Friday, October 05, 2012

process is everything

I'm doing something a little weird right now, which is reading Thomas Keller's The French Laundry cookbook cover to cover.  The French Laundry is a Napa Valley restaurant about an hour away from where I live. I've never eaten there. I will eat there someday, and I know people who have eaten there and talked to them about the experience. The French Laundry creates two 9-course tasting menus every day for their customers, each course very small, and from what I've heard it takes hours to go  through the courses. The food is incredibly labor-intensive and made out of the highest quality ingredients, so the base price is $270 a person. It's not a casual meal and they are always booked out two months in advance.

Running a very high-end restaurant and a pottery studio has one major issue in common: every day you go in, and you create from scratch something over and over again. The major challenge is to not become bored, or to hurry through it with your mind elsewhere, or to become deadened to the process and just create by rote. All of these things have happened to me over the years, and when I'm there, I don't even like my job anymore and I feel like a failure. As an artist, this is the most painful place to be. Thomas Keller writes about maintaining passion for the endlessly repeated acts he performs in the kitchen, and he does this by giving each step his full attention. When you give something your full attention, no matter how mundane, you have the opportunity to be filled not with boredom and the urge to rush, but with a sense of wonder and pleasure with your process.

I know this, but still, I can find myself in the studio, banging stuff out as quickly as I can and just trying to get through the day. Reading Keller's cookbook has re-focused me in the studio and made me once again realize that the finished product is worthless to me if I don't enjoy the process.

Both potters and cooks know there are all of these steps that happen in between the idea of what you want to make, and then the finished product. Most of the time what you have at the end is not something that is perfect, or exactly how you imagined it. But this does not necessarily decrease its value.  Thomas Keller writes in his book that we must acknowledge there is no such thing as perfect food--or pottery-- only the idea of it. But that doesn't mean we don't strive for perfection anyway. We continue to try for one purpose: to make people happy.

When I read the recipes that Keller has created for the French Laundry, I am filled with wonder. He takes each ingredient and brings out its full essence, not by some kind of magic but by fully appreciating what that ingredient is and treating it with his full attention and respect. He understands what each ingredient can do and in his process, he creates a peak experience. In the flurry of running a successful pottery business, I've put aside labor-intensiveness in favor of efficient production, and frankly, that bores me to death.  Keller is inspiring me to not be just about production, but to focus once again on process. Slow down, take my time, and create pieces that receive my full attention. Even when I am reading a recipe in the French Laundry cookbook, I can find my mind drifting and my eyes skimming over the text. When I notice this, I re-focus and start over. And in the studio, when I find myself wondering how soon I can be done with one thing so I can move on to the other, I take a breath, and re-focus.