Getting stuff done. The importance of utility.
Fellow New Yorkers, chef Anthony Bourdain and filmmaker Casey Neistat, share more in common than a penchant for tattoos. In these two highly successful creatives, there is a common theme. In a life led well, at considerable pace, utility is everything.
My first job was as a pot washer in a countryside Italian restaurant of considerable bad taste. Diners were greeted by several pictures of the grinning owner and his prize winning mushrooms on the way in, amidst a sea of extended Italian family ornaments most foul. The kitchen though was a space decked out in functional stainless steel, fuelled by competing egos. I immediately warmed to its sense of purpose, of which I was the lowliest of incompetent cogs.
The line chefs would find a spot to go to work wherever they could. Ideally on a work surface, but sometimes on top of the chest freezer, giving an earful to anyone that wanted something out of it. First, having aggressively ripped one out of an overflowing box, they would lay down a cloth to stop everything from slipping. On top, a large chopping board would be placed square with the edge. Then they would collect what they needed from shelves around the kitchen, arranging ingredients in order on the left hand side, and the appropriate knives on the right. This, though I only learned it much later, was their meez.
‘Mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks’ writes Bourdain in his homage to the restaurant kitchen Kitchen Confidential. Amidst apparent chaos, there is a few square feet of vaguely personal space, its borders defined by the edge of a bleached tea towel. Within this outline, there is relative order. ‘Do not fuck with a line cook’s meez’ advises Bourdain. This is significant.
He and countless other chefs have espoused the necessity of a darwinian atmosphere, where those that can’t stand the heat, simply leave. Furthermore, Bourdain has stressed that the lifeblood of the American commercial kitchen is largely hispanic. Here, within a few square feet, is where potential proves its worth, having stepped from pot washing up onto the line chef’s rung. Granted a stage to perform. The harshness of the American dream can perhaps be seen most clearly in its restaurant kitchens. There is an unmistakably Kiplingesque character to those that make it.
Bourdain writes with passion on the importance of an organised meez, but it’s pure logic. ‘As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system’ he writes. ‘The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.’ Everything you need and nothing more.
Casey Niedstat has built utility around him in his Broadway studio over the course of ten years. Choosing to make everything to his own specification, adapting and expanding to his changing needs with obsessive attention to detail. In one corner, drills, heat guns, and circular saws are plugged in ready to make what’s needed next.
Describing a paint storage area, he explains he had an intern re-build the shelving over the course of a summer, twenty times, until it was right. Below, wiring for the studios internet and telephone are visible and labelled; logical and instantly traceable if something should go wrong. There is a sense that nothing stops productivity.
Bourdain and Neitstat share a distinctly New York lack of compromise when it comes to tools of the trade as well. Whilst the latter’s studio appears to have more cameras then he could possibly use, the chargers, fixed in place and always on, suggest that the studio is a toolbox of infinite possibility. Ready to deploy at will onto the world at will. ‘I’m not precious about cameras, they are creative tools to be used, and they break all the time.’ For Bourdain, it’s knives. ‘You need three, but they need to be good.’
Since starting to film himself every day a few years ago, Neitstat has become a YouTube sensation, no doubt partly due to how he lives. Early rising, marathon running, jet setting; he has enviable energy. At the crux though, it is quite clear, is a passion for his work. The utilitarian studio echoes his values. On the door, a sign reads ‘NO SOCIAL VISITS. EVER.’ On his arm, one of many tattoos reads simply ‘work harder.’
Originally published at www.williambruton.com.