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11 Lessons From My Time In A Zen Kitchen That Helped Me Run My Business (And My Life)

Tassajara is a Zen monastery located deep in the mountains of central California. The kitchen serves as the center of the monastery — how can the values from this kitchen serve as a model for work as a spiritual practice?

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Flat lay pFlat lay photo of a wooden cutting board, a knife and a few aromatics around ithoto of a wooden cutting board and a few vegetables around it

My first week as head cook of Tassajara was exciting and challenging. I had completely underestimated how much food it took to feed one hundred and forty people a day.

Tassajara is a Zen monastery located deep in the mountains of central California, and it functions as a resort during the summer months.

By my fourth day as head cook, we had almost completely run out of food (Tassajara is two hours from the nearest food store.) I looked through the walk-in refrigerator, trying not to panic, and noticed that the only vegetable we had in any quantity was cabbage.

Since there was not going to be another trip into town for two days, we found many creative ways to prepare cabbage — cabbage casserole, cabbage seaweed grill, and cabbage soup. I learned the importance of projecting inventory needs as well as making do with what was at hand, two skills that have served me well in leadership and in life.

What can Tassajara teach us about our work?

The Tassajara kitchen is my model of the ideal environment for combining work practice and spiritual practice.

The kitchen often serves as the center of the monastery — the place where food is prepared and a place where work is most clearly an expression of spiritual practice.

During the summer months, the kitchen produces six meals a day, every day — three meals for seventy students acting as staff and seventy overnight guests. Many guests are drawn to Tassajara by the gourmet, healthy vegetarian fare.

Here are some of the values that exemplify how this kitchen serves as a model for work as a spiritual practice:

1. Clarity of activity

Working in the Tassajara kitchen, it is almost always clear what needs to be done next. 

The daily menus and the next day’s menus are posted on a corkboard. Under each meal is a detailed list of ingredients and how each is to be prepared.

Everyone can see the larger plan and the details of the plan.

The assistant cook knows just when each ingredient is required by the cooks. The cooks are generally cooking the next meal as well as preparing several meals ahead of time.

2. High degree of organization

Every knife, utensil, pot, and pan has a very specific place in the kitchen. Areas are neatly organized and labeled. Processes are very clear.

When leftover food is put away, it is always dated. Sponges are also left standing upright so that they can to air-dry. Knives are always cleaned, dried, and put away after use. Counters are cleaned, and floors are swept after each meal.

3. Regular rhythms

The flow of each day is very predictable. Meals always appear at the same time. Other regular schedules include planning, preparation, cleanup, and rituals. There is a clear structure and schedule each day.

Within this structure, anything can happen — people get sick, potatoes get burned, knives need sharpening. The schedule allows for a tremendous amount of freedom and creativity, within a clear and disciplined framework.

4. Clear roles

Every role is defined, from purchasing the food, planning meals, budgeting, daily assignments, cutting and preparing, to cleaning up.

Each person knows his or her role and the role of everyone else in the kitchen.

5. Work as a spiritual practice

There is an understanding that working in the kitchen is a means to practice mindfulness, awareness, and compassion. 

People are assigned roles not primarily because of their cooking skills but because it is determined that the kitchen will provide a useful atmosphere for their personal and spiritual growth. There is a dual bottom line:

1. Producing healthy, tasty food presented in a way that is simple and creative;

2. Building character in the people working in the kitchen.

6. Cross-training

There are regular opportunities to work in other’s positions. 

The cooks often bake, and the bakers often cook. On the cooks’ days off, crew members fill in.

7. Clear expectations

Everyone has a clear vision of the quality of the food and the quality of the workmanship — at all levels, from how the food was prepared, to how the counters are cleaned, to how the food is prepared and served.

8. Regular, measurable outcomes

There is regular feedback from students and from guests at every meal. 

People express what they like and don’t like about each meal, the combinations of food, the seasonings, the presentation. The cooks often eat in the dining room alongside the guests to experience firsthand the results of their labor. The cooks then address what worked and didn’t work well and incorporate this information into planning future meals.

9. Working together and separately

Although nearly every aspect of work in the kitchen is done individually, it is part of a group effort. Each person works alone chopping vegetables. Then a cook uses these vegetables when creating the meal.

10. Being stretched to achieve

Kitchen assignments are not based primarily on levels of skills and experience. Though skills and experience are taken into account, the primary factor in determining kitchen roles is based on what roles were deemed to help a person to grow.

11. Ritual

The word ritual can be defined as an activity performed for a higher purpose. The kitchen work at Tassajara is viewed as meditation in action. 

Each morning the kitchen crew sits one period of meditation with everyone in the community and then leaves the meditation hall to begin work in the kitchen. The crew begins working at 5:00 am, aware that others are still meditating.

Many or all these practices can be applied to a variety of work environments, whether in the office, the classroom, or the operating room. Choose a practice that applies to your situation, either by yourself or with a group. Experiment. Play. See what happens. Learn from what works and from what doesn’t.

Questions for Daily Practice

What is your model of the ideal environment for creating a great place to work?

What lessons from the Tassajara kitchen could you integrate into your work life?

What rituals do you have in your workplace?

What rituals can be added?

How can you apply these practices to your work environment and to your life?

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