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Cinq et La Mort: The Journey to Mastery

Master Chef, Paul Bocuse

Listening to the French news today, a commentator began passionately discussing the loss of a Michelin star for Chef Paul Bocuse’s venerated restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. For those unfamiliar with Paul Bocuse, he was dubbed the “Pope” of French cuisine and helped shake up the world of food with his Nouvelle Cuisine revolution in the 1970s. Was the loss of a precious star caused by his absence due to his death last year? Whatever the reasons, Paul Bocuse was a master. 

This is the first time since 1965 his restaurant, which locals refer to simply as “Bocuse,” hasn’t been awarded the coveted, and highest possible, rating of three Michelin stars. During the broadcast, other respected chef’s commented with heavy hearts about the loss of the star, people on the street expressed obvious sadness, and special guests on the news program excitedly analyzed the unexpected news of the lost star. I thought to myself, no other country in the world would dedicate so much prime time television to discuss the loss of a restaurant’s Michelin starEvidence of the importance of food in France, and the public scrutiny for those who prepare it! 

Because I worked as a waiter in “fine dining” during college, have eaten in a two Michelin star restaurant in Burgundy, France, and was an investor and manager of a very ambitious chef-driven restaurant that won an international design award and had five minutes of local fame, I began to think seriously about my own work experiences and journey in life to try and cultivate a modicum of mastery. Undeniably, my years of hard work, failure, pain, success, and discovery had taught me some things, but not enough to feel a sense of “mastery.”  I feel such a deep respect and admiration for Paul Bocuse, and the tireless discipline and commitment he gave to his craft to maintain a 54-year-status as a three Michelin star chef/restaurant. There is more involved in that achievement than cooking.

I tried to identify the criteria that Michelin uses to determine who is worthy of their celebrated shiny stars, but learned that the methodology is as secret as the recipes of the chefs they judge. With that said, there were some known and fairly obvious standards. This is what I found:

According to the Guide, one star signifies “a very good restaurant,” two stars are “excellent cooking that is worth a detour,” and three stars mean “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey.”

• A restaurateur needs to treat every night as if it’s the night of a Michelin inspection.

• Cooking is an endless quest for perfection, which can never be achieved.

• Be on the cutting edge of new food trends, with a relentless pursuit of excellence, combined with a drive to innovate.

• Michelin-starred chefs have been known to personally source unique, hard-to-find ingredients, forging relationships with farmers, wine vintners, artisan bakers, cheese-makers and the like in order to work with the only the best, highest quality, and the most unique ingredients possible.

• “Walk to Canossa.”  This term derives from King Henry IV, when in Medieval Europe; he humbled himself before the pope. It’s also the nickname for the practice (which was apparently quite common up through the 1980s) in which chefs aspiring toward Michelin stardom would journey to Paris in order to meet with the guide’s editors, and make a case explaining why their restaurants deserved consideration.

With this general sketch of the Michelin stringency, I tried to organize my own thoughts about the stages required to reach a level of mastery, and to both identify and reflect where I’ve been in my life on the journey. I settled on the following five:

• Chaos

•  Skill

•  Pain

•  Zen

•  Mastery

Chaos

We innocently collide with foreign environments: language, methods, processes, personalities, expectations, ingredients, and intentions. We are overwhelmed and temporarily stymied by our own uncertainties and ineptitudes.

Is there peace on the path to mastery?  Probably not in the beginning!

When I entered the restaurant world, there were no “employee handbooks,” formal training programs, nor on-line tutorials. You learned by being thrown into the fire of “service.” You were given a task, and if you were fucking it up, they were quick to snap you into shape. If you were unable to get the hang of it—you were fired! You had to prove yourself by working hard and developing real skill. You learned by watching those that did it well.

My first restaurant job was in 1975 mopping floors and washing dishes at a European counter service restaurant, rare in Houston back then, for an old Greek man that screamed at me lovingly with a heavy accent, “I will teach you to work like a Greek!” When we got busy, during the dinner “rush,” he would don a clean crisp white apron. As customers ogled the myriad of exotic offerings like Coq au Vin, Musaka, Creamy Chicken Cacciatore, and Spanakopita, he would proudly describe every item on the steam table and why it was delicious. He ceremonially cut a thin slice of a baguette, and carefully ladled a generous sample onto the bread and placed it on a clean white plate, which he graciously offered the guest. He was a showman like no other: polite, funny, and quick to please his guests, which he valued and remembered each and every customer’s likes and dislikes. If a child was in line, he made a big deal about giving that kid something special. I on the other hand, was awkward speaking to guests, afraid of the food’s complexities, afraid to sound stupid, and I was overwhelmed by the physical expectations of my position: to scrub every pan on the steam table sparking clean, mop the floors, and clean the meat slicers, which I still sport an impressive number of scars on my fingers.

At 15-years-old, I entered a world unlike any I knew. From the route monotony of school emerged an exciting and chaotic human drama that would change my life, and certainly my perspective about people forever: I realized that wherever humans gather, in whatever social or ideological veneer, one will encounter the good, the bad, and the ugly, but never was the restaurant environment, nor the people who worked in them, boring! 

Skill

We reach a level of comfort that enables us to learn, we cultivate enough knowledge to begin to have skill, an ability to provide value and the realization that there is much more to be learned.

After two years of working for the Greek, I did what so many young people do in that business, I worked here and there over the next several years: a steak house, a yogurt, quiche, bagel, and smoothie shop in the mall, went off to college and danced in the Austin Ballet Theater company performing monthly, and ended up working in a family owned, very artsy, Russian restaurant. That is where the skill began. After washing dishes for some months, surrounded by my Picasso posters I brought in to decorate my workspace, the owners decided that I was far too personable to be at the helm of the dishes. They brought in a consultant to train me to wait on tables. 

The consultant/trainer, Greg Koury, told me some things that changed the course of my abilities. He was tall and commanding, with years of fine dining and management experience. 

“Lane, you need to see the entire restaurant as your section. Before you reach the table, you must “read” your guest. Are they celebrating, on a date, just left the hospital with a sick relative and are too tired to go home and cook? You must be a chameleon…”

The list of does and don’ts continued for some time. My first Sunday brunch as a waiter, and I made more money in gratuities than I made in a week washing dishes—I now realized the power of skills!

Pain

We are at the bottom of the pyramid, and we know it. We bang the drum of work, in hope of advancement, unsure if we have what it takes to advance. Over time we gain sufficient skill to generate a professional wage. We have specialized our talents enough to be on a path of mastery. We are simultaneously slapped by life’s unexpected existential pain: the loss of romantic love, death of a loved one, or natural disasters. Still, we must continue to fight. 

In 1982, I got a job at the new Hyatt Regency Hotel in Austin, Texas. This employment allowed me to pay for the remaining three years of my University of Texas undergraduate degree. The restaurant was very busy and the kitchen staff was ex-military and frequently shouted expletives and abuses at the waiters. This experience brought me, by necessity in short order, from the temperament of Bambi boy to a ‘don’t fuck with me fellows’ sort of guy!

In 1986, I encountered my first European trained boss, a tough Swiss-German named “Joe” who had a lifetime of food and beverage management experience and demanded an exacting standard that on at least one occasion brought me to tears. If we forgot to say good night to a guest, we were instantly fired. We were expected to eloquently articulate fifteen specials, including five desserts. Each item showcased as if we were representing a rare Padparadscha sapphire. Also grounds for termination: if we forgot to replace silverware for a guest’s next course, or if we didn’t come to work in clean, pressed clothing with shined shoes, and matching pens. 

When I met Joe I thought he was an Italian mobster in the Mafia, I was afraid of him, and was terrified before each shift began. I had to play really upbeat music before work, to try and mentally prepare myself for the service bacchanal. Yet, in spite of the challenges, after one year, I developed a level of skill that began to contribute to my self-esteem. I was undeniably a very good waiter. The following year I was honored by the citizens of Austin in the 1987 “Best Of” awards in the Austin Chronicle as the “Best waiter in Austin.”

This gave me the courage to accept a job as a Financial Services Advisor for a large U.S. financial services firm.  I acquired all my licensing to sell mutual funds in three days (funny story for another time): series 6 and 63, and was off to California for training. This job was interesting and I made great friends, but I quickly learned that calling on medical clients at the University of Texas Health Science Center gave me the distinct feeling that I was floating out of my body and observing a well-dressed idiot selling financial instruments. Not only did I truly not care about the financial space, I was competing against over 160 other qualified company’s financial products, and found the whole affair really uninteresting. Of course, now I know that there was more at play than boredom! After six months, I returned to Austin, defeated, and more confused than ever about my life’s path.

In 1989, I accepted a job as a Language Consultant in Tokyo, Japan and found myself immediately, and utterly overwhelmed by the cultural differences, and the tiring demands of my position. My clients were leading Japanese corporations, and I worked with their managers to prepare them to do business abroad: language skills, coupled with cross-cultural understanding. Fascinating, and fatiguing, after three years I rose like a phoenix from the ashes of my former uncertain self, married to a Mexican-German coffee heiress, and returned to the United States with a wonderful new sense of maturity, no debt, and enough money saved to invest in my future, this time as an entrepreneur.

Upon my return from Japan in 1993, I invested money with the same guy that trained me to wait tables back in 1980 in his dream project. I tried to call upon everything I had learned for the many years I worked in restaurants, and from my travels, to inject a spirit of excellence in service quality that no other business in our community could possibly compare. I brought a top hair stylist in to consult with the entire staff on how to be their most attractive in appearance. I engaged the staff in rigorous training, both on the menu, bar and exceptional wine list, and our unique service approach. We would be polite, approachable, filled with personality while maintaining a certain decorum that ensured the guest we were there to serve them. Our service and selling proposition was knowledge, and sensitivity to our guest’s needs. We would be experts in guiding our guests through a dining experience. Well, that was the goal! As life has a way of doing, many factors attempted to thrust sticks in our wheels of operation. 

As trouble brewed with our restaurant project, I decided to assist a famous writer who I met in the restaurant for a part-time job, for six months, while I created a coffee company using the beans from my father-in-laws plantations in Chiapas, Mexico. I worked really hard arranging a warehouse, logo and packaging design, roaster, and called on grocery clients to distribute the product. Our coffee was the first in Texas to bring green coffee beans directly from a family farm, roast locally, and make available to consumers packaged. I quickly found interested stores to sell our brand in both Austin and San Antonio, including a contract with the military. Everything was looking good…until, my wife and I divorced. Ah yes, pain. And, the old familiar feeling that I would never find my “place” or find “success.”

Zen

Sometimes from our deepest despair we are awarded opportunity from the most unlikely of circumstances. From this place of authentic gratitude—realizing the world owes us nothing—we work with right heart and mind. As a result, a new level of success opens for us. The more we work from a place of gratitude and joy, the fuller our lives become. We don’t embrace, nor entertain, our fears and limitations; instead we reach deeper within, and focus energetically in the moment. As Chef Bocuse is purported to say to his young cooks, “Work as if you are going to live until you’re 100, and live as if you’re going to die tomorrow.”

Feeling pretty down about my life, I got a call from my buddy, Greg: the same guy who taught me how to wait tables, included me in his big restaurant project, and now out of the blue he calls and says he needs a marketing guy. This led to a wonderful four-year relationship as the groups Marketing Director. The truly magical thing is he looked at me and said, “Lane, I love you and I trust you—do your thing!” I didn’t even know what my “thing” was, or what I was doing. However, because he truly empowered me to do my job, I worked with tireless passion to bring the coolest energy and creativity to that business as possible, and I quickly learned that the more positive, exciting energy that I brought and stirred, the business began to see increase in profits. Over the next four years, I helped open another full-service restaurant, a counter service concept, produced two musical CD’s, shot a documentary film, raised a lot of money for charities, had monthly art shows, art directed ad campaigns, arranged numerous appearances on radio and television, created a photography “micro-gallery,” and as I enriched the company, I enriched my skills and my self-esteem.  

My position allowed me to cultivate the skills to open my own boutique advertising, design, and marketing agency. Little did I know that all those years of anticipating guest’s needs and delivering with positive enthusiasm and manners, studying the liberal arts, participating in theater and dance, would help forge my skills into a very desirable creative marketing solution for over eighty companies.  I learned to extrapolate the unique qualities and essence of my clients, and to determine what there selling proposition was in order to create original marketing collateral and germinate unique ad campaigns. 

After two years in a partnership, I went on my own.  For the next 15 years, I cultivated an impressive roster of clients from small business professionals to large medical groups and a global manufacturing company. I found it particularly gratifying when I returned to the Hyatt Regency, not as a waiter, but as a marketing consultant who managed the publicity for a $17 million dollar property remodel, as well as doing work for Hyatt, Conventions of Texas, and Hyatt Regency Baltimore Inner Harbor, in Baltimore.  

In 1996, I reunited with an old girlfriend and married my wife, Karen, four years later. It was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, including a men’s group where I learned to deal with my issues on a very deep level and take responsibility for my own healing.  I am certain that this chapter of my life was the finest of times, the richest context, and prompted exponential growth. At a certain point, I would face the stars in my backyard and say, “God, if this is as good as it will ever get, thank you so much for all that I have, and for all that I feel…” 

Then, as life does, another wave of challenges arrive. At the end of 2008, the U.S. economy came as close to an economic depression as the Great Crash of 1929. All of my wonderful clients stopped spending money with me, uncertain if there would even be a marketing budget in their future. As the smoke was clearing, my father developed Alzheimer’s disease, and had no will, no power of attorney, or plan in place for his care, and my brother developed cancer.

In a state of true fear, I decided I needed to do something to convert that fear into love. I decided to write a children’s book utilizing my knowledge of Japan, the culture, Buddhism, history, and make it fun. This led to a series of three books, The “Kieko the Fairy” series that I delivered to an interested, then president of animation at Paramount Pictures, for consideration. (Sadly, they declined on making the series into an animated film!). 

Just when I felt that I was past all of my childhood pains, recovered from my youthful angst and uncertainties, I was delivered several blows in succession over a period of years: one of my best friends from university took his own life, I discovered that my father was not my biological father, my brother died of cancer, and then both father’s died. Uninspired to think about doing anything else, I continued to write more books. I spent a total of ten years completing six books, and a re-writing a musical. 

Needless to say, this level of isolation and focus has brought on some serious bumps in my marriage, loss of financial income, and another round of profound metaphysical questions about why I am on the planet, and what I should be doing with my life. The difference this time is that my ego is not pushing me into an explosive tripwire. In other words, I know how to deal with my personal pain in a healthier way. I have the life skills to negotiate unknown waters and certain fears. I can approach everyday with a certain acceptance. There is much to be gained from such a simple and powerful word—acceptance! To accept what is and what you can’t change, to have the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference, as we learn from the “Serenity Prayer.”

On the Road to Mastery

At the heart of mastery is sustainable passion and the tireless pursuit of perfection. Not from a place of the ego, but from the higher mind, or heart that can take a lifetime to learn. 

I can’t tell you what it feels like to have mastered something. I still struggle with grammar, the right word here or there, and doubt my own creative voice far too often. But, I am certainly on the path. I have lived sixty years with my eyes wide open, my heart open, and have taken every opportunity to learn more about myself, the world I live in, other cultures, languages, art, food, wine, literature, philosophy, religions, financial success, and the metaphysical.  Lately, I find myself compressing all those experiences into a simple somewhat idiotic hillbilly koan, “It is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t!” Normally, I laugh after saying it. 

As I enter a more mature age, I am hyper-aware of my desire for simplicity, meaning, love, peace, and creative expression that unifies the human heart. I am fully aware of the complexities around me: conflict, rapacious greed, the illusion of true democracy in contemporary politics, environmental degradation and poison, the perversion of social engineering and war by certain forces for control and economic gain, misinformation, polarization, poverty, illness, and outright murder. In the face of reality we are left with one undeniable, inalienable force, that no one, or nothing can take from us—our free will: how we move in the world, and how we react to it. We can choose love, or we can choose fear. Our choice! Both decisions have powerful consequences. A universal paradigm/principle: cause and effect.

Part of the mastery phase is passing on your knowledge to a younger generation. Showing them how to harness their passion. Giving them a safe place to flourish. Paul Bocuse was known to care about the next generation. He created his own foundation for young chefs, and the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious cooking competition in the world for young chefs. I hope that someday, I too will have something worthy to share and leave behind.

Wherever you find yourself on your path, I wish you love, with the certainty that when we give from our highest place, when we accept life, when we give all the love in our heart with dedication and tenacity, then, when it is time to meet our death, we welcome it as just another stage on our path to mastery, and we face it unafraid, because we have lived our lives to the fullest.

As for Paul Bocuse, and his lost Michelin star, I choose to believe the star left his restaurant to streak across the universe to meet him on the other side, to shower light and love on a man that had the courage, the strength, and the dignity to become a master. 

by Lane Rockford Orsak

January 19, 2020

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