Culinary Compulsions and Finding Meaning

My partner Matt has loved cooking since he was a child. But in college, he studied advertising and marketing, then got a job at the local radio station followed by a big think tank in Washington DC. For more than five years he stayed in a relatively low-level position, doing the basic job requirements but spending much of his energy coaching the softball team or acting as in-house therapist to his colleagues (his self-proclaimed title was “Director of Internal Morale”).

Matt started bartending on the side at his regular after-work happy hour spot, eventually leaving the marketing job and bartending full time. The money was good, and he found so much more fulfillment there than he had in previous jobs. Cooking never left his life, though. He cooked all the time, taking on days-long kitchen projects, learning how to ferment, and teaching himself new techniques. On our third date, when he cooked for me for the first time, he spent four hours making an elaborate dinner and (as I learned later) bought two additional cast iron pans just for the occasion. He “rescued” crates of fruit from the bar when the pandemic hit and transformed them into limoncello, orange marmalade, candied orange peels, and more.

Laying in bed at night and first thing in the morning, Matt watches cooking videos on his phone. After 12-hour days at work, he comes home to feed his sourdough starter or experiment with a new recipe. He has an entire Thanksgiving dinner tattooed on his forearm: a turkey flanked by all the fixings (seriously). We frequently eat at incredible restaurants, and he’ll say “I bet I can make this dish better at home”….and then he does. 

A few months ago, Matt came home and said the owners of the bar wanted to open a restaurant.They asked him to be Head Chef and a business partner.

They had never tasted Matt’s food before approaching him with the idea. Yet they were willing to stake their business on his talent. Because what they had seen was the way that his brain works when he creates the bar’s cocktail list.They saw that he thinks in flavors and can tell how ingredients would taste together in his mind. They saw a winning combination: a compulsion for doing something, coupled with a talent for it.

Now the lease for the restaurant is underway, the vendor accounts are being set up, the initial menu finalized, the décor put into place. Matt has been spending time in a restaurant to gain commercial kitchen experience prior to the launch. After his first day he came home the happiest I’ve ever seen him. 

“Baby, I spent most of the day picking herbs and chopping vegetables…it was awesome!”

Matt beats himself up for the “lost” decade he spent not cooking, but the journey to reaching our potential, to self-actualization, is never wasted. Most of us don’t have a compulsion that is quite as clear-cut as Matt’s is. For many of us, the journey is finding what our compulsion even is. Mine feels closer every month, year after year, and I have glimmers of it. I take note of the things I spend my free time doing and the tasks that I can’t pull myself away from. 

My hope for everyone, and what we want to make possible through our work at Talentism, is that we all can find the thing that makes us as happy as picking herbs makes Matt. That we can beam ear-to-ear at the monotonous, menial tasks of our job simply because we wholeheartedly love what we do. We can beat ourselves up for wasting a decade doing the “wrong” thing — or we can embrace that this journey to finding our compulsion was necessary, and that the result is infinitely more meaningful because of it.

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