I’ll never forget that first class at the International Culinary Center. As a passionate home cook, I signed up for the intense 120-hr Culinary Techniques course hoping to improve my skills. Donned in my crisply pressed whites, I set up my station with a mixture of excitement and fear. My knives were sharp and I was ready to learn.
Our first lesson was in taillage, or the art of chopping vegetables. Chef demonstrated each cut with precision and ease. I watched as she effortlessly sculpted carrots and turnips into every imaginable shape—jardinière, émincer, julienne, macédoine. After her inspiring demo, I gathered my materials and got to work. Having chopped many a carrot in my day, I was confident in my abilities. If I’m being honest, I pretty much expected to nail the challenge.
How do I put this? The whole experience was a disaster. Not only did I struggle to hold the knife correctly, but my cuts were pathetic. I was especially bad at tournage, or turning, which is the painstaking process of whittling potatoes or carrots into little footballs. My hands cramped and my fingers blistered. It was my first slice of humble pie, one of many I’d choke down during my twelve weeks at ICC.
I re-learned how to do the simplest of things: boil an egg, chop a carrot, whip cream by hand. It was frustrating, and liberating. It’s hard to go back to the basics and accept that you don’t really know what you thought you knew. It’s also incredibly inspiring to discover a new understanding of something you thought you already understood. Of all the amazing and delicious things I learned at ICC, the biggest and most surprising lesson was the value of a beginner’s mind.
Being a beginner is an advanced practice. It takes courage, honesty, and humility. Experience is invaluable, but without curiosity we run the risk of boxing ourselves into a limited perspective. Cultivating a beginner’s mind helps us find new meaning in our experience.
We can adopt a beginner’s mind in our meditation practice by observing our thoughts and feelings with compassionate curiosity. How do our thoughts and feelings manifest in our physical body? Why do we engage with certain thoughts and avoid others? What’s the origin of our story?
This kind of questioning pulls back the curtain on our habitual ways of seeing and doing. Ultimately, it offers insight into who we are.
There’s no doubt I graduated the Culinary Techniques course a better cook. More importantly, I left with a deeper appreciation for my passion. Practicing with a beginner’s mind has encouraged me to open my eyes and pay attention, even and especially in those moments when I think I already know. It has given me the gift of wonder. After all, there’s always more to see.
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