s not that big of a deal and becomes more habitual the more one practices it. What a wonderful rant-video this was!

  • Robert Nichols

    The thing about awareness, as you describe it, is that it slows down time. That why someone able to work in an “aware” fashion, makes their efforts look easy…there is breathing room between moves. The opposite of awareness (panic), speeds up time…sequential tasks are difficult because they occupy the same temporal space.

    • Carri

      It’s important to not confuse…awareness must be combined with a sense of urgency or you are toast. Panic and you are also toast.

  • Bob

    I’ve posted this in my cubicle. Nothing drives us crazier than someone trying to ‘help’ when they don’t understand the process in the first place.

  • David

    These days when I hear the word passion, I tend to back off because it also tends to indicate irrationality.
    It often gets used where ‘enthusiasm’ might be more accurate.
    Passion itself leans more towards obsession and blind adherence.
    I’m not against emotions, but I don’t want to cook with my amygdala circuitry.

  • Alex

    As a cook, this is better than I have ever heard it explained. “Dance” was always good, as was “common fucking sense”, I think you’ve topped them both.

  • Kimberly Joyce

    I had the good fortune to work in an International Cuisine class last semester and awareness is the exact term I have been looking for to describe the culture that developed among the students. Not just an awareness of individuals and their position in the kitchen but also as it applies to the work the group needs to do in order to accomplish their goal of producing a meal and the desired dining experience for a customer. I often called it a Zen kitchen not because there was a calm atmosphere but because everyone involved exhibited awareness…An example..http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIMSvco7m6M

  • Elizabeth Mendez

    The Dance. Crucial in cooking, but in every aspect of the restaurant and its inner workings. Front of House is hindered too, by those that can’t dance or do not have the ability to learn how to follow the steps to become a team working in rhythm. While the meaning of passion can be debated in all of its subjectivity, awareness cannot … you either are aware or you aren’t. Great post.


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