25 May 2015

The Edge of Uncertainty

"Good job!" is the most harmful praise a master can give to their apprentice, according to both Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann in Chef's Table and Terence Fletcher, the jazz instructor in Whiplash.

It's undoubtedly a prerequisite for the student to first master the art, to acquire the technique of his craft. Yet, by merely copying everything he learns, by wanting to emulate the teacher, he will not find his "own language". For Fletcher, being one's best isn't even good enough: it's all about being "the" best, perfecting art to a subliminal point, to a point of rupture with expectations, with conventions, with one's physical and mental barriers. For Mallmann, there's "only one way" when the trainee has achieved his best: "it's down" – he therefore has to leave, find his own path, however winding and uncertain, perhaps even daunting, it can prove to be.

Photo taken in a small Mediterranean restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California – food and impromptu music combined!

If anything those masters teach their disciples by keeping the torch of knowledge and expertise lit, it's to "live with much freedom", to decide for themselves and understand that "nothing is impossible". Yes, Fletcher's students and Mallmann’s apprentices would love to continue working for their teachers, however different their styles prove to be; they passionately crave for their blunt, sometimes violent, feedback.

Being able to tell the truth, "even if it hurts", is a value that both masters hold close to their heart. When asked by a close friend why Mallmann seems distant, the latter replies he doesn't enjoy talking with him anymore. As for Fletcher, he doesn't hesitate to immediately leave the music room when disappointed by the student's performance – or to (almost literally) kick students lacking confidence out of his band.

That proximity in philosophy between the two teachers, a fictional character in one case and a real-life cook in the other, may surprise. The latter comes across as a bon vivant, someone viscerally kind and very visibly enjoying and communicating the pleasure of practising his craft: "there has to be a festive feeling about the work", it's even something very romantic for him to interact with his team or sensual to use fire as an element of his cooking. Fletcher, on the contrary, is highly critical to the point of being abruptly obnoxious. He cares so much that no imperfection can be tolerated, leading him to erupt in anger and to hurl music stands at his students.

However different in their leadership styles, both teachers attract bright students, some with the firm but hidden belief they will one day surpass their master. It's difficult not to be attracted to a burning flame. But then, they are encouraged to "make choices", to learn to break the rules. Yes, there's an inevitable risk to be burnt – is that the price to pay to become truly free?