Taking a Moment

I’ve been spending the last few nights reading Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef. I’ve enjoyed it immensely; I’d always wondered what it was like inside that campus after driving past it so many times in our weekend adventures northward from Tarrytown. Mandy and I never got the chance to eat at any of their restaurants while we lived downstate, but now we’re hopefully planning a trip south to sample the cuisine. Ruhlman is a pleasure to read and does a fantastic job conveying the passion and pressure of going through the Culinary’s course load. If you’re into cooking at all or want to know more about what it’s like to be inside the Culinary Institute of America (our other CIA), I heartily recommend the book.

Last night, as I was nearing the end of the book, I came across a scene that I’ve been replaying in my head all day. When you’re cooking in a professional kitchen, things move very fast and you have to come into it prepared and once there you have to be incredibly efficient to stay on top of all the orders coming in. When you get behind or overwhelmed, it’s called being “in the weeds.” While working at American Bounty, the premier restaurant at the Culinary and the last stop for the students before graduation, Ruhlman is working the grill station and another student is lost in the weeds. He’s getting behind and his station is getting messier and messier, enough so that the head chef asks him repeatedly to clean up his station. After a few such reminders, the instructor finally stops the student and tells him how he likes to get out of the weeds.

He takes a moment. He wipes down his station, getting it perfectly clean. He arranges everything he needs back into order, and this little restoration of order helps him clean up his mind as well. When you’re in the weeds, it’s as much a mental problem as it is a physical one. To perform quickly and efficiently, you have to be focused. The mess clouds your focus and that lack of clarity shows up in the final result.

This reminded me a lot of programming under a tight deadline. In the rush to get everything done and out the door, you tend to get messy. You don’t write tests, you don’t verify that code changes work in all the browsers, you check code in without actually compiling it first, and eventually the whole thing disintegrates. In your effort to go faster, you get sloppy and you end up slowing down.

So, a reminder to myself. When things get hairy, take a moment and clean everything up. You’ll probably get done sooner as a result.