The Cost of Greatness

Greatness comes with a price. I knew this, of course. But allow me to share a story with you for a moment, that recently brought this idea back to the surface of my mind. David Gelb, just might be my favorite producer. His work, includes the legendary documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which I’ve gushed on about on this blog many times before. He’s also responsible for the Netflix original series, Chef’s Table, which is shot and produced in a very similar style to Jiro, but features different chefs from all over the world, and is reduced into 50-minute episodes. Season 1 of Chef’’s Table introduced me to Francis Mallman, part gourmet chef, part Argentinian cowboy, who uses food and cooking as a way to communicate his message of freedom and romance to the world. The interesting thing about the way Gelb chooses to depict his chefs is that he goes way beyond the food, and really digs into what drives these master craftsmen and women. It’s a show less about the “what” and more about the “why”. Why dedicate your life to cooking? What are you trying to accomplish that’s never been done before? What keeps you going when things get hard?

Questions like these absolutely fascinate me. I love picking apart the secret motives of what makes the best, the best, whether that’s in cooking, investing, writing, or any other subject or craft; there’s a shared aspiration towards greatness. In other words, I believe that quality itself transcends profession, and striving for quality no matter your practice has a surprisingly similar trajectory.

Today, I was listening to an interview with David Gelb on the podcast, Splendid Table. David has been promoting the upcoming new season of Chef’s Table which will be available on Netflix May 27. Here’s the exact bit of the conversation that inspired this post. When asked about the very real tension he builds into his films, here’s what David had to say:

I think that one of the themes that we consistently explore is the cost of greatness or the cost of wanting to be great. There’s always a cost. It’s something that’s very interesting to me as a filmmaker. I think it’s interesting to anyone who has a creative job. There is an urge to stay in the office and not come home at night because you have this relentless desire to be the best. You have this drive. You don’t want to leave it. I have trouble leaving the editing room just as many of these chefs have trouble leaving the kitchen.
We love to explore that because at its heart, this show isn’t so much about what they’re cooking or what their technique is, but it’s really about the why. We’re trying to figure out where the drive comes from. Why do they do it? In many cases, they’re doing it for their families — that’s the great contradiction. They’re doing it for their family, but at the same time, it removes them from their family in certain ways.

That’s a beautiful tragedy if there ever was one. On one hand, you have these incredibly talented individuals driven by their passion for their craft and love for their families. On the other hand that same aspiration and drive for perfection often has negative consequences to the very things that inspire them in the first place. How do you rationalize or justify that? How do you weigh out the costs of being the best?

When you’re a kid, I think this hits you the hardest. Because every kid has some pseudo-dream of playing in the NBA, or dancing for the Joffrey Ballet company, or winning an Olympic medal for your country; something highly admirable like that. But then when it comes time to put in the hours, many of us, myself included simply can’t handle the enormous sacrifices that realizing these dreams actually requires. For example, in my youth I was fortunate to play on a number of quality soccer teams, which required my family and I to forgo many peaceful weekends at home, just to drive three hours away for a soccer tournament. The hotels were cheap, the food was terrible at best, and those hours stuffed into the back of a minivan, often still wet and smelling like fresh-cut grass, are hours of life that we’ll never get back. And even after all that, I came nowhere close to playing professionally. It would have taken magnitudes of next-level sacrificing to achieve that dream.

Chef Francis Mallmann

But back to cooking and life. Wrestling with the costs of greatness is something we all do, which is why I believe I feel such a strong connection with Gelb’s portrayals. It’s not that I’m an aspiring cook, it’s that I aspire period, and I can relate immensely with their creative thirst for recognition and acceptance. So, I think the real question here, isn’t so much, “What are the costs of greatness?” because we all sort of know the answer to that already: long hours, sleepless nights, stress, responsibility, and so on. What we’re really asking of these food sculptors and really out of anyone who’s achieved that level of notoriety is, “Was it worth it?” Were the costs that you had to endure to get where you are today, worth it?

There’s a cost for greatness. Whether it’s neglecting your family to stay late in the kitchen to earn your third Michelin-star, forgoing your weekends to become the professional athlete of your juvenile dreams, or more likely, ignoring some small personal pleasure to take care of your family or build a loving relationship with your partner; all of it takes a tremendous amount of work and sacrifice. Still, we sort of already know this. What’s more interesting to me, is this idea of justifying this great contradiction in our lives, between the things we love and the pain they cause us.