February 1st, 2014

“Wow, this taste’s amazing! Can you give me the recipe?”

I hear that a lot. Unfortunately, the answer always disappoints.

“There is no recipe, I-“

“What? No recipe?”

When you make something without a recipe, people always wonder how. It’s like nobody can comprehend the notion of making something without a plan. It’s a different approach to baking and cooking, but it’s more true.

“How do you make it without a recipe?”

I smiled.

“Well, it’s more of a matter of understanding the ingredients. If you understand the ingredients-“

“That is just amazing. I can’t believe it.” She took another bite, but that didn’t slow her interruption. “Absolutely phenomenal. I’d be lost without a recipe.”

Nobody really wants to know how it’s made. Nobody wants to understand what it takes to make something without a plan. Doing something without a plan takes much more discipline and much more practice. It takes an ability to fail.

I smiled, picking up on the hints that she was genuinely impressed, yet genuinely uninterested in learning how I was able to work without a recipe.

“So,” she said, changing the subject, “How do you like San Francisco?”

My approach to cooking is my approach to life. Know the ingredients, know the things that you need to accomplish what you’re trying to do, and adapt. Everything in a recipe is a template – A base suggestion. These work, but they have one major flaw – They don’t account for the circumstance.

“San Francisco is exactly where I need to be,” I said, looking out over the skyline. “It fits into my life seamlessly.”

She smiled, taking another bite of the dinner I’d prepared.

“How long had you planned on moving here?”

Planning, planning, planning. Not everything is about planning. I wanted to tell her that.

“A week before I found the apartment.” I said.

“Wow. That’s really fast!”

“Not when you know it’s the right thing to do.”

I don’t use recipes when I cook, because I feel the need to know what I’m doing, what I’m creating in a different sense. I understand the ingredients. I understand what is needed to make something taste sweeter, or saltier, or when the meat isn’t tender enough, or when the stovetop flames are higher than normal. I know all of these things.

A recipe fails because it doesn’t take into account all of these things – Each ingredient is intimately connected. The smallest over-abundance of one ingredient will require a change in all the others.

“Of course.” She sipped her wine. “I dunno. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to know what the right thing to do is until you try it.”

Working without a recipe takes practice. It takes time. You have to become familiar with each item, each action, each ingredient. By using recipes, you can free yourself from recipes. By using plans and schedules and budgets and time, you can eventually free yourself from those very things. The only way to become truly free of the rules is to know the rules so well that you can break them. That holds true for food, and it holds true for life.

She continued:

“How did you know it was right? I’ve been here almost two years and I’m still not sure if it’s right for me.”

She took another sip of her wine.

I almost smiled an empathetic smile.

The thing about cooking without recipes is that it only works for the chef who knows the ingredients. A chef can’t just write down everything he knows then pass it on to another chef and expect it to be the kind of spontaneous, adaptive, customized meal that the first chef could make. That’s called a recipe. And that’s why I don’t use recipes.

“What do you think?” She asked. “How can I tell if a city is the right place?”


I wish I could help.

But I can’t give you that recipe either, because it doesn’t exist.


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