Harnessing the Parfait

Photo: Chandrika221 (Flickr)

I’ve had a rare gift today…a day with only one meeting and arranged after-school care and no assignments due for two days. Today is for hyperlinking, interdisciplinary reading, and whiteboard filling.  There are plenty of white spaces still up on that board, which is good because I have a lot more to add.  But there are enough ideas up there right now that I need to take a minute to create a little infrastructure around some of them.

Yesterday, I went to see Dr. Kerryann O’Meara speak yesterday on the challenges and opportunities facing university faculty in the 21st century.  (I’ve been told the video will up on the VCU School of Education website by tomorrow).  I’m a bit of a fan of hers, having read much of the work she has produced since the late 1990s. I was happy (relieved, actually) that not much of what she said surprised me.  She identified the following three issues as the most pressing for higher education in our times: (1) Decreased public funding/Increased demands for accountability; (2) The influence of national ranking systems; (3) Adjunctification of the faculty.

What I liked about Dr. O’Meara’s talk was that she focused on dealing with the reality of what was present versus focusing on what should be.  This allowed her to move without rancor or bitterness to the part where we creatively work to solve the problems.  Creatively.

Photo: ArtJonak(Flickr)

Recently I’ve been watching the Chopped Championship on Food Network, and there’s this one chef finalist who’s a lot different than the others.  First, she’s a caterer, not a restaurant chef, which makes her kind of a “second class citizen” on the show.  Second, she’s young and female and a trained professional dancer, which also makes her an outsider (really I truly recommend watching Chopped, if just because there’s such a strong normative component to how the chefs perceive each other and themselves–much more interesting than your average competition show).  In comparison to the other chefs, this young woman has a fearless creative flair that I just LOVE.  Here’s an example: the other chefs are complaining that they have to cook with processed ingredients like fig newtons and they hide the fig newton and blame all sorts of things on the fig newton.  My dancer-chef…she doesn’t give it a second thought because she knows that the random processed ingredient is part of the deal you make when you sign up to be on Chopped and she has faith in her ability to do something crazy magical with it.  Instead of wasting breath on what should be (presumably something other than a fig newton), she grinds the fig newton up with some fennel and crispy bacon and makes an amazing pasta sprinkle.  And she does all this with such ease and joy…I really identify with her (or at least my perception of her) on so many levels.  I wish I could meet her.

What allows someone to have fearless, outside-the-box, creative joy?  That’s a great question.  I’m thinking outsider status has a lot to do with it…to not have the same past experiences, the same set of assumptions to overcome…I think that’s a lot of it.  Also, to not “belong”..to be the caterer among the restaurant owner…there’s something freeing about the lack of others’ high expectations, maybe?  Not as much to lose?

Photo: Christine (Flickr)

There is, however, a slight downer to my story…She didn’t win–she came in second.  It all came down to the dessert basket, which held eggs, sugar, butter, and flour…which should scream to all of you out there–even the non-cooks maybe–that the show expected the chefs to bake a cake.  My favorite chef decides not to make a cake just to be contrary… “Well, just because I could make a cake doesn’t mean I have to…I can turn that into a parfait topped with an almond encrusted fried egg yolk.”  And she did, but by the time she was done it didn’t taste quite like a dessert, and so she was chopped in favor of the cook who made a delightful but safer spooncake with berry reduction and marcapone cream.  The judges said that even though my favorite chef had taken creativity to stratospheric levels, she had sometimes compromised flavor in order to do so.  She needs to learn how to harness that creativity and point it directly towards the ultimate outcome, which in her case was supposed to be the best food possible given the conditions.

Discipline has its place, I suppose, but sometimes I wonder if we don’t need to allow for more joyfully creative bursts–they seem so few and far between.

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