A Zen chef’s recipe for existential success

The secret ingredient is not fearing failure.
The secret ingredient is not fearing failure.
Image: Reuters/Abhishek N. Chinnappa
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Some days you just want to order takeout. Your existential fridge is empty, your emotional pantry bare. It seems like you don’t have the right ingredients for a good meal or experience. But you always do, or so argues a new Zen cookbook that’s also a guide to a better life.

In No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice, Zen chef Edward Espe Brown explores the kitchen as a metaphor for existence. Brown—guru of better-known foodies like former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, Moosewood cookbooks author Mollie Katzen, and grill master and TV host Steven Raichlen— argues that using whatever is on hand and detaching from desired outcomes leads to mastery in cooking and in life. His instructions are pretty simple: Don’t follow anyone else’s recipe and do pay attention.

Abandon expectations

For Brown, now 72, conventional notions of success never applied. He dropped out of college and joined the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in San Francisco hoping to “attain true realization.” After three years, Brown became the temple’s head cook. He viewed his time in the kitchen as meditation, but it also made him extremely influential in the mindful cooking movement.

Brown explains that to get there, he abandoned expectations:

Our usual approach is to start by dreaming up a picture—that is, coming up with a recipe—of how we want things to turn out. […]Then we effort to make our dream come true. It’s often more work than we imagined, and the results can fail to measure up. We call this freedom—to chase after dreams. Chasing after dreams in this horizontal world most often feels vaguely unsatisfying.

Espe argues that it’s actually the dream of the perfect meal (or day, or job, or relationship) that hampers satisfaction. In the cookbook, he asks rhetorically: ”Crafting your image, developing your brand, that’s life—isn’t it? Or is there more to life than looking good?”

Find satisfaction in the process

“When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots,” Brown tells NPR. “Absorb yourself fully. Experience your experience closely.”

In a culture that celebrates realizing big dreams, practicing detachment from specific outcomes seems totally alien. How could you possibly be happy with a simple ramen—real or metaphorical—when people are out there eating caviar at five-star restaurants?

Brown advises approaching life like an investigation, asking what might happen instead of seeking specific outcomes that might disappoint. “Enlightened by the ingredients, you follow your nose,” he writes.

Don’t be afraid to fail

Brown believes you can achieve wonderful results as long as you’re willing to fail and feel. ”Instead of tying yourself down so that nothing volatile arises, use what is vibrant and volatile,” he writes in the book. “If I were to cook only when I was feeling most loving, kind and benevolent, I would have starved long ago.”

In any case, the chef argues, fearing failure is what leads to failure. “We are not attached to our original recipe, our original dream, trying, often forcefully, to make it come true,” he writes. “We are using what’s on hand and dreaming up what to do next with the resources, both inner and outer, that we have available.”