I’ve been helping a friend lately do some cooking. The holidays are forged in the crucible of the kitchen. I never became a proficient cook, mostly because I don’t enjoy being the chef, but I seem to be a natural-born sous chef. I love to help, not lead, in putting it all together. I’m just compulsive enough to enjoy cutting up vegetables in tiny pieces and attending to myriad details so the chef can focus on the bigger picture. I’d rather follow directions, and orders, issued by the kitchen general — at least the one I happen to work with.
Cooking, I’ve learned, is not about making a glorious mess, then at some point after the dinner having to face the intimidating remains. The sous (pronounced soo) helps by cleaning up and putting things away in the fridge as we go, so the disorder on the counters and in the sinks doesn’t sink the final product. This is especially important in Oak Park’s limited-space kitchens, which demand adroit choreography as we maneuver to avoid costly collisions.
A sous chef is the extra pair of hands and eyes, the assistant who allows a talented cook to do her best, which pays off in the eating. “Enabling” in the best sense of the word — stirring the pot, measuring ingredients, reading recipes aloud so the chef can concentrate on the doing. I do what I’m told, asking for clarification when necessary.
But it’s more than taking direction. It’s an education, working with real food, not just heating up pre-prepared dinners as I did for too many years. I’m learning knife skills, how to cut and which implement to use, the names of obscure seasonings, how to combine ingredients, how a meal takes shape. I’ve learned that the art of cooking is collaboration.
And I’ve learned that company is the fun of cooking. We ask Alexa to play music to cook by. Recently we took a musical tour of 1971 and then got reacquainted with the songs of Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina. Artificial intelligence is not musically savvy, though, so Alexa doesn’t always play what we want, but that’s part of the fun, too.
I enjoy playing second fiddle and not being in charge. The chef, on the other hand, likes being in charge, so we’re quite compatible. All I have to remove from the recipe is ego. It’s a very satisfactory arrangement. I marvel watching a confident cook dancing around the kitchen, sometimes literally, unafraid of working with an array of foods and seasonings that I always found dizzying and daunting. I actually know how to mince garlic cloves now.
It made me wonder whether sous-ing also applies to the rest of my life. Here at Wednesday Journal over the last 31 years, I was frequently in charge, but I never felt comfortable in that role. Managing people, for instance, is not my strong suit. But however effective or ineffective I might have been, I didn’t enjoy the pressure. Since retiring five years ago, I have continued working at the newspaper two days a week, absorbed in the fine minutiae of copyediting during deadline. I’ve never enjoyed working here more.
I am the extra pair of hands and eyes, which makes a difference in the finished product. I’m still in charge of the Viewpoints section and obituaries, but I view my role as facilitating the process of getting other people’s opinions in the paper and allowing families enough leeway to convey the essence of their dearly departed. Sometimes I have to tone down their enthusiasm or even draw the line, but I do it because people can get hurt if I don’t. The news stories I edit benefit from the context I can provide. I’ve been around longer than most of the reporters here.
I’m also a grandparent — or as I like to think of it, a sous parent. As a younger man, I was an anxious parent, particularly when responsibilities fell on my shoulders, as they often did. Sous parenting, on the other hand, is great fun. I respect and reinforce the limits their mom sets, and if my twosome complain, I tell them to take it up with her. I’m just following orders. I do indulge them — but the pressure is off. Mom knows I’m there to help. And there’s a personal payoff, just as there is in being a sous editor and a sous chef: The satisfaction of feeling useful and of value.
Some people seem to enjoy being in charge — sometimes driven to be in control. But many of the best things in my life have occurred when I wasn’t in control, with a couple of exceptions. For some reason, even though I’m terrified of public speaking, I keep volunteering to do it. I don’t quite understand this. Also, when I’m on long hikes with a group in a natural setting, I usually end up at the front of the line, reading the terrain, cautioning people behind me about tripping hazards. Maybe I was Daniel Boone in a previous life.
And, as you may have noticed, each week in this space I speak with a certain, possibly annoying, authority. I don’t know where that comes from either. Maybe it’s a higher authority speaking through me, and I’m just a sous columnist after all.
There’s an art to knowing when to be in charge and when not to be, a time to empower others and a time to empower ourselves. But there’s much to be said for being a helper.
The late, great Mr. Rogers said that whenever he felt anxious and helpless about world events spinning chaotically out of control, his mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers.” He found them everywhere because they are everywhere — the antibodies that counteract the ruthless grandiosity of those in power who muck things up.
Too many chefs, we’ve always been told, spoil the broth.
But a chef and a sous chef?
Ah! Soup’s on.