A Reason for Recipes

“Americans, more than any other culture on earth, are cookbook cooks; we learn to make our meals not from any oral tradition, but from a text.”
—John Thorne, Simple Food

There is a lament in Mr. Thorne’s words. A regret for a bygone era of cooking, or perhaps one that never came to America, young as the nation is when compared to some others. An era when recipes were handed down by the doyennes of the kitchen to their daughters, bringing to mind images of warm hearths and burnished farm tables; or by virtuoso chefs to a cadre of apprentices in sparkling, well organized restaurant kitchens.

There is much to be said for that kind of cooking—most notably that each generation bears and owns a sense of responsibility to their traditions and to passing them on, usually enriched by an attendant respect for the land and the its ingredients, a smattering of pleasant ritual and an invaluable hands-on training in technique.

But there is much to be said for cooking from cookbooks and recipes as well.

The most obvious of the benefits of recipes is that they more or less guarantee repeated and consistent success. And what cook has not wished that they had used a tried and true recipe at that moment when they’re putting out a somewhat dubious dinner for a table full of expectant and hungry guests?

Along with that consistency, comes a certain stability, or structure, if you will, within which one can be successfully creative. Once a recipe has been mastered, by repeated and obedient execution, it allows the cook a foundation on which to safely play and experiment. Substituting an ingredient here, adding a little step there—and voila! A new dish, perhaps even a new tradition, is born.

But there is more to recipes than their reassuring repeatability. Recipes allow us to explore new cuisines and techniques, to bring into our kitchens, worlds and ingredients our grandmothers neither dreamed of visiting nor would have known what to do with in the kitchen.

Recipes also break down unfamiliar, seemingly magical foods into a series of simple steps that anyone can follow. Who remembers the wonder of making their first soufflé? Or the miracle of baking pâte à choux for eclairs for the first time and the delighted disbelief at its perfectly empty interior?

But perhaps, best of all, recipes make teachers of us all, whether our students be near or far, known or anonymous. And then recipes let our students become teachers and the cycle continues and spreads, far more rapidly and powerfully than any oral tradition could, and while one would not argue with Mr. Thorne, that there is something to lament in a nation of “cookbook cooks”, perhaps there is also something to celebrate.

The power of recipes translates just as powerfully outside the kitchen, and for many of the same reasons. Small businesses, or large ones for that matter, would do well to understand and harness the power of recipes.

It is not an uncommon challenge, in small businesses in particular, that seemingly simple tasks can be the source of frequent frustration because each person executes them somewhat differently. Wiping down a table in a restaurant or coffee shop would seem to be a task that is simplicity itself, and yet we’ve all sat at tables where only the edges were wiped, or tables with an unintentional pattern of water spots, or tables where clean meant “transfer crumbs to floor and chair”. It would be no large effort to write a recipe for such a simple task, but the power of it would be far out of proportion to the effort.

Recipes are also a protection against the tyranny of competence. Regulars at many coffee shops will tell you that there are baristas whose drinks verge on being downright undrinkable and yet, the other barista in that same coffee shop serves up sublime cappuccinos. Why must it be so? While there will always be varying degrees of skill and virtuosity in any profession, must we also accept so dramatic a vacillation in quality? The best coffee shops, one imagines, have ingredients and proportions for each drink they serve and a standardized set of instructions – in other words, a recipe.

The least intuitive of the uses of recipes in the management of a business is for those ideas and concepts that we consider to be somewhat nebulous or abstract – such as great service, or inspiring leadership, or caring conflict resolution. And yet, were we to keenly observe and meaningfully engage those that we find to be consistently superior practitioners of these abstract skills we would find that there is a pattern of behavior that emerges, and a repeated drawing upon of tried and true techniques. The foundations of a recipe.

And so it is, that we must respectfully thank Mr.Thorne for his regrets about recipes, and for enriching our lives with so many brilliant books, and then with a wink and a nod in his direction, turn to our near-perfect cappuccinos, delivered to us by a barista with a happy, enthusiastic smile, and sit at our spotless tables, and begin to develop a recipe for good service in our workplace.