From Kneading Dough to Wedging Clay
Written during the UK Lockdown 1, this is a short photo essay on how you might discover a new skill by doing what you already do best.
This piece inspired a subsequent project: Terram Panis.
There are certain things that you only learn with time and experience. In my first year of cooking, I fooled myself into thinking that I could start a career as a recipe developer without any kitchen experience. Scared by stories of chefs suffering nervous breakdowns and succumbing to drug addiction under their workload, and having witnesses the endemic machismo that festers like a dry rot in most kitchens, I decided that I could make a name for myself from the comfort of my home.
Of course not all kitchens are like this, and it’s is certainly not out of the realm of possibility to become a successful chef without having stepped behind the grill. But there are certain things that you can only learn in situ. One will rarely find themselves tasked with slicing 10kg of leeks when catering a dinner at home, and a weeks worth of meals, prepped on a Sunday night, are nothing compared to the repetition involved in making 120 vegan sausage rolls a week. It is through experience that a good chef learns how to move.
I’ve lost countless hours watching videos of chefs chopping vegetables, or kneading dough, and you can guarantee that my explore page on Instagram is a rolling stream of different food processing footage. In this respect I may be biased by my profession, but I find it mesmerising watching a skilled pair of hands seamlessly dice onion after onion with the greatest of ease, or fillet a fish in a matter of seconds (I may be vegan by diet but I am curious by nature). The same can be said for watching an artist sketch a portrait, or a decorator plaster a wall, there is a fascination in watching someone skilled in their labour interact with their work.
In her book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”, Samin Nosrat talks of how she observed chefs watching the food to control the heat dial rather than watching the heat dial to control the food. She goes on to talk of how, with experience, one learns to use a recipe as inspiration rather than following it for guidance. I believe the same is true with how one moves.
Working in a professional kitchen, one if the most valuable things I have learnt is movement. Cooking requires a lot of effort, and much like other laborious professions the more experience you have, the better your brain and muscles remember the moves. Like a dancer flowing through practiced steps, ask an experienced chef to chop a pile of peppers and their arms know exactly what to do, fluidly engaging with their work in one constant motion.
To slice a pumpkin I move from my feet to my hands, and there’s not a part of me that isn’t engaged when I’m kneading dough. Try cutting 15 butternut squash using just your wrist and you will learn the hard way, much like I did, that it requires more than just an arm to do all that work.
Before I was a chef I studied and worked in graphic design, and growing up, my parents encourage all form of artistic expression, so I fostered an interest in using my hands from a young age. The career change from designing to cooking was less a transition and more of an expansion. Where I look at my dishes with a designers eye, I create my food with a makers hands.
I remember watching as Netflix series called Zumbo’s Just Desserts, the Australian answer to Great British Bakeoff. Two of the contestants: Michael from season one, and Simon from season two, both worked in construction. Michael was a bricklayer and Simon, who (spoiler alert) won first runner up, was a cementer. Both men came from physically intensive jobs that require strength and precision, and both had a passion for fine desserts and delicate patisserie. Setting aside the stigma that they both likely faced as construction men with a desire to bake, I found it interesting how they both equated their dessert making to their professional work. Michael often talked about how constructing a dessert was just like building a wall, and Simon made numerous comparisons between cementing and cake decorating.
In two careers which seem societally to be worlds apart, it’s interesting how the crossover is so apparent. Or is it? After all, the only differences between planing wood and slicing courgette on a mandolin are the tools of your trade. We are led to believe that we are our profession and that is our lot, but I am challenged by this and think we are far more than that.
Most of us are accustomed to 5 day weeks, working 8 hours a day in the same line of work, producing the same things and repeating the same processes. So when suddenly presented with a prolonged period of isolation, where many of us are learning how to be with ourselves, it offers the perfect opportunity to diverge from what you believe you are constrained to, into something that you already know how to do. All we have to do is translate it to a different language. Let me explain.
During my quarantine I have experimented in a variety of creative outlets besides cooking. As I mentioned before I am accustomed to applying myself creatively in many different ways, so this transition of mediums comes easily. But it is also in large part because I already know what I’m doing, I’ve just never done it with that material.
On a walk in the fields behind my house, I came across a stream that cuts through a seam of natural clay. Inspired by a ceramicist I had seen on Instagram, who forages “wild” (natural) clay as her chosen medium, I planned to excavate some for myself.
Armed with a trowel and some leakproof bags, I went back to the site the following day, returning home 2 hours later and 8 kilograms heavier. Following the guidance of Nina (@unurget.argilla on Instagram) - the wild clay ceramicist in question, I sourced some grog (in my case sand) from the nearby stream, and wedged (kneaded) the clay, mixing the two materials ready for use. With my first batch of workable clay I made a set of bowls and a bottle. I then left them to dry. That afternoon, I mixed flour and water into dough and left it to autolyse (a rest that helps gluten grow) for several hours. Then I added my starter, oil and salt and folded them in before leaving the dough to prove overnight.
The following morning I preheated a large cast iron pot in the oven at 250C. When the oven reached heat, I placed the dough in the pot, slashed it and replaced the lid. It baked for 30 minutes, before I removed the lid, exposing the blooming loaf to the full heat of the oven to brown off. When it was done I took the loaf out and left it to cool, before my parents and I ate it.
That same evening, following a day in the sun and some smoothing with sand paper, my ceramics were ready to fire. I prepared a wood fire in the chimenea and arranged my ceramics near the flames, turning them regularly so they heated gently at the same rate. When the layers of wood burnt down and a bed of white hot coals was revealed, I carefully placed my ceramics on top, built a ceiling of wood over them and left the fire to burn down overnight. The next morning I took out the pots and left them to cool, before admiring them with my parents.
Two completely unique results from what is essentially the same process, all that is required is a different medium.
Through sharing my creative work on Instagram: from delicate gastronomic experiments to carefully painting vegetables and baking bread to pit fired ceramics, I have received a lot of feedback, and there is one recurring theme: how do I know how to work in so many mediums? I believe it is because I know how to translate my skills, and I want to encourage you to do the same. Everyone has a different and unique skillset and no one knows your abilities better than you, so I cannot tell you what to try, but I recommend identifying a process in which you excel and exploring how it might be applied to a different medium.
No one should feel pressed into learning a new skill right now. A global pandemic is not a test of your discipline in learning something new, it is a time of collective trauma that we all cope with in different ways. All I want to do its present you with a way of thinking that might release a new interest you can explore, to help translate your world of skill to another language of production.