Love comes first

Love comes first - image for article by Greg Alder

In the kitchen of a restaurant on an island off the East coast of Australia, the cook lifts another Moreton Bay bug onto his chopping board. With practiced casualness, he makes incisions in the membrane where the head and body meet. In his left hand he grabs the hard spiny head of the prehistoric-looking slipper lobster. His right grips the carapace and with a slight twist, he separates the two.

Laying the body with its softer belly facing heaven, he picks up his cleaver and deftly splits the carapace in half from top to tail to reveal the prized glistening translucent flesh inside. He removes the digestive tract.

He takes each half of the body, still in its shell, dips it in a thick batter and lowers it into a boiling vat of oil. He places a few leaves of iceberg lettuce on a dinner plate and then wedges of unripe tomato.

He lifts the fried bugs from the oil and places the crustacean onto the plate. He dollops plum sauce, claggy with excessive corn flour, into a small bowl, places this on the plate and sends it out to the diner.

That diner was me. I love Moreton Bay bugs. At their best, they are the sweetest, most sublime of all crustaceans. I looked at what this cook had done and shook my head at the crime he had committed.

Why did he think a glue-like plum sauce was a good accompaniment to bugs? Why did he think it OK to batter the shell?

I broke open the batter and prized the flesh out of its tomb with my fork. It looked promising. I tasted it and, miraculously, everything that I love about Moreton Bay bugs was there in that mouthful. In spite of the cook’s best efforts, the flavour had remained. Entombed in its batter coffin, the flesh had steamed. I ignored the batter, the lettuce, the tomato and the plum sauce. I ate the flesh of the bug and returned the plate to the kitchen.

In clubs and pubs and cafés and restaurants around the world, there are cooks like the one on that island. Cooks who have no love for their craft, no love for the ingredients with which they work. Their lack of love shows in poor techniques and ill-considered flavour combinations. They have been to culinary school, where they passed. They have found employment. They are cooks. They aren’t chefs. They never will be.

Chefs are gifted with a love of food, an innate understanding of how textures or spices will combine, the one building on the other to form a perfect unity.

What’s true of those who cook is true of every occupation. For every practitioner with a true love of his or her craft, there are a hundred careless plodders.

Anyone can learn the basic techniques. Without love, they will ply their trade for anyone who pays them. Without love, they will never be more than journeymen, indistinguishable from their peers.

I am going to ask you some questions. Answer each one honestly. (Of course, if you don’t, I’ll have no way of knowing. But you will.)

Do you love what you do for a living?

If you work for others, do you love where you work?

If you employ others, do they seem to love what they do?

Do you love your partner?

Do you love your house and city and country?

Do you love your life?

Do you love yourself?

The upper echelons of every profession are the exclusive domain of those with love. The world’s best chefs possess the deepest love for their ingredients, their industry’s history, their craft, the skills of their team and the pleasure they give those who sit at their tables.

Do you have that level of love? Do those whom you hire have it?

Anyone can learn to be a doctor, teacher, carpenter, flight attendant or violinist.

Only those with a real love will be great.

Love comes first.

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