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Radical change: The revelations of Chef Peter Reinhart

by John Zoet

April 4, 2011

Chef Peter Reinhart is a baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University. He was the co-founder of the legendary Brother Juniper's Bakery in Sonoma, California, and is the author of five books on bread baking, including Brother Juniper's Bread Book and the modern classic The Bread Baker's Apprentice, which was named cookbook of the year in 2002 by both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

I sat with Chef Reinhart recently and discussed, among other things, his profound understanding of bread (inanimate), his revelations about himself (human), a few of his thoughts on the city of Charlotte (animate – its people), and his interactions with the God (divine) of his understanding. Over and over, the theme of transformation arose – parallel after parallel, insight upon insight. Here is a glimpse into the parallel recurrence of transformation – from bread, to the baker, his Maker, and the city.

The Bread

I don’t think that bread itself is transformative; I think that it’s a symbol of transformation. I started the inquiry years ago when I realized there was something powerful about the image of bread; the notion of it has had such a strong impact on culture, society, religion and tradition – bread is always in the middle of that story. I just started asking the question. 

I think that’s where transformation really begins from the human standpoint – more from asking the right question than from having the right answers. The question I asked is, what is it about bread that makes it so special? That started a whole journey and by working backwards and deconstructing the process of bread making I realized that it’s not a coincidence that bread has emerged as a universal symbol: a symbol for the presence of God in the world, a symbol of life and of transformation – because the act of actually making bread; turning flour into bread and all the stages that it goes though is a series of transformations of product – from wheat to flour – from flour to dough – from dough to bread.

I realized also that the definition of transformation is a radical change of something into something else – not just a subtle change from large to small or small to large, but really turning it into something totally different from the way it started out. And then I kind of got it – I saw that bread is the perfect symbol of transformation both in a spiritual sense, a literal sense and a poetic sense, because it actually goes through such radical transformations in a journey from wheat to eat.

The Baker

When I look back at my own life, I realize that I have, in a sense, been reinvented a number of times. I have undergone a number of transformations. About the time I was in college, I started to recognize a change in myself: a new hunger for wanting answers to life’s questions. I started asking questions like what am I here for? What’s my purpose in life? What’s my mission in life? How can I find fulfillment? What am I connected to that is greater than myself? The questions led me to follow what I now call “the breadcrumb trail.” I wasn’t real sure where it was going to lead, but I just followed it, pursuing what was happening right then and there – what was working for me in the moment – and it led to some very interesting growth experiences. 

The last place I expected to end up was in Christianity, which to me was the most mainstream, vanilla, bland thing I could’ve imagined. But somehow, through a series of events, I met some Christians who showed it to me in a new way. I didn’t have a big flashing “aha” moment, but a very gradual, subtle curiosity led to a deeper interest and before I knew it, I had found myself really converting in my mind and heart to believing in the message of Christianity. At the age of 24 I became a brother in a Christian order.

Through all of this, my own identity began changing externally through the work that I was doing, whether it was ministry work or baking or cooking. I lived in the seminary where I was often was the cook and that was where I fell in love with baking. My wife and I, my wife was also a member of this community, started a restaurant. The restaurant was viewed at first as a ministry; we didn’t realize it was eventually going to become a vocation. 

As I got deeper into bread, I found that I had to study it; I wasn’t trained in a culinary school so I studied it by tracking down master bread bakers, taking classes and hanging out with other bakers, comparing notes. As members of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, we were all sharing knowledge. I kept getting deeper into bread and all of a sudden I had a career, I had a job that would pay the bills – but in my heart of hearts, I still view everything I do as ministry because that has been my formation. 

Along the way I have had the fortune to write about the passions in my life. Every time a new door opened and I walked through, I was reinventing who I was, always in the context of trying to fulfill some personal mission which I view as a type of ministry. That leads us to the present moment: though I teach at a culinary school, I’m involved in many other projects, both externally and internally – for me it’s all about how to make a difference in the world.

The thing I’ve found for myself, and I think it’s true for most people, is that I’m most content when I have something burning inside of me. I think that one of the things that motivates me – keeps me going, keeps me young – is having challenges and having excitement about the unknown possibilities’ that await me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and writing about, the search for meaningfulness and the search for purpose. I think everybody is much more complex than we think they are and that everybody is yearning for a sense of purpose. 

My own journey led me to believe that one of the ways we find that sense of purpose is to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves; not just the connection to a Creator or God, but to other people, to life, to humankind in general, to feel that sense of connection or community; to feel that our life does have purpose – that we came into this world to make a difference and that we all share the mission to leave the world better than we found it. Very few people actually get to fulfill that; a lot of people kind of put it to bed because they’re dealing so much with survival (paying the bills, raising a family, things that are immediately necessary and fulfilling in their own right) that they don’t have time for these deeper things. But deep down inside I think it burns for everyone, and so part of my work is to try to help people reconnect with what it is that’s burning inside of them, the fire in their belly, that gives their life a forward thrust and purpose. 

One of the things that give us purpose is to never feel like you’ve found it – finding and searching go hand in hand. C.S. Lewis said, “The greatest having is wanting,” and that rings true for me. You have to want something but at the same time know that there will always be something, just out of reach, for which to long; something that you may not ever be able to put our finger on. It’s the actual longing itself that brings the joy. You see that in very few people, there are very few role models for that – most people are searching for something they can hang their hat on and say I found it, this is it, I’m content. And there’s nothing wrong with being content, but the thing is that once you’ve found it, you realize that’s not it, and knowing that and being able to submit to that reality gives you a reason to keep going and keep trying to grow. 

The Maker

I had the intuitions of divinity and the presence of the Creative Force, that I now call God, in my life, around me, and in me, but I hadn’t had that personal experience, that sense of having a personal contact with God or a sense of being one with God or in total communion. It took many years of striving – it wasn’t when I converted or when I became a brother. It was years afterwards in a night of prayer, all of a sudden. It’s very difficult to talk about it because as soon as you talk about it, it cheapens it and you feel like you lose it. Going back to that moment – realizing that I had a personal encounter in which God came to me, in the form of Christ, and I experienced, in a way that I can’t even try to describe – um, what are the words I’m looking for – unconditional forgiveness and love. 

That moment, I would say I was about 29 when that happened, totally changed my life and I’ve been riding that wave for the last 30-some years because it was the most powerful moment that I’ve ever experienced. Having it happen in a personal way, rather than in an abstract or intellectual way, and realizing that from that point on, no matter what happened in my life, that I would always be connected to this source that was always forgiving, always unconditional, and that it was just up to me to make the most of that.

I believe that everything can be understood on four levels: the literal, the poetic or metaphorical, the philosophical or ethical, and then finally, the mystical level. But, to borrow from Dante, you can’t really understand the three deeper levels until you understand the literal level. There are a lot of people that struggle with the spiritual life because they only want to understand it on the mystical or religious or poetic level and they can’t deal with the literal level of real life. There are some people who just get stuck at the literal level and never go any deeper. But if all four of these levels of meaning exist simultaneously, then part of the challenge is to try and reconcile all four of those levels.

The breakthrough in trying to understand the deeper levels that we read about or hear about the great mystics experiencing – the St. Francises of the world – can come through living life on a daily basis, dealing with the reality of it, feeding yourself and your loved ones, doing some kind of worthy work – there are all sorts of things that happen at the everyday, literal level of life. I think if we start there and go as deep into those daily realities as possible, it, in turn, opens up the possibility for understanding the deeper levels.

For me the breakthrough in understanding I was always looking for was: what was going to be my daily vocation? I found it in bread making, and it wasn’t until I started digging deep into what literal bread making meant that I could begin to understand the more metaphorical aspects of bread and thus metaphorical aspects of anything – of food, craft, woodworking, and so on. You can’t understand the mystical level of barbecue unless you know how to make good barbecue. You have to have both ends working together.

The literal level is the effort – that’s what we bring to the table. The mystical level, which is the fourth and deepest level, is the part that’s unearned – that’s the part that comes bubbling up from the source itself. When the mystical and the literal level meet, running through the poetic and the philosophical levels and coming together, we classically call that synergy. When the wisdom of the uncreated and the effort of the created worlds come together, something greater than either of those is experienced; that is what we call a moment of grace.

The City

I came to Charlotte through a series of events that have convinced me that this is where I should be, gifts from God and creation that made it possible for me to be here now in a situation where I can be involved in activities on the literal level in Charlotte – a city that is also in a state of reinvention, of transformation; a city still establishing its own identity. 

I’m involved in as many projects as I can get involved in, that I can physically handle, that will allow me to help out in any way I can. Projects such as the City Market, a project I’m participating in with Center City Partners; I’m contributing what I can to the thought process of helping that along. I think that having a year-round farmers market in the center of the city, an outlet for true craftsmen and artisans, whether in the food realm or other areas, to express their talents, is really going to be a valuable asset to this city. That’s real literal, it has nothing to do with my religious life, just feeling that I’m here for a purpose and a reason. 

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we can make big statements and sometimes we can make small statements – you can think globally, but you really need to act locally. This notion of protecting artisanship and protecting the people who are doing sustainable agriculture and organic farming and practices of the sort, is a global issue but also for us right now in Charlotte, it’s a very present, local issue. 

No one can be involved in every single worthy cause that comes along, you pick and choose the ones you can or, rather, they choose you – you feel a kinship with them and you just throw yourself into them, the best you can. Some people get to deal with the big issues, the front page issues, and some of us get to deal with the local page issues, but the main thing is to just go for it when the opportunity is there. I always feel that if you can take care of the things that are right in front of you, that it will lead to other opportunities. This one is timely now, it’s right in front of us, we’re months away, hopefully, from launching something that could be a difference maker in the city.

I do know that Charlotte is an aspirational city. This is the first city that I’ve lived in where I’ve actually heard leaders in the community refer to their own city as a city aspiring to greatness. It’s exciting to me to feel like I’ve landed in a place that has the aspiration of greatness in a conscious way. There’s a longing here – there’s a longing that tells me that people who live here and people who are leading the way want something for this city, and I think what they want is for this city to be a difference-maker in the future of the country itself; to be a place where some of the goals of the United States can be fulfilled, a place where people can achieve their personal dreams. That’s a very big bite, that’s a big aspiration to have, but it’s a great one to have. 

There has been a lot of thought and planning, which started before I ever moved here, that came from the question, “What does a city need to have in order to be great?” To put ourselves in the ranks of the great American cities, the great world cities, what must we have here? Some of those things include great art and culture and great food; you find great food always present in important cities and world-class cities. I think that has a lot to do with how Johnson & Wales ended up here. We have a desire to play our role in bringing that part about. Other people have moved here to create business opportunities and art and culture opportunities. 

As somebody whose primary training and experience is in the culinary arts, I’m focused on trying to turn Charlotte into a serious food city, a destination city, but I think that we have a long way to go to fulfill that. It’s good to keep aspiring to that because we’re not there yet. We would like to be taken seriously as a food city, and many people think that we already are, but when you look at it from the context I have, having lived in many cities, being very immersed in the food scene, I realize that we’re not a serious food city…yet. 

So then you have to ask, well, what would it take to become a serious food city? We know that one of those things is to have great restaurants – destination restaurants. But destination restaurants are really only a symbol of something else. You don’t have great restaurants just because you’ve decided to have great restaurants. You have to have great chefs, you have to have people that can execute a culinary vision, you have to have a receptive public that wants to support the culinary arts – because those great chefs and the people that execute their vision are artists. They’re culinary artists, just the same way a theater artist is an artist. 

Other serious food cities support ethnic foods in a much bigger way. Perhaps the first strategic opportunity that we have, because we have such a diverse population in this city, is to celebrate it through the diversity of foods by providing opportunities to get those foods on the streets. Cities that are way ahead of us in this respect – cities like Austin, Portland, even New York – are providing the opportunity for young entrepreneurs who have the fire in their belly, but not the financial means to express it, to begin in the forms of food carts or small startup operations. Again, this brings me back to why I’m excited about the City Market that we’re working on. It could be an incubation laboratory for some of these young emerging talents who can’t afford to open a big commercial restaurant, but who could get the ball rolling and start a career with a way of getting great food from the farms to the consumers. 

Charlotte’s aspirational nature is its identity and has, in a way, become the trademark of this city. We struggle with all the same things that any city struggles with – we have crime, we have corruption, we have this and that, but we also have the aspiration and the desire to overcome all those things and to manifest something great. 

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Tags: bread, food, the city, interview, spirituality

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