For all kitchen endeavors, professionals and home cooks alike tend to preach the importance of order. Keeping a clean workspace, reading the entire recipe beforehand, mise en place (having all your ingredients prepped and ready to go when you begin), and whatever else is called for to maintain an orderly kitchen are seen as integral to culinary success. While I agree that those are important principles to strive for, I’m here to offer another perspective: the complementary importance of kitchen chaos.
I am a skilled and experienced baker (humble, too) and my baking is consistently defined by chaos. I’m messy. I don’t clean up as I go. I rush when I’m reading through recipes and then realize halfway through baking that the bread I’m serving with dinner that night actually requires an overnight rise. No matter how much I try to stockpile, I frequently run out of ingredients. As one can imagine, things go wrong for me all the time as a result. It’s always frustrating and I always swear I’ll be a little more orderly next time. And my dad always laughs.
Many people have been critical in shaping my passion for food, but my dad has been the most prominent. He’s a gifted chef who dedicates his spare time to cooking for loved ones and perfecting his craft—and, almost invariably, his process tends to include at least one “oh sh*t” moment. Doubled the lime juice by mistake. Chili powder everywhere. Save the brisket! But because I grew up watching him forge through the chaos and still manage to put out a fabulous meal nine times out of ten, I witnessed firsthand the overlooked power of the stigmatized “oh sh*t” moment.
Because the thing is, those mishaps actually end up being some of the best learning experiences. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen will tell you that you need to make mistakes in order to learn properly–there are certain things you just can’t learn from reading cookbooks or watching tutorial videos. And while even the most orderly cook is bound to make mistakes at some point, I find that the mistakes born from chaos are the real trials by fire. When I run out of an ingredient midway through baking, I have to get creative and come up with a substitution. When I forget the overnight rise, I have to dig deep into my bread knowledge to figure out how to get the yeast to work at double speed. When my kitchen becomes a stress-inducing mess, I have to learn how to self-regulate and stay focused in order to get the job done. Not only do chaotic incidents provide some of the best hands-on learning experiences, but they also teach me the most valuable thing I could never learn from a cookbook: confidence. Yes, I can save this dessert even though I ran out of sugar. I can think on my feet and put out a decent final product. I can do this whole baking thing pretty damn well if I keep my wits about me.
So yes, of course we should try to keep our workspaces clean and read the whole recipe before beginning. But, at least for most of us, kitchen chaos is inevitable at some time or another—and I think instead of fearing it, we should embrace it. There’s a whole cookbook’s worth of lessons to be gained from those “oh sh*t” moments.