Cook Hii vs. Cook Ting

March 9th, 2011

When I was a student in NZ, I worked in a deli on Dixon Street in Wellington one summer –  as a cook. My job was to cook spare ribs and make the salads.

On one of my first days on the job, I was given a big slab of pork ribs. Without thinking, I reached out for the cleaver and started hacking away at the meat.

Hearing the commotion, the boss, Martin, came into the kitchen. When he saw the mayhem, he motioned for me to stop. Then taking a small paring knife, he showed me a white part of the meat, right between the bones, and sliced right through it.

Effortless mastery.

It was one of my first lessons in life virtuosity. Sometimes you don’t have to hack your way through life. Take time to find that sweet spot and you’ll be able to slice your way through effortlessly.

These days, whenever I find myself stymied, I ask myself if I’m using a cleaver again to solve life’s many problems. And often, I find if I just take a little time to figure out the situation, I can usually find that sweet spot where I can slice my way through effortlessly again.

A few years after the incident, I was doing a masterclass in Malaysia and I happened to mention that episode to the students as a way of explaining virtuosity. After the class, during lunch, one of the students mentioned that he had heard the story before. I thought he was mistaken, I had never told that story to anyone before. Then another student said yes, he had read about it too in an old Taoist text.

After some prodding. I found that the text was the book of Chuang Tzu, one of the earliest Taoist texts. I didn’t think too much about it until a few years later when I happened to stumble onto the book (in a translation by Burton Watson) in a bookstore. I quickly searched for the story and sure enough, there it was, the story of Cook Ting.

The similarities were striking.

With one small difference. Cook Ting took nineteen years to learn how to carve the ox, I took two minutes to learn how to carve the spare ribs.

Why the difference? Well, besides the obvious difference in complexity between the two tasks, (an ox has a lot more places to cut than a slab of ribs), I had a master butcher teach me where to cut, Cook Ting had to learn it through trial and error.

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