Practicing Your Craft

In the book that made chef Anthony Bourdain an international celebrity, he wrote, “Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman — not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen — though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying.”

The book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” transformed Bourdain from a chef into a writer and then a globe-trotting television host. The book has been in print for more than two decades, but I’m just now getting around to reading it. His quote about practicing the craft of cooking in expert fashion is spot-on, and I think it has a few parallels relevant to the racing community.

Unlike a talent in one of the arts, which I believe is something people are born with, a craft is something you can learn and practice and begin to perform in expert fashion over time. Driving fast is a craft. No, I’m not saying that talent negates the need for practice and hard work. President Calvin Coolidge spoke about that 100 years ago.

If you think about things like cooking or throwing clay on a potter’s wheel or working with wood, be it fine cabinetry or framing homes, there are basic tenets to follow to achieve a decent result, and they can be studied, practiced and learned. You could also make the argument that becoming a good mechanic or a good racing driver is an example of practicing a craft.

Yes, some people have a talent for these pursuits, too, but a craft is something that nearly anyone can do well. The measure of success in a given craft is usually determined by the quality of the instruction, the amount of time and effort people put into it, and how badly they want to be good at it.

Other examples I can think of right off-hand are brewing your own beer, or writing, and of course, high-performance driving and racing.

Of all the crafts I’ve listed above, I have had a hand in each of them at one time or another, with varying degrees of success, all due to the measures I mentioned. I took some ceramics classes in high school and again recently, and my efforts were always more rewarding than any art classes in which I tried to paint or illustrate anything. No matter how many times I tried, my illustrations and paintings were nothing short of awful because I lacked the necessary talent. But the ceramics started to come together the more I made.

I would never attempt to build fine cabinetry or frame a home, but I have practiced enough with wood to build bunny cages and fences that stay up. The beers I made were substandard at first, but they improved with each batch I made until I decided that craft was best left to those who had put in more time and effort than I had. Because I have worked from home for so long, I ended up doing a fair amount of the cooking in our household, and over time what was once a mishmash of the over- and under-cooked eventually improved as I practiced the craft.

Of course, if you’re reading this, you understand that high-performance driving and racing is a craft. There are basic tenets to follow early on — driving the line, being smooth, looking way ahead — but at the upper end of the learning curve, there are even more things to learn, and rest assured you can learn them. Getting to that upper end of the curve depends on how badly you want to be good at it. Truly talented drivers get there sooner and perhaps a bit more easily than others, but you can practice them in expert fashion, which is, as Bourdain pointed out in his book, “noble, honorable and satisfying.”

Truth be told, I didn’t learn to cook from Anthony Bourdain, but from one of my favorite animated movies that we used to watch with our kids, “Ratatouille.” In the movie, Chef Gusteau had authored a cookbook titled, “Anyone Can Cook,” a notion the movie’s food critic Anton Ego took issue with initially. At the movie’s end, Ego comes to terms with the idea that anyone can cook.

“In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant,” Ego uttered in his final soliloquy. “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

I think the same is true for drivers. Anyone can practice the craft in expert fashion, and feel noble, honorable and satisfied. It just depends on how badly you want to be good at it.

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