Randall Burns in beBee in English Chef/Consultant • RB Consulting Nov 11, 2018 · 15 min read · 1.6K

Zen and "The Flow State" of Cooking

Zen and "The Flow State" of Cooking

                                   What is "Nirvana"?

   "A state of blissful peace without desire, fear or suffering" "A perfect moment
  "Freedom from suffering", but what is suffering? Without ego, intellect/reason there is no suffering.
   Nirvana also applies to anatta (non-self) and sunyata (emptiness) states of mind. Again these states of mind are present when ego, intellect and reason are absent from our minds.
   Obviously this topic can be discussed at great length.

     (see sources-Wikipedia)

  What is"In the zone"?

   Expression used to describe a state of consciousness where actual skills match the perceived performance requirements perfectly. Being in the zone implies increased focus and attention which allow for higher levels of performance. Athletes, musicians, and anybody that totally owns a challenge of physical and mental performance can be in the zone.
 (see sources-Wikipedia)

   (See "Nirvana")

  What is "Mushin", (Śūnyatā)?

    a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind and is also referred to as the state of "no-mindedness". That is a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. It is translated by D.T. Suzuki as "being free from mind-attachment".
(see sources-Wikipedia)

   (See "Nirvana")

    What is  "Flow State"?
    In positive psychology, flow, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
    In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time.
(see sources-Wikipedia)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                               (See "Nirvana")

      These concepts, and related thoughts, have been present in the human psyche for thousands of years and regardless of one's personal interpretations and/or connotations of these terms and definitions they ALL relate and refer to one thing;


   Specifically personal performance, and heightened performance, in whatever endeavor  one is pursuing. We all have abilities and potential far greater than our reason/intellect believe, and with exersize, practice, and concentration we can hone and improve these skills over time. While our ego/reason/intellect are integral aspects of ourselves they are also stumbling blocks inhibiting us from achieving higher levels of performance.

   How do we get to higher levels of performance?

   We need training, practice and "balance", and we need to change our relationship with our ego/reason/intellect to fit within that "balance".

     "Meditation & Mindfulness"

   I'll reiterate that there is nothing mysterious, "esoteric", alien, and, (dare I say it?), "religious" regarding these terms/concepts including meditation; we ALL meditate whether it's a conscious act or not.
   Transcendental meditation, (T.M.), is the conscious act of focusing one's attention on a specific subject/word, generally a "mantra". this serves to sharpen the attention and focus but also shrinks the ego/reason/intellect and while this is the simplest and easiest exersize to perform it takes time to realize the benefits; but it is worth it.

    The same logic can be applied to any type of concentration exersize; a warrior learning sword skills, a monk learning T.M.,an athlete learning their sport, any vocation, a Cook learning knife skills. Any time the attention is being focused with "mindfulness" it could be considered as meditation; we learn and grow from it and as with everything, it is practice, practice, practice.
  Listening to a particularly moving piece of music will have the same effect; it will cause our mind to settle, reduce our "internal dialogue", (the goal of T.M. is to shut off our "internal dialogue" at least temporarily), shrink our ego/reason/intellect and allow us to "relax" and/or experience some of the more nebulous aspects of ourselves. 

    "Meditation", both T.M. and practical applications of focusing/concentration techniques in our day to day lives, (sports, work, etc.) is the method to get one into "flow state".

   We are capable of seemingly "magical"/impossible acts, but that is just our "minds" telling us that they are impossible, (ego/reason/intellect).

   "The only way to determine the boundaries of the possible is to go beyond them into the realm of the impossible"

   Or another way to look at that is;

   "Argue for your limitations and they will be your's"

     Here's an example;

  In the "infinite wisdom" of modern man and according to the "Laws of physics" it is virtually impossible for us to be able to stand up on a friction-less surface. (physics also states that a bee shouldn't be able to fly either).

   So how do we surf?

   "I can see through the crystal clear warm ocean, the swell undulating rhythmically under me as I'm sitting on my board. The bright sun is warm on my back as I'm waiting for the next "set" of waves to arrive. Mind blank, savoring each incredible moment  as it occurs, there is no rush, no hurry, no goal; I'm in "the now".
   The "set" has arrived and I allow the first couple of waves to pass under me, gently rocking me up and down, no conscious plan or decision to do so, I'm "feeling" the environment around me, my being perceiving across a wide spectrum with no interpretation/interference from my reason/intellect.  A particular rising swell below engages me, I immediately and unconsciously/reflexively respond, again not an intellectual decision. I paddle to match speed with the building wave as I feel the relentless, unstoppable power that is lifting me higher and higher. The building energy has now empowered my board, and myself as we begin hurtling across the growing face of the wave.
   I am now standing and riding the board across the wave, frictionless with no obstacles, accelerating, "no mind", no thoughts, my body and "being" reacting to every nuance of the wave, anticipating "the line" to follow and feeling the power, it is overwhelming, I cannot control it, I cannot stop it, it is irresistible so I let myself go, I abandon myself to the pure exhilaration, the pure rush of my body "performing", my spirit flying free and my "being" navigating  through this perfect moment in time. It is timeless, there is nothing else in my world as my consciousness expands to perceive every aspect, to grasp every facet of this magical experience".

   Is this magic? Is this a miracle? Not at all, this is a "performance" that is possible outside of the parameters of our reason/intellect and outside of the "Laws of physics". This is being "in the zone"; in the "flow state"; this is Nirvana.

   Can you imagine what we would be missing if we listened to what physicists told us about what we can, and cannot do?

   Can someone who has never surfed before jump onto a short board, swim out to big surf and have an experience like this?


   This is where the years of practice, concentration, mindfulness, focus, Meditation, comes in.

   This concept/process can be applied to any, (or every), endeavor that one chooses, and one will excel at that.

   I'm a Cook and I've learned how true these sentiments are through the years, the decades, of the constant meditation of my discipline/vocation. It is an incredible experience to work at heightened performance and it is also not possible to accomplish the greater goals and challenges of our business with out that performance. 

     I've had the incredible luck and extreme pleasure to have worked under some outstanding Chefs, here's an experience from one of them that taught me a very poignant lesson. Chef set up all of the stations in his kitchen, he had a reason for everything that he did, (as I do today). He would then, over time, train everyone on a particular station blindfolded. He would call out a specific garnish and we would then reach our hand out to get it. The garnish tray consisted of numerous 1/6 pans with shallots, garlic, various herbs, capers, truffles and others depending on the menu; hanging from the counter was a speed rail with bottles; white wine, red wine, cognac/brandy, chicken stock, fish stock, veal jus, lemon juice, etc. Believe it or not it was actually quite easy to find these items on demand blindfolded with practice, (obviously this was just an exersize and we would not be blindfolded during actual operation). There are many very good reasons for doing this which can be discussed at length but let's just leave it as this was the way this Chef did things. Having that consistency throughout the kitchen, in every station, that everyone was familiar with, right down to the inch was a streamlining success; everyone was on the same wavelength. 

   Does this seem extreme to you? Controlling and even "anal"?

   Possibly to your ego/reason/intellect but to a person familiar with or in "the flow state" this is very logical, easily grasped and adopted. Was this Chef "set in his ways", close minded or unavailable to feedback? Not at all, he was open to new ideas, discussion and if someone came along with an idea to improve something he was the first to adopt it and incorporate it into his kitchen. He didn't care about doing things "his" way, he wanted things done the "best" way.Having said that he was a master of efficiency, it showed in the way his kitchen was set up and in the way it ran during service so it was rare when an improvement could be found. There's a reason for how and why I do everything today, how I set a station up, how I plan my day, etc. But if someone comes along and shows me a faster, more efficient way I will adopt it immediately. I learn every day from every one around me, the older I get the more I realize what I don't know.

   "Flow State" is an exersize in efficiency, it is a meditation on efficiency which is directly related to performance.

    A warrior trains, concentrates and meditates on his sword skills for years, for exactly all of the reasons I have mentioned, his life depends on it. If a warrior has to consciously "think" about what he's doing when he grasps his sword he's already dead; the reason/intellect are too slow to keep up with battle, that aspect of our brain is a hindrance and a liability in this circumstance hence the real training of a warrior is to cultivate the "flow state"; he needs to perform better than his adversary.

   How does all of this apply to the kitchen and cooking? Here's an example.

   "A Snapshot" 

   An observational perspective

 This picture is of the kitchen of colleague Chef Sukant Dakua CCC at a 2,000 room Lodge. It is a full service operation with both hot and cold buffets and Ala Carte dining. This picture is from the Ala Carte kitchen which I like to refer to as "Extreme Ala Carte".

   This "snapshot", taken at the peak of service is a moment frozen in time, although there is no value of time attached to it; it is static, still, non-moving. Let's take a closer look.


   Running down "the line", by the stations, this is what's on order right at this moment;

   Carving station; 14 carved prime rib
                                 8 burgers
                                 6 chicken burgers
                                 9 feature/special fish (Teriyaki Salmon)

   Broiler station;   27 New York strip steaks
                                6   pork ribs (plain, BBQ, Teriyaki)
                                8   chicken breasts

   Saute station;     8 pastas (Alfredo, Bolognaise, Primavera, all with choices of proteins/garnishes)
                                 5 stirfrys (Won ton bowl, Noodle bowl)
                                 4 perogies
                                 11 feature/special (ginger beef)

   Flat-top station;  4 grilled cheese sandwich
                                 6 Quesadillas
                                 5 beef dips
                                 (this station also supplies garlic bread for saute station, and sauteed mushrooms for steaks)

   Fryer station;       15 orders french fries
                                  8 onion rings
                                  6 Calamari
                                  5 dry ribs
                                  8 chicken fingers

   Pizza station;       8 pizzas
                                  5 garlic cheese toast
                                  11 feature/special (Lamb Shwarma)

   Ticket times run an average of 5 to 10 minutes so that if we took another "snapshot" 10 minutes after this one we would have a new set of a hundred or so orders in the kitchen, (I've seen it as high as 174 orders in this kitchen at one time, smaller "fine dining" restaurants will do this number of "covers" in a whole night). By the end of the night, (6 hour service), this kitchen will have produced over 1,300 Ala Carte orders, (the record here is 1,688 hence the reason I call it "Extreme Ala Carte"). All of these people, and more, are also eating off of the hot and cold buffets which are being served from another kitchen.
   This is just one example; every menu is different, every kitchen is different but the work, concentration, focus, "flow state" needed to accomplish a successful service is the same whether it's this "Extreme Ala Carte", a Brassiere/Bistro doing 400 - 500 a night, a fine dining restaurant doing 200, A Michelin starred location doing 60 covers of a ten plate Table D'Hote menu, (that's still 600 plates right there). Buffets, Banquets, VIP and State Functions, Gala Dinners and Culinary Competitions are all different avenues that offer their own challenges and requirements to "perform" successfully.

    Chef Sukant is "in the zone"; he is aware of everything going on around him, he has this "snapshot" clearly visible in his mind. All of the Cooks at each station are "in the zone" and are clearly aware of what is happening; in their stations. (although some of the more pro-active ones may also be aware of the stations around them).
   Chef Sukant is in "flow state" and if you were able to see this kitchen in "real time" you would see Chef moving through the kitchen like a stealth fighter, seamlessly, flawlessly without wasted motion or energy. He is not reacting to circumstances as they happen but he is anticipating and foreseeing what's coming up before they do. "Flow state" has a way of slowing time down for whoever is in it. I have worked with a lot of Chefs over the years and everyone has a different way of dealing with the stress and pressure; these conditions are directly related to ego/reason/intellect, in "flow state" there is no more stress, unless you allow it. While the word "mastering" comes to mind that is also part of ego/reason/intellect and has no place in "flow state" I will say that Chef Sukant is a consummate artist of navigating his way through the busy kitchen, a "surfer" of epic proportions. (and in this extreme environment it is essential). It is years of training, practice, discipline, and Meditation that has brought Sukant to this point. 

   He's helping plate pastas from the saute station, directing other stations, dropping fries, helping on the pass, etc. not that any of these stations really need help, ( well maybe once in a while they need a hand getting "out of the shit", LMAO!), but he's anticipating and expediting the service able to see both the present moment, this "snapshot" in time, and what's pending over the next 3 minutes, 5 minutes, and 10 minutes; he's navigating his way through the constantly changing fluid ebbs and flows of service. Like a Maestro/conductor he is directing all of the "instruments" in the kitchen to make beautiful music together. The orchestration is flawless. There is no fear, no wants nor desires; it is an exersize on Zen, efficiency and performance.
   Watching Sukant is a great illustration of efficiency and performance, he is "doing", not "thinking", and while there are some who upon observing this scene will have no comprehension, others may catch glimpses of his "performance", I see exactly what he's doing and where he's going; it is a great phenomena to witness.
    We make momentary eye contact and there is a flicker of acknowledgement in Sukant's eyes as he continues on his multiple missions; we are on the same wavelength, in the same mindset. (I will expand on this aspect shortly).

  It was this particular moment in time that inspired me to write this article.

   Hopefully some of you layman out there may get some insights from this description or at least just from these numbers. I know that you Chefs out there know exactly what I'm talking about. You Sous-Chefs and advanced Cooks understand what it's like to be in the throes of service, you are maintaining your stations and feeling the power of "flow state"; Good on you! Keep it up, trust me when I tell you that it will get better and better; years of training, practice, concentration and "Meditation".
 For you recent Culinary grads, young Cooks and others interested it is an incredible business but here is the harsh reality and I have to be brutally honest with you;

   Having never surfed before do you honestly believe that you can hop on a short board, swim out into big surf catch your first wave for an epic ride all the way back to the beach?

  Please don't misunderstand, I'm not knocking you down or belittling you for your aspirations, I'm inviting you wholeheartedly  with my hand extended to partake on this incredible path, but with open eyes; It is years, and decades of concentration, focus, and Meditation to get you there, But that's OK! It is a great journey of discovery getting there, savour and enjoy every minute of it. 

   "The Experience of Flow State"

   My personal perspective

   (This scenario is from a restaurant I was the Chef at a few years ago, it was a 170 seat fine dining Italian, one of the highlights of my career that I always touch upon when relaying stories)

   "The doors open and the dining room begins to fill, like waves slowly building over the ocean. The air in the kitchen is charged with anticipation as we are prepared for another onslaught. We are past "the point of no return" now, committed to hold our ground. I look around to my staff and smile as I see the eagerness in them; the first orders arrive in the kitchen and my brain is already switching gears, the neurotransmitters firing faster as the throttle is turned up, the potent fuel mix of adrenaline, endorphin, oxycontin,  serotonin, dopamine already coursing through me preparing me for "the performance". It is the years, the decades of practice and "meditation" that have prepared me for this moment. I'm rising; the shackles and chains of my ego/reason/intellect/fear fall off of me releasing me to attain higher levels of performance. The wings of my spirit spread and I enter the fray like a warrior enters battle; no fear, no doubts, no suffering, no ego but with faith and gusto.  I'm feeling the swell lifting me, all powerful, no fighting it, I pick my line and navigate through the ebbs and flows as the pace in the kitchen accelerates. The wave is forming and I'm riding it.

   I am acutely aware of every moment, every "snapshot" is clear in my mind yet there is no 'thinking", not even reacting; there is no "me". I'm anticipating and moving before the fact. Tossing mussels in frying pans, plating entrees to serve, coordinating with the FOH , assisting where needed, special dishes as requested, coordinating the stations; ALL without missing a beat. it is an exersize in efficiency and performance. it is the primordial spark of creativity burning with the flame and fuel of performing, a constant spontaneous combustion. Hyper-aware? Super-conscious? Possibly to my reason/intellect but those aspects of "me" are not here, nor are they involved; I've left those behind.  They do not operate well at this accelerated pace so I am better off without them.
   It is timeless, one aspect of "me" sees every "snapshot", every moment is clear to me; another aspect of "me" is racing with the tempo of the wave that is carrying us through the service. No wasted motion, my hands moving, feet moving, brain flying. I'm "performing" and while there is no "emotion" involved a part of me is ecstatic, celebrating that I'm "working" to my potential. I ride the wave harder, I push my limits...

    (Now here's the really fun part)

   I see my Cooks "in the zone", each one riding their own wave, I'm happy for them as I see their gratification from their "Performances". They are working together, as one, all on the same wavelength. The saute station needs more pans and calls for them, the ALL important dishwasher, who's also "in the zone", already knows the pans are due as he is aware of how many we have in stock, and he is already on his way with them, arriving in a matter of seconds. Everyone dances around each other brilliantly, without a second thought, everyone achieving their second by second challenges. The dishwasher is gone off of the line in a matter of seconds, back to "the pit". The "team" is riding the wave together, much greater than just the sum of the parts they are powerful, a force to be reckoned with. Working in "the flow state" is a thrill unto itself; but working with like-minded people all on the same wavelength, towards the same goal, all "in the zone" together is an incredible experience. Having the whole kitchen in "the flow state"  together is extremely dynamic, energizing and gratifying, (and people wonder why I love to cook). 
   2 hours have passed since the doors have opened, where did the time go?  Part of me "feels" like it was only 5 minutes ago yet another part of me clearly remembers everything that I've done since the doors opened; time is a very funny and fickle concept while in "flow state". We've just hit 160 covers, (we'll do around 400 by the end of the night), and the main rush of the night is looming over us, a Tsunami building as the dining room is re-filling again. Everyone in the kitchen is taking this moment to re-stock, re-organize, clean their stations preparing for the "big rush"; We are on the roller coaster cranking up the tallest hill on the ride; you all know that feeling in the pit of your stomach as you emerge over the top, what a fantastic view!
   The orders enter the kitchen and I can feel the swell rising under me, the largest one of the night, the wave is forming empowering and energizing me. Time has no more meaning as I'm performing, producing, creating and expediting. My reason/intellect is detached, removed becoming an observer witnessing the magical act of "me" navigating my way through the ebbs and flows of service.
     (I've been told this before but any outside observer, especially a layman not familiar with this industry, looking into a kitchen at this point of the night is usually shocked by the mayhem, it is a raging maelstrom, loud, very high activity and fast, seemingly haphazard, some can even feel the unbridled energy emanating from it. But if you ever have a chance to witness it watch it for a few minutes and you'll see the patterns develop, a rhythm, the "dance", it is a "performance").

   My "being" has shifted into high gear now, overdrive, as the tickets are coming into the kitchen and time seems to slow, I'm overcoming obstacles, leaping hurdles,  breaking through barriers like a fighter jet going supersonic and leaving sound behind...

   I'm a "witness", an observer as I watch not only my activity but the activity around me, I can see by the movements of the waitstaff the "flow" in the dining room, I see every one of my Cooks and other kitchen staff and I'm aware as to what each of them are doing, by the minute. I'm acutely aware of every order hanging in the kitchen, I have a mental picture of every table in the dining room and the order/bill associated with that table. "I" am multi-faceted and conscious of every facet's activity, my hands are finishing a reduced sauce in the pan with butter, (Monte au beurre), I'm calling to "the pit" for more glasses for the bar, I'm moving to the pass with sauce and a steak to finish the 2 4-tops we're putting up, and pulling plates for the next 8-top coming up in 45 seconds. I see the Maitre'D/Manager at the pass and as we make eye contact he holds up 3 fingers twice. Table 33, I already know that's the next table, the 8-top, so I flash him back a single finger (and no, it's not the middle finger), and he's off to organize the waitstaff for pickup. (that interaction was literally a half of a second with no interruption in "the flow"). I'm aware of the new orders coming in and I call out long cook time items to various stations who react accordingly, while continuing to cook, plate and serve; they will follow up on new checks for other items they're responsible for when they come to the pass. There is no wasted movement, no wasted time, no waste. (Obviously I can't do this alone, it is a team effort and I'll repeat myself when I say that a team in the "flow state" together is an incredible experience).

   I'm functioning at a heightened level, this is not work, it is energizing in the extreme, I'm performing. Another facet of myself has just thought of a new dish to try for a special, another facet of myself is going over what needs to be ordered the following day, and more...This is all without any conscious effort or thought while continuing with service. I notice that one facet is repeating my lifelong mantra of "good food, good service", repetitively, non stop, just chanting away...
    (I had a very interesting and thought provoking discussion with another colleague today who told me that when he gets really busy he starts to sing unconsciously, he said that's when he knows he's on "auto-pilot". I looked at him and said that's like a mantra to which he agreed. After pondering these comments I had an epiphany; is it really "auto-pilot" or "cruise-control" when we get into "flow state"? I know it feels like it to our reason/intellect BUT our reason/intellect are not involved anymore hence it may appear as that. My perspective is that most of our conscious lives we are in "auto-pilot/cruise-control" mode and our higher functions/capabilities are laying dormant. We are NOT performing anywhere near our potentials in our "normal consciousness", we are half asleep. I say this because in the peak of service when the rush is on I feel alive, very awake, and I'm performing at the peak of my potential. To me that is the antithesis of "auto-pilot/cruise-control", it's far more dynamic, far more involved. My "auto-pilot/cruise-control" have gone along with my reason/intellect. Any feedback on that?)

   I don't know where "I" am as I'm observing and witnessing the performance of my multiple facets. I see every moment as a "snapshot", a complete picture frozen in time for me to analyze at my leisure and file away for later contemplation. At the same time I'm still flowing, moving, "surfing" through service, not missing a beat; cooking, expediting, organizing, directing, streamlining; navigating my way through the ebbs and flows. I'm celebrating my potential through this performance.
   I have no thoughts, no fears, no desires. I'm in the middle of the maelstrom, I'm on the tsunami, tiny in comparison, riding the face with abandon and joy; While I'm highly charged, energized  and dynamically involved deep down inside of  "me" there is a place where "I" am; I'm the "witness", the "observer" and I'm at peace, I'm quiet and balanced, like a Monk in deep meditation. I am utterly powerless and yet nothing can touch me, totally vulnerable but there is nothing for me to defend.
   My spirit is flying with the absolute freedom of my creation, expression and performance.

      This is my Nirvana

      Cooking is my Dharma


"Dharma - The potential for awakening and perfection is present in every human being and is a matter of personal effort to realize that potential.
   Each individual is a master of his or her own destiny highlighting the ability that each person has to achieve enlightenment"
   Dalai Lama

   Happy Cooking Everyone!




Randall Burns Jan 9, 2019 · #43

No apologies necessary @Nicole Chardenet. Never too late. Thanks for the feedback and great to hear from you

+1 +1
Nicole Chardenet Jan 8, 2019 · #42

As usual, I'm extremely late to the party. But better late than never, n'est-ce pas? There's no question you're in your nirvana when cooking as you are without question the most sensually-oriented cook I know :) How incredible that you could *all* get on the same wavelength! That's not easy to do unless your 'team' mates are really well-chosen...because there's often someone who's not concentrating, stuck in their cyclic grievances in the past, thinking about what they have to do when they get home, thinking how much they hate their job, etc. I love working for great teams and hate working on ones where *no one's page, *ever*.

@Cyndi wilkins is right about the need to practice...I've been at it for more than two years (okay, not as diligently as I might) and my brain is definitely more calmed down and even mindful sometimes, with lots of room for improvement. Which is why that's on the agenda for 2019....practice, practice, practice!

Excellent work as always, Randall. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this!

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Jerry Fletcher Nov 21, 2018 · #41

#39 Harvey, it's just one ability of my engaging personality.

+2 +2
Randall Burns Nov 21, 2018 · #40

#38 Just read and commented on your great article @Zacharias 🐝 Voulgaris (Curious to hear @Phil Friedman perspectives). Not sure if "it keeps the complexity at bay", as it is extremely complex...
Here's something you may find interesting that offers another perspective/illustration;


Thanks for stopping by Zacharias and for the engaging discussion

+1 +1
Harvey Lloyd Nov 21, 2018 · #39

#24 now that’s funny 😆 piss off a mindfulness instructor

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Zacharias 🐝 Voulgaris Nov 21, 2018 · #38

In that framework, we can say that intelligence is the organic outcome of a mind that's in a state of flow. Interesting how this definition captures the key aspects of intelligence I talked about in my latest article, yet keeps all the complexity at bay.

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Randall Burns Nov 21, 2018 · #37

#36 Indeed! @Cyndi wilkins Thank You for the great feedback, always wonderful to hear from you

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