the whole plate


    Some parts of my job come easily for me – the cooking part, for instance. Some parts have a steeper learning curve – figuring out food costs, for one. In order to be profitable, what it costs to buy all the food needs to cost less than a third of what we sell it for, which is hard to do. There are different kinds of formulas to help chefs do the math. I don’t really come to work to do math, but I’m learning.

    One of the most helpful conversations on the topic for me recently was with James, one of the other chefs who has culinary school training and thinks creatively about most everything that happens in the kitchen. I was telling him about trying to cost out the menu at Duke and he said he thought the best way to lower food costs was to begin to figure out how much food – by weight – was going on each plate. Besides controlling costs, he said, you also give people a responsibly portioned meal.

    I had never thought of it that way. I tended to look item to item: if salmon costs $6.50 a pound and I cut eight ounce servings, then I’m putting $3.25 on each plate. James challenged me to think more holistically. I’ll stick with the salmon for my example. On my menu at Duke we serve a pan seared salmon filet with a roasted corn risotto cake, grilled asparagus, and a lemon thyme beurre blanc. I began to do some figuring. If I serve

    a 6 ounce portion of salmon
    a 4 ounce risotto cake
    4-5 ounces of asparagus and
    2 ounces of beurre blanc

    I’m putting a pound of food in front of my customer, which is plenty of food and not bad for $14. I have to admit I still struggle a bit when I cut the salmon or weigh out the risotto, so the cakes are consistent; they both look small. When they come together on the plate, however, they look like a good meal. So far, no one has complained about going away hungry. Yet, even as I’ve seen the truth in James’ logic play out in my kitchen, I struggle with coming to terms with the big picture. It’s far too easy to get caught up in a more fragmented view of both my menu and my life.

    Another James, who goes by Jimmy and writes a blog and raises bees, stopped by this morning to bring me some of his Front Porch Blend honey. He has kept me supplied since we moved to Durham, so I was glad to see him. He also kept me distracted for the last hungry and horrible hour before I went for my colonoscopy (everything’s good). I’m grateful for both things. I’m also grateful to be developing a friendship with someone who doesn’t share the same political perspective. I like knowing that developing friendships run deeper than political views (there’s that big picture again), and I just like Jimmy. He is a kind and thoughtful person.

    Our conversation did turn to the presidential campaign and one of his comments has stuck with me through the day. In the context of talking about the two choices for vice president he said, “Well the goal is to win the White House.” I can hear the reality in Jimmy’s statement and it makes me sad. If the goal of either side is simply to win, then neither one is looking at the whole plate. If the goal of either side could be reached the first Tuesday in November, then we need leaders with bigger goals and broader vision.

    When I hear another new friend here, Terry, talk about what he does, he says he’s working to prevent and end homelessness in Durham. I love his choice of words. He’s not working with the homeless, or waging war on homelessness, he’s working to bring an end to the things in our society that keep people on the street. And he’s doing it, along with a growing group of people – many of them formerly homeless – who can see the whole plate Terry seeks to serve. Their big picture is a masterpiece.

    I had another couple of paragraphs that turned into more of a sermon than I wanted from this post, so I cut them out. My point here is not to preach as much as to say I’m beginning to understand, whether I’m in the kitchen or not, I have to remind myself to look at the whole plate almost everyday. The big picture is not my default view. I need help to see more than my little piece of the meal. We all do. I also need to be reminded to look again and again at how I think about my life – my time, my relationships, my vocation – so that I have a sense of calling that is more than mere accomplishment.

    Another blogging buddy, Towanda, offered this quote today, which spoke to me:

    The only dream worth having … is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead … To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or to complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.

    – Arundhati Roy
    From her book, The Algebra of Infinite Justice

    Now that’s a plate full.



    1. hey, milton. bridgett o’lannerghty here. we were just talking about the brasher-cunninghams this morning, and i googled to find you. you’re practically in our back yard! would love to catch up some time. have recently moved to a big picture world myself, check out our website, hope this finds you well.

    2. “If the goal of either side is simply to win, then neither one is looking at the whole plate. If the goal of either side could be reached the first Tuesday in November, then we need leaders with bigger goals and broader vision.”

      Bingo. Every four years, my friend Dave and I end up saying something like, “A nation of 270 million people, and we end up with these two.” Most politicians have one goal: to get elected. Once they achieve that, their goal typically changes to getting elected again. Yes, I am cynical about politicians.

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