A Stranger in a Strange Land
("Tales from Paradise" pt. 1)
Has anyone read that excellent novel by Robert Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land”?
I talk a lot about learning and Mentoring; it is very important in our business as it is in life. This is a story that is more of an indirect learning; it is “The Spirit”, the universe, Nature, “Karma”, whatever you want to call it connecting with us, outside of our normal channels of communication. It is a mentoring of sorts as it is our “beings” learning about the world around us but the actual process is so nebulous it is a little difficult to describe. Everyone has had experiences like this so hopefully I can get close enough to a decent description that it will remind you. It is difficult as this knowledge bypasses our intellect and taps directly into other aspects of ourselves.
A perfect analogy of this is sports as an example, living in the Caribbean I became an avid windsurfer, but to try to explain and teach your body, intellectually, how to windsurf is like trying to describe color to a blind man. Of course the theory, the methods and techniques can be described but to actually get your body to perform what is required just from verbal instruction is another story. It is through practice and “nudging”, clumsy coaching by others that your body will finally learn how to do it. Even when you become proficient and you’re intellect is telling you, “Yes I enjoy this”, it is your body that is yelling at you, “Yahoo!! This feels SOOOO Good! OMG! What a rush!”, which is only the “tip of the iceberg”, the body, and other aspects of ourselves, are feeling so much more that cannot even be translated into a dialogue. It is your body that is performing all the functions needed; your intellect is literally “just along for the ride”.
There is so much more involved with our “beings” than just our conscious mind, the intellect is just a small part.
I refer to the novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert Heinlein, (and I respectfully borrowed the title, which Mr. Heinlein borrowed from the Bible, Book of Exodus 2.22, when Moses says "...I have become an alien in a foreign land"). There are a couple of basic premises of this book that illustrate the points I'm making here; that there is so much more to our beings than just our minds; and in learning, we are learning with much more of ourselves than just our minds. The other aspect is that in order to learn we must break down the barriers and blocks that impede the learning process; ego, prejudices, pre-conditioned or trained ideas, expectations, fear, as well as others. By approaching "life" with an open mind, without the learning stumbling blocks, and cultivating that "feeling" of learning on different levels of ourselves we can appreciate these lessons for our souls, spirits, etc. while enriching and deepening our knowledge. The title, and the quote from Exodus, are the segway to instill the right frame of mind; to take away overconfidence, security, and the preconceived idea that one has knowledge which opens one up to being more receptive. Take this concept to the point where you actually lose your "identity", your "self"; you lose your reference points, then you will truly open yourself up to knowledge; strive to cultivate the feeling that you are indeed a "Stranger in a Strange Land". It is this sentiment that is the crux and the key to successfully learn. Obviously, from these origins, this sentiment has a long history. I hope that everyone "groks" this. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok)
Here is an example of an ethereal learning experience; one that opened my eyes further, opened my mind further to greater possibilities of learning and teaching. Isn’t that what mentoring is? Constantly growing within ourselves which in turn allows us to share more with our fellow person. I can honestly say that I’m a better mentor today because of it. It was a rare occasion when I did lose my "self".
It was 1988 and I’d accepted the Chef’s position at an exclusive resort in Bahamas, “The Windermere Island Club”, a private island next to Eleuthera. This is where the Royal family stayed when in Bahamas and I did serve Prince Philip when I was there. I’m sure you can imagine the thrill and excitement of leaving Canada, just as winter is starting to roll in and I land in absolute paradise. My body could feel it as soon as the airplane doors opened upon landing there, the humid tropical air that wafted in through the cabin of the aircraft and over me, caught my body’s attention immediately and from the moment I got off of the plane the feelings, perceptions, and stimuli bombarding all my senses were building towards overload.
It was my third night there, still in disbelief as to where I was, what I was experiencing. The job was good, I had no issues with that aspect, but the growing excitement in my body due to sensory overload was threatening to burst me from the inside out in one way or another. Incredible pink sand beaches, full of exotic shells; absolutely crystal clear blue water, warm almost like a bath, the same color and clarity as a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin, and living reefs that came right up to the beach, each coral head with its own community of colorful tropical fish; Snorkeling and spear fishing in the most beautiful aquarium you can imagine except that you were part of that aquarium, actually inside of it, an integral aspect of it, not just an observer. The abundant undersea wildlife constantly cruising by, Eagle Rays, large groupers, schools of horse eyed jacks, moray eels, snappers of all kinds, sea turtles, and even a variety of sharks, some quite large. The taste of fresh lobster, fresh Conch right out of the shell with lime juice and scotch bonnet pepper, the fresh local fruits; this entire stimulus was bombarding my body relentlessly, deliciously, and unmercifully.
As a Chef I was in heaven with all the new exotic flavors, my palate was excited and I was learning.
I had my own cottage on the grounds, within earshot of the beach and waves, removed from the main Lodge amongst the beautiful gardens. I had finished work, showered, and went out for an evening stroll. The stars were bright, crystal clear; the light sea breeze rustled the leaves of the many large coconut palms, the humid air was warm and nurturing, very tangible in that my skin actually felt the connection with the air around it, like a warm comfortable blanket. I walked towards the main Lodge on a smooth stepping stone walkway through the manicured gardens, full of Hyacinth, Torch ginger, Orchids, too many flowers to describe set against a backdrop of the largest Hibiscus trees I’d ever seen, a riot of colors and textures competing for my attention. I rounded the corner of the main structure and I was seized by a fog or cloud, and although it was invisible to the eyes it invaded my nose and permeated through my being. The night Jasmine, Star Jasmine, and Orange Jasmine had blossomed. I’m really not exaggerating when I say it stopped me in my tracks. The perfume of citrus, vanilla, rose, tropical fruits, ocean air, and JASMINE! Was so strong it took over. Coupled with the sensory onslaught of the previous 3 days my mind gave up; gave up trying to analyze, gave up trying to understand, gave up trying to identify, gave up trying to organize and classify; it finally hit overload.. I sat down, intellect gone, and just allowed my body, my senses to soak everything in. I don’t know how long I sat there for, intellectually oblivious, but I’d never felt so alive before, so connected, so aware; my body was soaking up everything my senses were detecting. I felt the world around me and I was at peace with it. It was spontaneous Nirvana caused by the sensory build up over the last 3 days and triggered by that divine pungent smell of the Jasmine. My joyful tears flowed freely into the sympathetic grass under my bare feet.
The absolute sheer beauty of this little tropical island, our world, our life had impacted me like a freight train, conquered me unmercifully but in the gentlest and most nurturing of ways. It changed me forever.
It was a transcendental experience for my body; my being, it was direct knowledge, what I learned my mind still does not understand nor do I think it’s possible for it to but from that moment on my perceptions of our world have changed and broadened: An instant in my life when infinity tapped my spirit and changed me forever.
I was literally and absolutely "a stranger in a strange land".
It doesn't necessarily have to be a tropical island to have this effect on you. There is Nature around us everywhere and it is Nature that generally touches us like this, being out in the wild, away from civilization brings us closer to nature, closer to our “source”, with fewer distractions to our intellect. While I've never had such a profound experience as that night in those tropical gardens, it was recently, while in The Arctic Circle, out on the tundra witnessing an incredible display of Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, that my body again felt the deep connection to the world around me. My mind, my intellect were silenced and I again enjoyed the intimate interaction of my body and other nebulous aspects of myself had with the world around me. My senses rejoicing with the feeling of the Aurora dancing so close that I could almost touch them and some aspects of my being were actually being touched by them. The Arctic has its own incredible beauty which has the power of taking one’s breath away.
I'm relaying these experiences to illustrate one extreme end of our learning spectrum. All of what we learn comes into us throughout this spectrum; one extreme being the purely analytical/mathematical ranging to the nebulous/unexplainable, like the circumstance I just described.
There are many aspects to being a Chef, the learning and growing is never ending. Mentoring is extremely important on an ongoing basis and is a symbiotic relationship for both the Mentee and the Mentor; they are both learning from the experience. Having said that it must be understood that although we are taught and perceive that we are learning on an intellectual level there are many more facets of us that are learning from the universe around us on levels of ourselves that are removed from our intellect. The analogy of learning how to windsurf illustrates this; I touch upon this topic as well in another article, "The Truffle Incident", when I first enjoyed fresh truffles.
The point is that although we are "taught" virtually everything that we know it is our experience of actually performing and perceiving that we truly learn, that we learn on different levels; that we are gaining knowledge throughout our entire "Learning Spectrum".
How does this apply to me; as a Chef?
The national dish of the Bahamas is Conch, (in particular the "Queen Conch", a large sea snail, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conch ). I had barely even heard of Conch before I arrived there; it was the first dish of food that was given to me by the local kitchen staff when I entered the kitchen. I was handed a bowl of "Marinated Conch" a.k.a. "Conch Salad" to try as soon as I walked into my new kitchen. All eyes were on me expectantly waiting for my reaction. I tried that first spoonful and a huge smile erupted on my face, this was fantastic! Fresh, clean. spicy, tart with an amazing texture; and the more subliminal reaction, my body liked it. Smiles all around the kitchen in response to my obvious approval of their offering, I was accepted into my new environment with open arms. This gesture was the most expedient "ice breaker" that I can possibly think of; it bypassed the weeks of awkward and forced dialogue of us trying to get to know each other. Their gesture communicated to me, "Hello, this is what we're all about", and my reaction communicated to them, "Wow, that's great! I want to learn how to make that."; the interaction occurred on so many more levels than just the intellect. Trying to explain, teach and/or Mentor someone about the Bahamas, their people and culture, and Conch! would take weeks, months, who knows but a very long time, however even then they would not get the true perspective or understanding as to what I got with just that one bite of Conch Salad, and witnessing the smiles of those people as they saw me having that epiphany. The "mind" was just a small facet of what the rest of my being was taught and learned in this short interaction. I was being mentored with a simple dish of food.
As a Chef I of course want to learn how to prepare this dish; I want to learn everything I can about it. Typically, as with anything else, I could be given a recipe to follow, but am I really learning everything about that dish; about that product?
It was my third day there, yes that was an epic day indeed, that the local fishing/watersports operator of our dock at the club offered to take me out snorkeling and spearfishing in the afternoon while I was on my break, (I worked a "split shift", 6-7 A.M. to around 12 noon or 1 P.M. then back between 4-5 til around 10 or 11 P.M.). I said Definitely! I worked my ass off all morning, insuring that everything was in order in the kitchen, all mise en place for dinner ready, the afternoon crew all organized with their duties and I proceeded down to the dock around 1.
Craig, the "local" fishing guide, greeted me with a big smile and said, "I hear that you want to learn about Conch?". I nodded affirmatively. He led me to a 13' Zodiac inflatable dinghy already stocked with ice chest, snorkel gear, and "Hawaiian slings", (spear guns and fishing while on SCUBA are both illegal in the Bahamas). We hopped in and away we went. As I stated initially my senses were being bombarded from the moment I got off the plane 3 days earlier and this excursion just accelerated that overload. It was a bright and hot day, we cruised out into the sound between Windermere and Eluethera, across the calm glass-like crystal blue sea, the sharp shadow of our boat following obediently 10 feet below us on the bright sand bottom; it was almost like there was no water at all; we were flying. The purring 25 hp outboard motor pushed us along at a good 12 knots. There were bigger boats that we could have taken but as you'll see this is the perfect boat for snorkeling and spearfishing. The excitement, which was already high in me, was building even more the further we went out into the sound; I was entering a strange new world; the world I was familiar and "comfortable" with was being left behind; I could feel my "self" being left behind with it. My "intellect" was shrinking while other aspects of myself were waking up. There was absolutely no one else on the water, we were utterly alone, we rounded the southern point of Windermere and were faced with the open Atlantic Ocean. I could see the surf line a couple of miles offshore where the ocean swell was breaking on the barrier reef, the waves finishing their thousand mile journey across the Atlantic. Craig was talking the whole way out, pointing out landmarks, where relatives lived, etc. Although my mind was unnaturally "quiet" and other aspects of myself were waking up, I heard and retained every word he said. I didn't say anything; I felt "alive" and connected to the world around me. Craig told me about Conch, their life cycle, where and how they live.
The color of the water started changing as the bottom features changed, large green patches, turtle grass, interspersed with more and more coral formations but the ever-present sand patches prevailed. Craig stopped the motor; it was quiet and calm.
We donned our masks, fins and snorkel and armed with our spears jumped overboard. The water was a refreshing reprieve from the heat of the sun. Craig grabbed the bow line for the dinghy and pulled it behind as we explored the undersea world. Craig explained that as we were spearfishing we had to constantly move from reef to reef keeping the boat close. When we did spear a fish we would put it in the boat right away, get into the boat and motor to another area. There are many sharks in these waters, as I came to learn and witness almost daily, and although nothing really to worry about Craig said that we had to be smart and not provoke them, which was fine with me. Sure enough they would show up quite often to investigate us; I admit that over time I became quite comfortable in their presence, actually anticipated and enjoyed the interactions with them. Being in such close proximity with an apex predator in it's environment really makes one feel "alive" and reinforces the feeling of just how small we are; it really helps to shrink our intellect and ego allowing the more subliminal aspects of ourselves to "wake up". I've experienced similar circumstances when encountering bears in the wild.
It was about 20 feet deep here and we came up to a fair sized patch of turtle grass.I saw numerous conchs "cruising" through the patch, although not moving fast a telltale trail behind them showing their paths haphazardly crisscrossing over the seabed. Craig handed me the line for the boat and dove down to grab a conch, he brought it up and showed it to me. He said that this was still premature and we would not take it but wanted me to see it.
We swam for several hundred yards just viewing the terrain and the abundant sea life, the frequency of coral reefs increasing. On another expansive bed of grass we came across a very large Conch, Craig signaled me to dive down and get it, which I did. I was surprised at the effort it took for me to bring it back to the surface, it was probably 10 lbs. On the surface we examined it; an incredible rainbow of pinks, reds and oranges inside the shell, (it is the broken down Conch shells that make the pink sand beaches there). After admiring it and Craig pointing out the characteristics of it he told me to return it, he said that this was an "old one" which reproduces more than younger ones and we would leave it be. After seeing over 50 Conchs during our swim Craig settled on only 2 medium ones for us to keep and we headed back to the club to prepare them.
Back at the dock we cleaned and prepared the Conch. As a Chef it was a pleasure and a great learning experience to see Craig at work, the lifetime of cleaning Conch, (and spearfishing, diving, etc.), was apparent in his efficient and purposeful motions. In no time we had the Conch cleaned and diced, I had brought sweet peppers and red onions which I diced, fresh lime juice, local scotch bonnet peppers, wild thyme and a little salt. Everything in a big bowl and it was ready. Craig pulled out a couple of ice cold Kaliks and some saltine crackers to enjoy with it; it had the same impact on me as when I first had fresh truffles. It was incredible. We had enough Conch left after our snack for me to take back to my kitchen staff and share with all of them which brought big smiles to their faces when I told them that I got the Conch and prepared it. This experience and the "feelings" that came along with it carried with me for the rest of the day culminating in my epiphany in the gardens later on that evening.
The point is that I gained a true appreciation of this dish from going out into it's environment and learning about it; from the sun on my back to the taste of the salty ocean through my snorkel, experiencing the whole ecosystem with all the life that it held, it was all bits of information for my "being". It wasn't someone just reciting a recipe to me, I was receiving information across my whole "Learning Spectrum".
To touch upon another aspect, and a subject from some other posts/threads, is the topic of "fresh" product. While this topic can be discussed at length I just want to point out that I've never had anything as "fresh" as this Conch Salad,(or any of the fresh fish, lobster that I would eat there daily), it has set a standard for me, as it would for any Chef, that everything else can be measured against. It is unfortunate that the term "fresh" is used so loosely.
All of this crystallized a thought in my head and I was reminded of something that a Chef tried to teach me many years previously when I asked him what a Chef's priority is. His response to me was,
"A Chef looks for the freshest most wholesome product that can be had, treats it with respect, humility and finesse, and prepares it with impeccable technique and taste"
At the time I understood what he said to me, I took it to heart and carried it with me always as words to guide me but it wasn't until this day that I finally understood and comprehended the full meaning of this statement. This day with Craig and the Conch was the embodiment of this "philosophy"; by immersing my total "Learning Spectrum" I could recognize and accept the total lesson with my whole "being". Craig's behavior epitomized this sentiment as was illustrated by his relationship with the world around him.
It was an epic day; a true learning experience where I gained so much more knowledge about the world around me, and so much more of my "being" involved in the process; it wasn't just my intellect learning another recipe. It emphasized how small I am compared to the vast backdrop of the world around us and it crystallized in my mind how I really am "A Stranger in a Strange Land".
I'm reminded of a quote by Chef Anthony Bourdain,
"Be a traveler, not a tourist".
A "tourist" has an agenda, has preconceived ideas, expectations, ego, is open and prone to disappointment, and is unavailable to receive knowledge because of these traits.
A "traveler" is open for anything, receptive to anything, is not disappointed as they have no expectations; has no agenda; retains their childlike curiosity and naivety throughout their life. A "traveler" truly is a "Stranger in a Strange Land".
Happy Cooking Everyone!
(originally published on Linkedin, Jan. 26, 2015)