How to Cook Your Life

Director: Doris Dorrie

Perhaps it’s because it’s a trendy housewarming gift or more likely it’s because my culinary skills are roughly on par with my atrocious mathematical ability, but whatever the case may be, when I moved into my first apartment, 99% of the gifts I received from friends and loved ones seemed to consist of cookbooks. Whether they were worried that I would soon need a second freezer to hold all of my microwave dinners, a second drawer for my takeout menus or secretly feared they’d have to suffer food poisoning when I invited them over, my kitchen inexperience is legendary. Needless to say, I’ll take any excuse to eat elsewhere and while despite being a picky eater-- no seafood, no mushrooms-- I love cuisine, let’s just say that I’ll never be mistaken for a “foodie.” Lack of culinary knowledge and a genuine disinterest in spending far too much time in the kitchen dirtying dishes seemed to be the major culprit, however, it wasn’t until I watched German documentary filmmaker Doris Dorrie’s quirky offering How to Cook Your Life which chronicled the philosophies and practices of Zen priest and chef Edward Espe Brown, that I realized maybe film buffs and foodies are of a different breed altogether. While I never tire of analyzing cinematic shots and cuts, unlike Chef Brown I’ve never cried over the shape of teapots, sought life lessons in smelly pickles or culled wisdom from an uncooperative sponge in the kitchen… but then again, I’m not a fan of tea, pickles or sponges. Perhaps if I was, I may have been—if not a great chef—then at least one who can prepare something other than macaroni and cheese. This being said, even with a slight improvement, I’d probably still be the worst student that Chef Brown could ever imagine.

After having penned The Tassajara Bread Book, which Zen inclined foodies consider the “bible of bread making,” Zen priest and Chef Brown has dedicated forty years of his life to his realm of culinary practice and belief that cooking food also leads to improving one’s own health and vitality by teaching his particular brand of meditative cuisine to students around the world. Surprisingly still irritable and at times short tempered whether it’s frustrating food packaging, bottle cap engineering or annoying question askers that set him off, at first glance Chef Brown doesn’t seem to be the greatest poster child for Zen especially when he admits to a twenty year annoyance with the dramatic ceremony of offering food to the Buddha.

However, after espousing the wisdom set forth by Buddhist monks who’d come generations before him, the man who readily admits he’s just “a human being,” is filled with anecdotes and one-liners for all who are willing to listen to his own self-prescribed ingredients in the quest to learn How to Cook Your Life as the thirteenth century cooking manual of the title connotes (SIFF). From railing against our tendency to eat puffy, chemically manipulated cardboard styled food served in gigantic proportions that lead to waste in a society where convenience and deadlines dictate both our lives and waistlines to revealing the three mindsets a “tenzo” (chief cook) aspires to possess (big, joyful, and kind), Brown shares some excellent observations. Yet, ultimately there seemed to be something slightly off-putting about his detached personality that held me at a distance which was magnified by the subtly affected overtone of his preaching and the way he seemed more moved (to tears) by a teapot than to any individual in his environment.

Although, for others who like myself are genuinely fascinated by Buddhism, it’s worth a look, but even at its slight running time of roughly ninety minutes, it moves from mild annoyance to highly irritating rather quickly, much like the hard to open package of plastic cheese drives Brown to attacking it with a knife, despite his desire to will others to cook peacefully and be in the moment. All this aside, just imagine what the poor priest would do if he were ever faced with my kitchen!