BY JANA GERING
I recently started volunteering at a cooking school. I know, I know. How charitable of me. What a sacrifice. I typically wash the dishes while the chef supervises the students in cooking. Then I get to eat what they made and/or burned. It’s great! Argentine, Italian, Thai, Chinese…I get to watch and learn from the classes.
It all happened because my brother-in-law bought me a cooking class for Christmas. I really enjoyed the class, and the sense of belonging that being around the table with people brings. At a time where I’m really finding a lot of reasons to wonder where and if I belong anywhere, sitting around the table with a bunch of cooks and classmates fills something special in my soul. I remembered the class fondly, and took note of their volunteer program.
Fast forward to summer’s end, when I am going on my 4th month of unemployment and job-searching. One day, I just needed to do something useful and menial again, for someone other than myself. There are lots of opportunities to volunteer in the city, and I helped with some of them that were close to my interests: an arts program and a storytelling event called Ignite Seattle.
But I remembered the cooking class, and looked them up to find that they were in need of volunteers. I signed up for a few classes and found that I enjoyed not just the food and the small-group element, but something deeper about it. Cooking is always very sensory, but the chefs and teachers at Hipcooks are always reminding the students to smell, taste, touch, listen, and watch the process. When the sugar turns golden, turn off the burner. When the paella crackles, lower the heat. Good shrimp al aioli should spit and crackle vehemently. Always let your steak rest. Rock the knife to slice herbs properly. Taste the vanilla bean paste. Firmly pinch the empanadas to seal them, but gently enough not to tear the pastry. Toast your own cumin. Make your own salad dressing. Season to taste.
It’s creative, but it’s also ritual. There are right ways and wrong ways, an order to the evening. Burners are always set out with a clean spoon on a small plate for stirring. Clean pans hang on a row of hooks; knives go on the magnetic strip. Bowls of Maldon salt, jars of preserved lemons, and toasted spices lining the shelf. Lists and notes and dishes and sweeping up at night. I’ve missed a big shared kitchen.
I started volunteering just in time to be invited for the appreciation lunch. I walked into the kitchen to find the four staff chefs hard at work, cooking for us. As the volunteers trickled in, glasses of sangria made their way into our hands, appetizer platters of house-made goat cheese with tomato-damson plum jam disappeared, and Chef Bonny stirred a huge copper bowl of more tomato-plum jam to be sent home with us.
We sat around the big table and savored the food and drink. Anytime I am one person among others around a table with good food, I realize the complete and ridiculous extravagance of creative work in a fresh way. We spend time making something beautiful that brings people to the table. It is consumed, but something more important remains. Time, attention, care, and beauty all work together to create an experience that connects and transforms us. Yes, it is extravagant, as art so often is. One of my favorite essays from painter Makoto Fujimura talks about this need for extravagance
Many consider the arts to be the “extra” of our lives, an embellishment that is mere leisure. Yet how many hours of sacrifice go into being able to play a sonata by Chopin? Or a dancer’s flight on stage at the Lincoln Center? What many consider extra, and even wasteful, may come to define our humanity.
It’s this picture of joyful, beautiful extravagance at the table that is reminding me to be grateful, generous, and creative these days.