When I went to work in the afternoon at the restaurant in Plymouth, I usually saw the pastry chef who did most of his work in the morning so the rest of us could have access to the prep area. He and I had worked together at another restaurant a couple of years back, so we had a good relationship and talked a lot about food. One of the comparisons I made was his job as a pastry chef was analogous to that of a scientist: he had to measure things exactly and weigh them out the same way each time in order for the tortes and tarts to come out the whey he wanted; my job as a line cook was more akin to improvisation: I knew my ingredients, I knew my kitchen, I knew the recipes – though those were given without amounts or measurements – and I responded to the tickets as they came in.
I thought about my analogy as I began working at the restaurant here in Durham: new menu, new people, new kitchen, new region – most all of it calling me to use what I know in new ways. My job for most of Wednesday night was to “run the line” or “expedite” the food, which means I took the ticket when it came in, called out what had been ordered, made sure the food went out on time, and told the food runner the table for the order and the places at each table for each plate. I had a blast. About nine-thirty, as business started to die down, we sent one of the line cooks home because he was working lunch the next day and Sous asked me to cover his station (I was going to get to cook!). At the same time, the floor manager came back and asked me to make her some dinner: “Anything you want,” she said. “I eat it all.”
I began to look around the line. I put a piece of salmon on the grill and, while it was cooking, took some of the diced roasted butternut squash we had and mixed it with some of the risotto. I also took some Brussels sprouts, maple syrup, and apple cider vinegar and fixed the little green guys my favorite way. None of what I did was on the menu, yet everything was right in front of me. The recipes came from what I already knew, but seemed new in my new environs. I didn’t make anything up, I just put the pieces I had together a bit differently. Such is the nature of improvisation.
As Wells talks about improvisation as his metaphor for Christian ethics, he says we have to get past some misconceptions about improv to make the metaphor work. Two of them are:
improvisation is about being original;
improvisation is about being witty or clever. (67)
The first thing that came to mind is my favorite piece of dialogue from the movie Fight Club:
Tyler, you are by far the most
interesting “single-serving” friend
I’ve ever met.
Tyler stares back. Jack, enjoying his own chance to be
witty, leans closer to Tyler.
You see, when you travel, everything
is small, self-contained–
The spork. I get it. You’re very
How’s that working out for you?
Well, uh… great.
Keep it up, then. Keep it right up.
I’ve turned those two things over in my mind a great deal today because they tempt me both: I like to feel original and witty, if not clever. Smart, too. The reality is, at the point where I dropped in to human history for my few minutes, there ain’t a whole lot of original, witty, clever, smart, or even funny that hasn’t already been done and done well. The best I can hope for is to learn from those before me and maybe, every so often, reconfigure things in a way that adds to what it means to be human.
Here’s another food example, which I use only because I was so knocked out by this dish. A new friend here in Durham opened his wine bar the night after we got to town last week. We went to check it out and it’s awesome. One of the dishes he had on the menu was cinnamon-crusted scallops. I’d never heard of the combination before. As I was writing this afternoon, I typed those three words into Google and was told I could find them on at least 214,000 web pages. As my seminary preaching professor once said, “Being original means knowing how to hide your sources.”
Thinking of him brings to mind another seminary moment. A large number of those in my circle of friends there had gone to college together, which means we had stayed up late together and had gone to a lot of movies together. By the time we got to seminary, a fair amount of our conversation was communicated in movie lines. (I still work that way.) One of the new additions to our circle in seminary said to me one day, “I need you to make a list of the ten movies I need to see so I can talk to you guys.” I still know him and most of the others and we still use the same lines, with a few new ones thrown in. We’re always looking for new material.
The thing that made it so easy for me to cook for the manager the other night, more than anything else, was her saying, “I eat it all.” The pressure was off. She wasn’t testing my abilities; she wanted dinner. I know how to make a good meal, so I did. The night went well calling the tickets because the folks I was working with on both sides of the line were pulling for me. The point wasn’t to see if I was going to screw up; the point was for us to work together to get good food out to the good people who had chosen to come to our place for dinner.
Last night on Grey’s Anatomy, one of the patients asked the doctor to wait to perform a rather precarious procedure until he wasn’t scared. One of the other doctors said, “It’s good that you’re scared; it means you still have something left to lose.” The sentiment worked in that moment, but it’s not a life lesson. Our Creator, the Grand Improviser who has the corner on Clever, Original, and Everything Else all the way down to Forgiveness and Grace, has left us nothing to lose. We are loved. We are valued. We are together. We are here on the human stage for our part of the play and we know, as I have said before (and John said of Jesus before me), we have come from God and we are going to God. Like JT says:
the secret of love is in opening up your heart
it’s okay to feel afraid
but don’t let that stand in your way
‘cause anyone knows that love is the only road
and since were only here for a while
might as well show some style
give us a smile
Remember: we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, not hecklers.