Saturday, April 25, 2009

Knowing Your Limits

What's nice about not working full-time as a chef, is that I have no choice but to take out of context lessons and make them relevant, otherwise I won't grow at the rate I want to. I've got to try a lot harder to catch up. One observation is seeing many of chefs trying to operate outside their skill levels perhaps in the name of experimentation. I see that a lot too just in general.

So for some background here, I've been competing in shooting sports since I was young...I love it. In the current discipline (distance rifle), under timed conditions, high winds, distances from 100 to 1km, we take shots at targets very precisely. There is one game in particular we play, called KYL or Know Your Limits. I'll try to describe it as if you were there.

Here's the game: there are 5 circular steel plates out a ways, last time it was around 400 yards, 4 football fields. You have 5 shots. Each target is worth 20 pts. There are a few problems though, they each get smaller, starting at 10 inches, ending at 4 inches, don't forget the high winds and the need for computed ballistics predictions. Also, you have 45 seconds for all 5 shots, AND, if you miss a target, you lose all your points. Which means that you could have plinked 4 out of 5 targets, and miss the last, only to be beaten by someone who hit the first target, and stopped shooting. Hence, knowing your limits, or skill level. Also people are egging you on to "go for it."

So at the competition, I guess the wind reading, 7 mph, dial in a few clicks into my scope, and press 5 rounds into my rifle's magazine. The timer starts, and I focus onto the first plate in the cross hairs. I even out my breath after the 2nd full breath. I squeeze the trigger gently and feel the gun kick pretty hard. The ref yells "impact!" and I quickly eject the hot brass. The bullet impacts a few inches off of center but was still a hit. Must be the wind, so I make a mental adjustment. I shoot two more times, and two more targets are hit with a center impact on the last one. Very encouraging.

Through the electronic hearing protection, I hear "GO FOR IT!!" quite loudly. I put the pad of my fingertip against the trigger, and begin my shot process, while watching the vegetation for a change of wind direction. I can feel my clear Oakley M-Frames digging into my brow as I focus. But then I relax the pressure on my trigger finger, and slowly open the bolt. I pull the live round out of the rifle, slightly warm. I hear the ref call time and yell "Unload your gun and show clear." After triple checking for safety, I place my rifle on the safe rack, and sat down to reflect. After a few moments of quiet time, I realized I hadn't taken that shot because I knew that under those wind conditions, I wasn't confident in my ability to hit the smaller plate, but I had done the smart thing. I wasn't dialed in and so I didn't go beyond what I practiced.

Turns out, 60 points was the high score. Not an overly risky strategy, but clearly good enough to win.

And now back to the kitchen, I see this manifesting itself with poor execution. A dish that comes out, with lots of complexity, a really busy sauce, sour, sweet, salty, but still missing the balance, the basics. I think you see this with sushi a lot. A piece of nigiri (fish on rice), with a strange topping. Interesting topping, but the rice is not seasoned, and the fish has a rough cut. Looking further, a dull knife. And this is not to say experimentation is unwarranted, but it's got to be appropriate and within your capabilities. Take for example what happened to Carla in this season's top chef. She broke out sous vide, it wasn't her game, or previous practice, and according to some, lost some of her previous credibility. She's a great chef, but in this case, went for the 4th target unnecessarily.

I think what impresses me is a simple dish, but with the ingredients, plating, concept, well thought through. It shows refinement. It shows discretion. It's one reason why I love Japanese cooking so much and I've just scratched the surface. Well done Japanese food does take other cultures influences of course, but it strips away the noise, the clutter. It transforms a dish, into an elegant idea, with a minimal number of ingredients but it's impact is much greater than the sum of the parts. And I think that operating within your skill level is key.

A really good shooting coach once told me, that under competitive situations, you will not rise to the occasion, but instead, you will default to your level of training, your skill level. I would love to see fellow chefs embrace that idea, and operate to 100% of their current skill, rather than 60% of a skill yet to be acquired. That makes for a great meal. Save experimentation for family meal and not on diner's checks =)

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