Elephants, ovens and comfort zones

I used to be terrified of elephants up until a few years ago. So much so that when a guide ever responded to a sighting of them, I would start crying (loudly) there and then just knowing that we’d be close to the herd soon. Didn’t they know that elephants can run faster than a reversing Land Rover?

I was properly scared, and we all want to stay away from things that scare us. As life would have it though, I chose a line of work that now puts me in these creatures’ environment more often than not, but thanks to three super guides, I gradually learnt to read their behaviour, stay calm, and just enjoy being around them.

Why am I telling you this? Well, more than a handful of people I chat to are terrified of cooking and the only way I’ve been able to convince them that a fear can be overcome is by sharing this story with them. Yes, it has nothing to do with food, but similar principles apply when trying to lessen the anxiety of stepping into the kitchen and creating something from scratch.

Now, I can understand that not knowing what the oven will do if you turn one of the many knobs is like not knowing what a large grey beast is going to do when you’re on the other side of its tree taking photos with a camera that whirs like breaking glass. There’s a moment of panic in which you wait to see what happens and it’s long enough to have various scenarios flash before your eyes. What I learnt is that it’s important to remain calm and see the situation as it is . Do you only need to use a pan on the stove, a knife and a chopping board? Great, focus on those. Don’t worry about other stuff like cleavers, pasta machines and making soufflés – those are for another day. Most kitchen equipment works in a logical way, and if not, then there are always instruction manuals. Better yet, have someone help you the first time round to tell you what’s what and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Learning to read an elephant’s behaviour was one of the best things I was taught. Just because it’s flapping its ears, doesn’t always mean it’s about to charge. It’s not planning on getting into a tough situation and in most cases it’ll give you enough warning signs to let you know that you’re too close or doing something wrong. Same thing with recipes – they tell you exactly what to do and what to expect. Is the sauce meant to be going a light brown? The recipe will tell you. Are there meant to be flames? Probably not, unless you’re flambéing, so check the recipe. They have been worked out to give you the best outcome with the best flavour combinations. Once you’ve become familiar with what’s going on, how long things take and what works well, then you can become the kitchen boss and not stick to the recipe word for word. Not in a pushy kind of way like some guests who tell guides what to do because they saw a lion once before 3 years ago, but in a self-reliant, happy manner that allows you to make food with confidence.

Step three: know what to do if something goes wrong. Luckily, in the last couple years there’s only been one grumpy bull that caused a bit of a commotion, and there have always been guides close by (or at least a radio to call one if need be) and I trusted them completely. They always knew what to do to turn a situation around and keep the animals and guests happy. In the kitchen, same thing applies: always have a trustworthy back-up plan, whether that’s a frozen meal, extra veggies, tinned goods in the pantry or your mom on the other end of the line telling you what to do when the cake is sticking to the tin. Just knowing that you can make a plan if need be, helps to keep you calm.

It’s true that if something is difficult or stretches our comfort zones, we should do it more often until it gets easier. I still get a little nervous at times around elephants, but at least now when tears do come to my eyes, in most cases it’s from being completely humbled by their gentle nature and beauty. You can cry in the kitchen too, but I hope it’ll only be because your curry is like a bite of heaven. That, or you used too much chilli…

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