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Edward Espe Brown

Excerpts from Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings: Recipes and Reflections

Stories of Ed's life and practice at Tassajara and with his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki

Empowering People to Cook


People living together in a meditation community are like rocks in a tumbler. Spinning around and around, constantly bumping into one another, the rocks get worn down, smoothed, polished. Sometimes we would joke about it: "Some say polished, some say ground." The process itself is not always a pleasant one, but there was no escaping it, no matter how hard we tried. Family life, life in the world, can also polish us.

As the cook at Tassajara I started out thinking that creating delicious food was the most important thing. So I composed the menus, and I decided who did what, and I finished the seasoning on each and every dish. I did things my way, the way they should be done. I was a young, inexperienced first-time manager, no doubt about it: Everybody should work the way I work, do things the way I do them. Wasn't that what being in charge was all about?

After the kitchen rebellion I felt embarrassed about going back to work there - vulnerable and exposed. Where could I ever be safe? The only safety was to trust in others, to trust in the life we were living together, trust in being revealed. Some say polished; some say ground.

The more deeply I looked, the more I had to admit the limitations of my efforts. Others had been deferring to me and not really taking responsibility for what happened in the kitchen, because I didn't give it to them. I always had to be there, since others could not function without me. Providing the answers meant I was important. And being indispensable meant I kept pointing out how great I was, how retarded they were. No one could grow. No one really got to develop his or her capacities.

How strangely disillusioning - that being important and indispensable meant being stuck. Others had been just as snared by the dynamic, yet they had postponed confronting me directly. When they did, not surprisingly, they were angry. After all, they had agreed to making me look good, while disowning their own capabilities.

When I went back to work in the kitchen, I began acknowledging other people's abilities, and letting them make decisions of consequence. I started taking regular days off and turning the kitchen over to one of the other members of the crew, each in turn. I felt an unfamiliar tenderness or compassion, since I knew that despite our best efforts, we can be so easily belittled or dismissed.

Of course as more members of the crew experienced the responsibility of generating meals, they became more sympathetic to what I had been going through. We began to share something: the work of the kitchen, the space of the kitchen, some camaraderie. I stopped feeling so alone and isolated.

Gradually I began to see what I was "doing" in a new way. Instead of striving so desperately to be indispensable, what I needed to do was train people to cook, train a successor, make myself dispensable.

Encouraging responsibility is often a delicate matter. When I worked at Greens Restaurant many years later I saw how easily responsibility can be given and taken back. The expeditor, who garnished and assembled each order, also had the responsibility of seeing that the next day's prep was done. But the head lunch cook would say, "You've got to do the potatoes now." So who's in charge? Who has responsibility? Not letting someone fail takes back the responsibility. To have responsibility means experiencing the consequences of one's actions.

Accountability, I found, was different from responsibility. If the head cook had inquired, "How's the prep going? What's left to be done?" then the expeditor would still have had the responsibility, but would have been obliged to give an accounting of how it was going and would probably have realized what remained to be done.

As a cook I had focused on the mechanics of kitchen work: cutting and scrubbing, organization and menu planning, inventory and ordering. Now I was finding out that empowering people to cook was much more gratifying. Training cooks, finding a successor - that was a goal worth working for. It has turned out to be a wonderfully engaging activity which I have spent years working on, decades, really, and it all came out of people's unhappiness with me. Out of it came cookbooks and managing Greens, cooking classes, and workshops. And I found that when I empowered people to cook, the food would take care of itself.

May you also awaken in others the thought of baking bread, washing rice, stirring soup, cutting carrots ... endlessly.

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