How to learn a craft? or What does it take to apprentice?

Funny title for a food related blog, you might think. I agree, yet it’s not that weird.

Why are you here reading this? Right, you want to learn, expand your horizon. You were maybe looking for that ONE recipe out there that finally tells you how to use fresh turmeric. You are willing to go out of your way for new knowledge that will improve the quality of your life.
If I’m wrong I probably lost you by now 😉

That’s however not the kind of learning I mean with ‘apprenticing’ or ‘apprenticeship’. These days online courses, webinars and home study courses are all the hype.
Why?
In my arrogant opinion: because they are easy to market and have a low commitment level from the student (both in terms of financial- and time- investment as well as showing up to the actual course).
Usually in the end, your online education provider will send you a certificate that you can display on your website or hand you a few e-book files that you are now allowed to sell with your name on.
There is:

  1. Active marketing and an initial sales process, usually with brilliant promises of ease and great gain
  2. You pay up front, once you have convinced yourself that this is what you really need and always desired
  3. You receive the information
  4. End of interaction for now
  5. You remain on their e-mail list to be continuously marketed to

What’s wrong with that? Nothing! I might do it myself one day 🙂

It has, however, NOTHING to do with learning a craft.

Have you ever started a new sports discipline?
How long did it take you to stand up on that surfboard, ride that horse/bicycle/motorbike…?
It took me 5 years in bicycle racing (started at age 10), 3 years in whitewater kayaking and 4 years on motorbikes to attain a level of unconscious competency. Same in my professional life: first mechanical engineering, then raw food chefing and teaching, network marketing, now traditional nutrient-dense foods. Coaching next.

A common progression for learning a new discipline in life is:

  1. Discover your Passion.
  2. Develop it.
  3. Practice, practice, practice – no shortcuts here.
  4. Realisation that you require more training and guidance
  5. Pick a Master in your field, who has accomplished what you strive for
  6. Apply with the Master
  7. Pass the Test and agree on the terms
  8. Apprentice. Study, train and work side by side your Master
  9. Teach others while you learn. It develops your own mastery.

Intl Raw Food Festival 2004

Basically, any learning evolves through 4 phases:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence. We don’t know that we don’t know and go on an ill-prepared kayak trip into a cyclone weather front.
  2. Conscious Incompetence. We now know that we don’t know. Ring the ‘Coastguard’, get rescued, become a member and apologise to our dear partner who knew all along that this was crazy 😉
  3. Conscious Competence. We learn study and practice and now know that we know. We have the right gear, are practicing our paddling and rescue skills and are gaining confidence.
  4. Unconscious Competence. We don’t even know that we know. Our subconscious mind has taken over. Think of driving your car now vs. when you first started driving!

In my experience, from teaching hundreds of people in sports as well as the culinary field, many of us operate in the first category: Unconscious Incompetence. We think we like something, attend a seminar, webinar, food demo and usually get some great entertainment out of it. Once back home we might give it a shot to do what we saw the lecturer do.
Now HERE is the chance for real learning! If we DON’T succeed, we might throw the towel in and call it ‘too hard‘, OR we get intrigued and switch into Conscious Incompetence with a keenness to learn and to find out how.
This state, B.T.W., is not automatically maintained! You can easily fool yourself and think: ‘Aah, now I know!’, ‘I could have done that myself.’
Trust me, until you are actually doing it yourself, you won’t!

For me this is usually the stage when I engage with a Master in my field of interest – by default when apprenticing as a machine builder in 1985 at the BWF in East Berlin; with Master Chef Chad Sarno in 2003 and lately with Sally Anderson.

Freefall Coach

Now what’s required at this point? – you might ask. First of all an empty glass. You might have heard the Bruce Lee story and how he prepared his students to teach his excellence in martial arts. Stop reading until you have watched this video below with John Kanary at least twice!

Have you ever had a small school kid lecturing you with incorrect facts about something you had attained mastery in? Funny isn’t it?! Yet a waste of your time trying to re-educate the little one – until he is willing to let go of what he thinks he knows.

So the first step in asking a Master to teach you is to let go of what you think you know. The next step will highly likely be a test. In my mechanical engineering apprenticeship it went like this:
Master: “Who wants to really get to know a turning lathe?”
Apprentices: “Me!”, “Me!”, “Please, can I?!”
Master: “Sure. There is a broom and shovel, rags are over there, and the dirty turning lathe is right here. Start cleaning it!”
Apprentices: “*@$%*#!!!”
– and we learned! 🙂
In kitchens it often involves peeling potatoes or chopping onions. Similar scenario, just more tears.

Why? Because the person teaching is extremely happy to share her/his knowledge with keen students. Yet, the way to test anyone on their keenness to learn is to test their commitment to excellence in an easy field first.

Do yourself a favour and order this book: ‘Don’t Try This At Home! Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs‘ by Kimberley Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman!
In there you will find a story of a young New York chef who had recently found herself a job at a Seattle restaurant. Her boss was a Master in French patisserie (correct me if I’m wrong!) and she was keen to be taught by him. Yet he refused to teach her his craft until she took sweeping the kitchen floors seriously. For how could he teach her excellence in a craft that required a very high skill level if she showed NO excellence whatsoever at a task that required no skills?!!!

So it is often at the bottom we start in any new craft. It is a test of our commitment to completion (Excellence). Once the Master sees that the student is willing to do what it takes to learn, then the next door opens. It is a rite of passage of some sort.

Think of it! It will have taken any Master in their field long years of practice, often disastrous mistakes, hard learning to accomplish their level of game – and they are still learning!
Would you be spilling out all your hard-learned experience to that school kid, trying to lecture you with incorrect facts?
Hell No! You are looking for an empty glass and a willing mind who treasures your wisdom.
What a Master is looking for in an apprentice is:

  • Commitment
  • Dedication to walking it out in their own life
  • Someone who will carry their Legacy forward
  • Someone they can TRUST their secrets and wisdom to

At this point the real apprenticeship starts. The terms will be clear. How long, how often, how much – most apprenticeships are free B.T.W. (but that’s another blog post :-)). Just know, Wisdom/Teaching is always a GIFT, regardless the price or fee.
Prove yourself to be worthy of receiving it!

I had a Master of mechanical engineering at the IWF of the TU Berlin, Reinhard Preiss, who took a long time to open his heart, but once I was in, I was considered family. We had a great relationship! I still look up to his level of excellence and attention to detail! Yet, our relationship was enriched by a great human interaction, a trust that had developed by me being diligent under his cautious eyes. I had earned it.

Now it is on the student to be a ‘sponge’, an ’empty vessel’, to absorb as much of the Master’s experience, knowledge and wisdom as possible. This is often not done by lecturing, but by working alongside each other, by sharing the space, solving a task together. It is the VIBRATION of Excellence that is taught!

Now, since we are on a culinary playing field… What does it take to work with a master here?
Travel! Volunteer! Work with the people who have gone before you! Approach them in a humble manner and ask if you can be of service and help them! Bring your own sharp knives and know how to use them.
Again, this does not have to cost you more than your travel and accommodation. That’s how I studied and worked with Chad Sarno from 2002-2005.

Fresh Festival 2005
When you are with your Master/Mentor these are the qualities most suited to acquiring what she/he has got and you want:

  • Courage to be open and let go
  • Trust
  • Patience
  • Commitment
  • Passion/Drive
  • Stamina and Staying Power
  • Vision
  • Humility
  • Reverence and Respect
  • Gratitude and Love for your Teacher/Master (that will come naturally)
  • Eagerness to learn
  • Faith
  • The application of what you learn in your own practice

If you come to an accomplished chef to learn new recipes you are wasting your time.
Get yourself a recipe book and start playing!
When you are with them you will learn a new way of being with food. That’s what is taught!

When back in your own kitchen you are now Consciously Competent and will have to PRACTICE, PLAY, CREATE and TEACH! Nothing will shortcut your 10000 hours to mastery and Unconscious Competence but doing it (read ‘Outliers, The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell!)!

It comes down to the question I first heard from Artemis Limpert:
“Are you willing to be bad for long enough to become good?” – Are you???

Just don’t rock up at a Master’s door not practicing in your own life what you came to learn here! Takeaways are just not an option when you want to become a chef. Sorry!
Work your field! Every day! Be in the kitchen, cater, teach, invite your friends for dinner! Again: 10000 hours.

In the traditional way of how a craft was passed on in the guilds of Europe an apprentice, once considered being skilled enough to have finished his/her apprenticeship, was given a task to prove his/her skill level (Gesellenstueck). Passing the test they were now considered a skilled worker (again the concept of Conscious Competence).
To achieve the title of ‘Master’ in that tradition requires to complete an even more complex task, to prove all one’s skills: the Master Piece.

Once you have reached that level of Mastery, you will highly likely have developed these essential qualities of a good Master and are fit to train others:

  • Excellence – the commitment to completion
  • Trust
  • Love
  • Patience
  • Vision and an understanding of your Legacy
  • Letting go
  • Respect
  • A commitment to your student’s success – a stance for their very own Greatness

Does that resonate? It has been on my heart for a while. I trust it will be understood on a heart level too.
What I have written here applies not so much to individual classes and workshops I offer, yet to the craft of ‘Culinary Arts and Education’. Should you consider to attend my Raw Chef Trainings to further your education I will however appreciate your understanding of the above.

With much Love,
René
Rene

2 thoughts on “How to learn a craft? or What does it take to apprentice?

  1. Well written Chef Rene! from the heart, from the fire in your belly, and sure to reach in and turn the soul of any keen apprentice who is drawn to work with you. Blessings on your journey ~

    Like

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