This is the last of the whiteonricecouple‘s video we did at the end of the BlogHer conference in San Francisco last fall. They were off the cuff experimental food and cooking editorials, and this one came on the tail of my linking Richard Wrangham’s contention that it was the cooking of food that gave us the calories we needed to make the leap from hominid to human and what it might have to say about our current state, having largely given up cooking in America for the past 60 years (that’s video here).

This video has nothing to do with food, but it does have something to do with awareness, and that has everything to do with the kitchen.

Of all the knowledge I’ve absorbed from Thomas Keller, perhaps the most important one of all is the importance of being aware.  Awareness means everything from anticipating the actions of the cooks around you and what they are doing and what they will be doing moments from now, to the bumpy texture of your
Hollandaise (add some water or it will break), knowledge about how bacteria work to the fact that the bread you just threw away instead of turning it into useable crumbs or bread pudding wasted not only the bread but somebody’s time.

If you are aware, you can see it in other people.  In bread baking class at the CIA, while working on Making of a Chef I watched the bread guru there, Richard Coppedge, having set the various teams to work on that morning’s doughs stride toward his desk, pause just a moment, then carry on, saying, “Team two, measure 25% of your water as ice.” It was an awareness of the temperature of the room (summertime) and the heat of the flour and the type of dough Team Two was working on.

I was once hanging around the Zuni Cafe kitchen, working when I could. I was seasoning the famous ricotta dumplings.  I thought they were under seasoned, and Judy tasted and said yes they were, and she went to attend to something else across the kitchen.  I seasoned.  But I didn’t think it was enough, I hesitated, reach for a little more salt and from across the kitchen, Judy shouted, “Enough!”  That’s aware.  She was right. (If you don’t know her cookbook, Zuni Cafe Cookbook, it’s one of my all-time favorites).

In the video I claim that being aware is one of the most important qualities of our humanity; and because so much of my work revolves around food and cooking, I see awareness in the kitchen more acutely than in other walks of life.  I believe cooking is a fundamental part of our humanity and that the better cooks we are the more human we are and that awareness is one of those forces that enhances our humanness as it does our cooking. But it’s not just in the kitchen, it’s everywhere, the effects of awareness, whether you’re a writer or a photographer, in which case awareness is fundamental to your work, but even if you drive a bus, deliver mail, manage a company, or develop software, the more awareness the better.  I think we need to work toward 360 degrees of awareness, squared (or sphered, rather).

And Todd and Diane, you guys are thebest. Can’t wait to do something with you that’s actually planned ahead of time!

If you liked this post on Awareness, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved

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22 Wonderful responses to “Awareness In the Kitchen”

    • Billy

      Alternately, if “awareness” is useful in the Kitchen, “Mise en place” should perhaps be considered a priority in video production.

  • Michael

    In other disciplines – flying and scuba diving – the kind of awareness you’re talking is called “situational awareness” and is formally taught. I’m not a culinary professional but you draw an interesting parallel and I’ll start working on my situational awareness skills in the kitchen. Do you have any specific tips on developing an appropriate discipline? For example, as a scuba diver I check my air pressure “frequently” but I know where my buddy is “always”. Are there similar rules for the kitchen?

    • Carri

      It’s the same in a kitchen. If working with others, always know where they are and what they are doing. If your moving through the kitchen, especially with something hot or sharp or delicate, always let them know where you are, the simple term ‘behind you’ goes a long way to heading off disaster, (if only my husband would use this one). Pay attention to how cold your refrigerator is or how hot your oven is. the kind of stuff that MR is talking about, in general, applied in our day to day life, that would help us be happier and more able to enjoy our time at work and life. Thanks for the thoughts, MR…this was a great way to start the day.

  • Carolyn Z

    Thank you for your kind reply tweet yesterday.

    I did receive the email from OpenSky at 1 pm EDT. This is the usual time for this week and last week. The key for people to be on the email list is that they must create a password, and of course follow you on the website. To see an offer, you must follow the person.

    Hope this information helps. Have a good weekend!

  • Kimber

    Thanks for saying something of positive value for humans! And, emphasizing the importance of ‘awareness’, a much needed value in cooking and in life. Mindfulness to oneself and your surroundings, an elevated state of consciousness with honest maneuvers can create something far better than by someone of narrow focus with limited consequences……awareness expands and enhances what you create and how you live, and has civilizing impact..

  • allen

    David Byrne’s new book Bicycle Diaries talks about how the least significant things become a part of the whole story, it is all one story.

    The White on Rice are doing a Mezcal blog, god bless em! Goes with the guacamole blog and tonight I am having a wee bit of 3 different Del Maguey’s and El Zacatecano mezcal, no blood oranges but al little pomegranate liquor and some fresh lime, or just neat is fine – actually how I like it, don’t mess up a good thing. I want to see the Ixtapa food post, I had my honeymoon there 25 years ago and need to go back. Guacamole is spot on thanks to your previous post.

  • the good soup

    As a cook, I find some of that awareness actually resides in my fingers. I can over salt a dish if I use a teaspoon to add the salt, but if I use my fingers? they know when to stop, every time.

  • Lynne

    Thanks so much for this post, Michael, and the mention of Richard Wrangham’s book… which led me to Tom Standage’s ‘An Edible History of Humanity’… so my reading is sorted for the next few weeks. I heard about you originally through ‘The Elements of Cooking’ and if it hadn’t been for that I wouldn’t have made my first ever Vanilla ice-cream: your creme anglaise recipe, frozen! Although the book is a favourite for its precision and depth and sense… in trying to write about food and life myself that’s the kind of writing I want to read to inspire me.

  • feltman

    Michael, you’ve got no bigger supporter than me. I read your blog; I buy your books. I agree with you the lionshare of the time.
    That’s why I am totally comfortable asking you, as a supporter and a friend:

    “Dude, how high were you when you made that video?”

  • Mantonat

    For some reason, I was really off my game all weekend in the kitchen; I undercooked some fried eggs (blech, runny whites), undercooked a skirt steak (not a total failure, just a little too rare), overcooked a batch of oatmeal, and burned some chorizo because I completely forgot that I had put the pan on the stovetop.

    The remedy was slowing things down and trying my first batch of duck confit. Thanks to a little mindfulness and some great writing in your Charcuterie book, the confit came out great. The real test will be when I serve it for a dinner party in a couple of weeks, but my confidence has been restored and the kitchen smelled great.

  • Nelly Rodriguez

    I was lucky enough to have Chef Coppedge at CIA and he just exudes awareness and so much knowledge. Could I say thanks for making me aware on trying to be even more aware? :)

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