Jiro Dreams of Sushi is my favorite documentary.
It tells the story of an 85-year-old sushi master who runs a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo. President Obama said it was the best sushi he’s ever had. The most surprising part of the documentary is seeing how little running a restaurant has to do with cooking. For example, my favorite scene occurs at the Tsukiji fish market, where his team sources fresh fish every day.
No matter the restaurant, preparation begins a long time before fire lines the stove. In the culinary tradition, chefs follow a French system called mise-en-place which translates to “everything in its place.” At fancy restaurants, it begins many hours before the first guests arrive.
When I was living in New York, I often worked out of a high-end Manhattan restaurant called Aldea which doubled as a co-working space on weekdays. Kitchen setup began at 10:30am — seven hours before the first guests arrived. During preparation, they deboned their meats, separated vegetables into small bowls, and segmented the soups into marked boxes. Their daily preparation lasted longer than the restaurant’s opening hours.
Just as cookbooks won’t train somebody to run a restaurant, traditional writing books won’t train people to write online. Spelling, grammar, and sentence structure are only a fraction of what writers think about. The online writing experience extends to sourcing ideas, taking notes, having conversations, managing emotional turmoil, putting words on the page, distributing your essays, and building an audience. Every exceptional writer I know has their own version of sourcing fish from the market or mise-en-place.
The language of high-end dining demonstrates how a chef’s responsibilities go beyond the act of cooking. The English word for chef translates to “chief of the kitchen” in French. That chef de cuisine is responsible for creating menus, preparing the food, plate design, managing kitchen staff, ordering equipment, and controlling the ambiance. All those activities fall under the bucket of cooking. Only after they’re all complete does food preparation begin. Just as cooking is only part of what it means to be a chef, typing is only a fraction of what it means to be a writer.
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