Cookery as art

I will summarise my own experiences, and offer tips from the insights I have gained in my 16 years as a cook and chef.

Through my own learning path as a chef, I have always thought that the art of cooking is more about knowing ingredients, combinations, techniques and cultural flavours, than knowing a library of recipes.

Once you know the basics, and start to learn to ‘sense’ when ratios are right, and how ingredients respond to different cooking techniques and combinations, you can start to play, and create in a ready steady cook fashion from any store cupboard.

Like with most arts, the only way of attaining this is practice, practice, practice, and cultivating awareness with all of your senses. Smell can come to the rescue when a cake is about to burn, sight can tell you if a bread dough is wrong, touch can reveal ingredients quality and dish consistency, and of course smell and taste are used all the time. Useful also is a sense of temperature, and listening, again capable of frequently rescuing many an impending disaster.

So my challenge is, how to condense this into a learning process that is accessible  and deliverable in a short period of time. This is now one of my many missions…

I think the obvious starting place is enthusiasm for good food. This can be enticed, but not forced. My approach with troubled youth with poor food cultures was to start with what they were familiar with, make it from scratch, and bring them in slowly. Very soon I had Batemoor lads eating dahl (lentils!) rice chutney and… salad.

Combining food with enterprise is another good way of bringing in those who would otherwise stand no chance of gaining access to knowledge of good food.

Educating about world food culture is paramount for me – in such a multicultural society, food is the one sure thing that can bring people together.

In my career as a manager, the biggest lesson I have learnt, is that attitude is very nearly everything in developing competence as a cook.

Then there’s the ingredients. Getting good ingredients  helps you to quickly love good food, and there’s no going back! You simply feel better, more alive, and realise how rubbish so much of today’s so called food actually is.

This  leads nicely on to another perspective: Ethics and sustainability: By supporting sustainable food producers, we not only eater better for less*, we support the sustainability and regeneration of our planet. Which also interconnects with the first perspective – educating people on the effects of their eating habits.

Then of course there’s the actual skill of cooking. In a work context it’s about creating a highly organised space where people are given the right tasks, in an environment which allows them to learn their own culinary insights at their own pace, with as much supporting knowledge and guidance as is necessary.

In a self learning context, my first tip is to, from the outset, be consciously as tidy and organised as you can be. By forcing this on yourself, you will free up your creativity – trust me, it took me a fair while to learn that one, and it’s been a powerful tool in my overall development. It’s not simply about good hygiene, which is essential, it’s about ‘tidy space tidy mind’, and allowing yourself more room to maneuver in the moment when it all (hopefully!) comes together. Being tidy ultimately enables you to enjoy cooking.

Then I would say, yes get a load of recipe books and ingredients, but don’t worry about following the recipes to the letter, or substituting ingredients with what you have available.

And play. Experiment. Observe.

At first I used to put everything, or a lot, in one dish. Over time I learnt that simplicity of the right combinations, cooked a certain way, created some damn tasty food!

Don’t feel you always need to cook a gourmet meal – cooking simple dishes well (like when you’re hungry and tired at home) can teach you loads about the effects of different cooking techniques without having to undertake a tactical operation.

Another tip I wish I’d done myself earlier, is to document or journal your cooking , as you will undoubtedly stumble upon some fantastic accidents that taste amazing, and you will most likely not remember everything.

Cooking has a sneaky way of pushing self development as a side effect of the learning. You need to cultivate mindfulness, memory, concentration, multi-tasking, timing, dexterity, tidyness, awareness, observation, tactics, game plan etc

Also, as I said food has a very strong social element, and this is another obvious tip – involve others, whether as guests, or sources of ideas and inspiration. Gaining feedback is the surest way to grow in any skill.

Finally for now, cultural festivals are a great way to learn a range of dishes, whether it’s tasting them or cooking them!

I came across a concept that I love called Framework Cooking, which fits neatly next to my own philosophy towards cooking, recipes and teaching/learning. I will briefly summarise Framework cooking, developed by Kum Ng, a Chinese chef based in the USA.

His observation in his learning path were that Chinese chefs were capable of producing menus with hundreds of dishes, with no recipe book in sight.

He condensed their learning and his insights into a book titled Framework Cooking, where he lays out a multi-perspective model bringing together: Chinese culinary knowledge, ingredient & recipe properties, cooking techniques and their effects on the food, ethical sourcing, food hygiene & safety, and the cultural context of the ingredients and recipes.

I will soon post a detailed review of the book, which is highly interesting.

* Although organic food can be expensive in supermarkets and some health food stores, if more direct links are made with local producers, such as CSA’s like Hazlehurst CSA in Sheffield, then you will find your food costs decrease.


Everyday superfoods

We hear about the latest super food all the time – a latest wonder fruit, exotic bacteria or rare tropical root. What I’m interested in here, and what I’ve been fascinated with for some time, is which are the ingredients that we can access anytime, from most shops, that are actually super foods.

If you have any favourite ingredients, sitting unpretentiously in your cupboards that makes you feel better when ill and more alive when well or that you use as medicine, I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

The first one which springs to my mind is the mighty ginger, which apart from being an essential component in most African, Oriental, Indian and middle eastern cooking, is a first medicine in our family for anything from a sore throat to an upset stomach, and is known to also be effective for heartburn, headaches, arthritis and many more ailments.

The next one, ginger’s sister, is Turmeric. Apart from colouring & flavouring curries, my wife uses it for boosting the immune system when one of us is feeling poorly by mixing with honey on a spoon, or making a tea. In addition it is known to have anti-cancer properties. Turmeric is said to help boost appetite, lower blood pressure, improve bile secretion and reduce pain; it has anti-inflammatory effects and is packed full of vitamins & minerals. It has recently been found to aid weight loss as well!

I couldn’t mention these two without mentioning another in the familyCardamom, a favourite flavouring of mine in both sweet and savoury cooking, and a known anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, digestive aid and has anti-cancer properties. It also gives a nice mental boost.

Some other common culinary medicinal herbs & vegetables, starting with the obvious mighty Carrot are: BeetrootGarlic, Onion, Oregano, SagePeppermint, Raspberries, Fennel, as well as most of the culinary spices we use. Here’s a further 10 everyday super foods.

Next are a few foods or medicines we can forageForaging for foods is great fun with the family, and as you will see, there is an array of medicines available free on our doorstep (well nearly): Elderberries, Dandelion, Nettles, Lime blossom, Yarrow, Apples, Birch.

For a mental boost, not so common but one I’ve found to be highly effective, is the mighty Ginseng, available in good oriental stores. A great natural booster that is less damaging than caffeine, Ginseng is also effective for high blood pressure & diabetes. Another in this category is green tea, known for it’s antioxidant properties, but I’ve recently heard that Olive leaf tea, with many health properties, is like green tea to the power of ten. You can get it here, or if you want UK-grown Olive leaf tea, you can splash out here. Some other natural aids to concentration.

The last, least obvious source of accessible super foods are bacteria. The good ones can be cultivated in yoghurt or sourdough bread, but another point on the flip side is over sanitisation, which can bring it’s own health risks.

Finally, my views on supplements is that they have their place, but a varied and informed diet can do you much better. At least we can put to rest scaremongering that they can cause death

Here’s a nice suggestion for how to identify health giving foods.


Dynamic steering & Holacracy

The company behind this concept that focuses on the systemic aspect of organisations is called Holacracy, which has developed what it calls ‘an upgraded operating system for organisations.’
It has inspired me for a couple of years now, and I managed to implement a little of its approach in Fusion Organic Cafe.
It’s a move away from ‘predict & control’ and ‘hero leadership’ (which I learnt the hard way, is a fast route to burnout) towards being able to ‘dynamically steer’ organisations, with each employee serving as a ‘listening tool’ for the organisation, with the premise that more people’s consciousness on any one topic will achieve far more than one/few person’s ever can, and of course that people who feel listened to will perform far better.
With regards to it’s communication structure, it’s basically an organised way of ensuring everyone in a meeting ‘takes turns’ and don’t hijack each other’s agenda points.
Whilst it completely recognises the need for a hierarchical structure, it also implements a system which ensures that communication flows both ways, with each level of management having representatives in the circle above and below it.
The other aspect it says a lot on, is the importance of accurate & dynamic job and role descriptions, and the importance of developing the role, in tandem, but separate to the person fulfilling it.
It essentially states that by implementing structures that focus on the organisation and its tensions as priority (you are given the space to deal with your own tensions), empowering people to take care of their own areas of work, and ensuring a good flow of communication, organisations can achieve a level of operating that can keep up with today’s fast changing and ever more complex world.
Another way this is said, by Holacracy founder Brian Robertson is:
‘If you jump in and (in effect) violate another’s space by trying to be a good (‘hero’) leader and solve their tensions for them, you are actually shutting down the capacity for the organisation to harness and integrate their tension.’
‘Your job is not to be the hero, not so solve another’s tension for them, but to solve your own tension, and to get out of the way when it’s their turn, allowing them the space to process their tensions.’
It is also a kind of evolved succession plan, that ensures the organisations can be much closer to fulfilling their potential in the future, and be much less dependent on any one (or few) leader(s), however competent they are.

Integral Leadership & Conscious Business

Integral leadership and the Integral model have inspired me for a few years now.

Essentially the model is a map allowing us to see the whole, and all of the perspectives within it. By checking in with all perspectives (internal/external, subjective/objective, individual/collective, single object/system) we can fully understand situations and phenomena.

In leadership, the model is fine tuned to help us communicate more effectively, and better understand the people we work with. We learn the different world views that correspond to leadership styles and a persons reasons for acting certain ways, so that we can a) find the right tools and mode of communication, and b) learn to use them effectively (by checking back in with the map).

What is often said with Integral theory, is that the map, however useful, is not the territory.

I have been holding the Integral model in my awareness with regards to my work (and personal life) for some years now, and it is only very recently that I am beginning to be able to embody this meta-perspective.

At first it’s a wow of understanding. Then a daunted realisation of the sheer complexity of life, even when (and especially when) looking through an Integral lens  ‘How do I learn the languages of being and acting of all these different worldviews and perspectives?’ ‘How do I learn the skills needed to operate in an integral worldview?’ It almost felt like a curse at times – knowing that there are higher levels of operating, and not knowing how to get there.

The answer certainly does not lie in learning the theory to the nth degree, or reeling off endless models, nor thinking and studying in isolation.

Instead, much like when a musician reaches a certain level of mastery and stops thinking about what they are doing, an Integral (or Conscious) leader learns that it is only by repeatedly practicing, and learning, and practicing, holding the Integral perspective in awareness as much as possible (which usually isn’t in the moment), that the Integral framework somehow becomes embedded, allowing us to actively and intuitively flow between perspectives, and find instant insight as to the best way to communicate, to anyone from any perspective.

The key is ‘simply’ finding and acting from authenticity and cultivating exponential awareness – essentially the art of Integral Leadership and Conscious Business, and very definitely easy said than done.


Waking Up the Workplace

Integral leadership Collaborative