What Leonard taught me about food

By Nancy Hinton on May 15, 2008

 Leonard Cohen taught me this about cooking:  Do not judge.  Just do your thing.  Try and please the person on the receiving end, the consumer of your art, whoever he or she is without any expectations of appreciation.

I think I do this naturally most of the time, but I needed to be reminded that this is the way it should be all the time.  It struck me as I was driving home listening to Leonard after a night of cooking for a bunch of yahoos, feeling exhausted and less than satisfied. As I cruised down the empty country roads, I got to rehashing the night and analysing the food, the customers, my performance and feelings. I pondered the importance of the target audience. Is there such a thing as cooking over people’s heads? And should I really care who I’m cooking for - if they’re doctors, farmers, hairdressers, foodies or among the food challenged? Don’t I just love to cook? Don’t I just love to make people happy? Which is most essential? And when it comes to experts, do they really know better anyway?

As I hummed along to ‘Everybody knows..’ and let all these ideas half consciously swirl around in my head, a certain clarity soon emerged about why I cook, and about the relationship between artist and audience, between host and guest in general. As usual, a few minutes with Leonard made me feel much better.

In the restaurant business, it is commonly accepted that most of the time, we are really cooking for a small segment of the population with our flourishes and fancy ingredients. Let’s say that 5 or 10% of your customers really know food and can tell the difference between Quebec lamb and New Zealand lamb, between consommé and a broth. Even fewer can understand the inspiration, the time involved or detect any complicated technique you pulled out of your hat.

Most chefs worth their salt naturally aim high anyway, wanting to select top notch ingredients and try new things regardless. Like true artists, they worship beauty, are forever doing their best to push personal limits, and like true nurturers, they want to please no matter what. And it usually pays off if they’re good. Others cut corners and cook to the lowest common denominator, figuring it is a waste to spend resources cooking over the guests’ heads.

Cooks cuss clueless customers all the time. I don’t like to, and I feel like I’ve grown out of that, maybe thanks to the fact that I’ve largely been graced with good customers. But when cooking for a gang of country bumpkins on a bender like tonight, I too get the feeling I may be wasting my time and energy getting too elaborate with primo ingredients and all that extra TLC and professionalism. I couldn’t help but think that I could have served them slop and still gotten all those sloppy kisses as departing thank you’s.

Then again, my relationship with Leonard Cohen’s music made me realize that it is still possible to be touched profoundly by something without understanding every nuance. If I can listen and feel so much in his music despite my musical handicap, then there’s a good chance that some of the culinary inept crowd can thoroughly appreciate a gourmet meal without verbalizing it just so (not that I think I’m a Chef like Leonard is a poet by any means, by the way).

They might not appreciate it exactly like someone in the business, or like a foodie might, understanding all the little details, but differently - based more on an overall impression, a more sensory or emotive response. ‘Is it yummy or not, did it move me or not?’ When I think of it, there can even be more magic that way.

I always loved music intensely because it elicited such an unexplainable, joyous response in me, precisely because I didn’t understand much about it and never had any musical talent. It was elusive and magical, beyond my reach, and thus so powerful. But a calibre musician would probably think that I could not fully appreciate his or her music, as an experienced chef might feel dismayed by an ignorant guest who doesn’t understand his or her food. I certainly don’t catch every little clever riff or innovation in a tune, but I couldn’t feel more pleasure or enjoy live music more than I do. Likewise, I know plenty of people (I can think of ex-boyfriends here) who love to eat but couldn’t care less if they taste the provenance of the olives or the perfect balance of flavours; they just know that it tastes great, and couldn’t be happier with their food.

Extra knowledge can heighten the experience no doubt, adding layers of appreciation, but it can also take away from the emotional response in the intellectual processing of it, which is why a connoisseur can be so much fussier and more difficult than a neophyte.

Whether it’s music or soufflé on the menu, I think that it all comes down to genuine interest and openness on the part of the recipient, and then skill and generosity on the part of the artist/giver for a successful communion. If you are attentive, eager and grateful of the offering as a taker, you are validating the product, which matters most to the giver. If he/she delivers and you like it, pleasure ensues. But you can like it intensely in a singular way, or the intensity can come from many levels of stimulation, all adding up to something equivalent. No matter how much you know, it’s all about how much you can have fun.

That’s really what it’s all about right. We all know that the best customers are the ones who are having fun no matter how damn smart or cultivated they are. But because fun is so different for everybody, obviously, we should refrain from underestimating the customer, and just be happy when they’re happy, and bothered if they’re not. Even if some ungrateful or uneducated eater thinks you just pulled the dish out of a drawer, they are still entitled to enjoy it however they like. They can ask for it well done or eat it with Baby Duck, while the couple at the next table is doing wine pairing with the finest from their cellar.

My own experience with snooty waiters dismissing me because I look young or perhaps poor, at least not like any kind of a connoisseur, just reinforces the notion of how crucial it is to be non-judgmental for me. And I can be a worthy Leonard Cohen fan too, like Joe Shmoe can be a worthy Ducasse fan. I will strive to do my best as a cook no matter who is at my table, as long as I hear laughter and mmm’s and ahh’s. Anything more is just bonus.


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