Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Last night I watched an amazing documentary.  It was called Jiro Dreams of Sushi and featured the world’s oldest Michelin 3-star chef, who makes the sushi of the gods in Tokyo.  It certainly looked like the sushi of the gods, at least!

One of the concepts which was discussed in the film was the idea of being a ‘shokunin– a craftsman with understanding of his tools, skills to use them, awareness of beauty along with the capacity to create it, speed and also the desire to work for the general benefit of society.  I thought the idea was amazing and inspiring.  Trust the Japanese to have a simple word which envelopes a wealth of significance.

Anyway, it got me thinking.  You see, I’m a cook, too, so even though I hardly qualify to glance up towards the ranks of great and famous chefs, I still feel the urge to strive for the qualities of a shokunin

Tea and Biscotti make a perfect afternoon snack!
This summer my younger brother jokingly requested that I make a dessert each week, which I could then share with him and my parents.  The suggestion seemed quite brilliant to me, since I seldom get to bake during the school year, so I sprang upon the chance.  Amazingly, I have actually fulfilled my resolution to do this.  I just finished my last dessert before classes start again:  I baked almond biscotti for the first time.  (They turned out well, and I’m already excited to try variations on the recipe!  Any suggestions?)

With each dessert, as I sit down to sample it, I find myself thinking about the taste, the appearance, and how I could improve my technique to perfect taste and appearance.  I also take note of my family’s reactions, because it’s a delight to see them enjoying what I make, and of course if they have any critique I want to incorporate that in to my next attempt. 

I made a lemon meringue pie, and I’m contemplating how to make a thicker, taller meringue.  I also made tiramisu, and took down a mental note to use less coffee when soaking the ladyfingers for a denser texture.  I baked a cheesecake with a raspberry ribbon down the middle.  I want to be able to serve it more cleanly so that the red line is showcased against the white.  I’m keeping all these – and other – considerations in the back of my mind, so that when I next have time to bake, I can strive for perfection.

The cheesecake is pretty, but could be prettier...
Now the reason, of course, that I’m suddenly delving into shokunin and baking is because of the analogy with writing – or any art for that matter.  A chef should be a craftsman; a writer should be a craftsman; an architect should be a craftsman…you get the picture! 

However, oddly enough, perhaps because of the time it takes, I often feel a bit grumbly about perfecting my writing.  I know my tools, I hone my skills with each story, I know what’s beautiful and hopefully know how to create it, and I have the wish to benefit others with my writing.  Therefore, it seems natural that I should be willing to go back and work through each piece I write a thousand times, if necessary, until I feel that perfection is reached. 

In the documentary, sushi chef Jiro Ono is 85, and still feels that he is learning new things and striving for mastery every day.  I on the other hand, often feel tired before I even begin to edit a piece of writing.  I won't even mention the weariness that creeps in when facing a third or sixth or tenth edit. 

The meringue looked perfect, but wasn't, so I'll try again!
An element of shokunin is being able to take joy in the same action performed over and over, improving each time through the honing of technique.  I can take pleasure in honing a recipe because, with my not very expert tastes and abilities, I can reach something I’m satisfied with in four or six tries.  On the other hand, in my real area of craftsmanship, according to the Japanese principle, I should be content even if satisfaction only comes after a thousand attempts. 

I think for us Westerners, it’s easy to be impatient.  Our fast-paced society demands results, so we rush to give them.  What, however, happened to the Medieval mentality where one generation could prepare a new feature for a cathedral, and then die content in the knowledge that their grandchildren would install it?  Granted, we may not need that much patience, but certainly our historical roots are not so far away from the roots of a Japanese shokunin

Let’s all take a breath, then.  Don’t worry about when you’ll be published or famous.  Instead, focus on your work, even if you’re still polishing it after years and years.  Enjoy the process and realize that you’re creating yourself as an artist at the same time as you create perfect art. 

Perhaps if we can master that approach, suddenly at age 85 we’ll all be famous.  Our work will demand notice simply from the quality of its craftsmanship.  

1 comment:

  1. I think sometimes that I have an honorable knack for my short verse. I do have fun and hope that even the times when the subject is on a more serious note - that my enjoyment comes through.