The Parable of the Young Cook

Once upon a time, there was a young woman who hated cooking.

Now, that is not to say she hated to cook. There are many people who hate to cook, whether for personal preference or out of the desire to avoid a chore. No, this young woman was special. She hated cooking itself, the same way that religious fanatics hate heretics, or that results-oriented racist groups hate minorities.

In short, she felt very strongly that cooking should not exist. Or at least that it should not exist anywhere where she might have to encounter it. And like many fanatics, she held these views so strongly that she was prepared to take action to make it so.

Her family had a bit of money and she used it to her ends. She rented a building, filled it with machines, and hired men who had never held a weapon but who might fairly be called mercenaries. Together, they devised a plan, and the men were set to their tasks.

For months they worked in isolation, until the first phase of the plan was complete. Then, when the time was right, the young woman picked up a pen and the wrote an advertisement. It was a simple notice, to be distributed digitally and physically to those places where the unemployed congregated.

“Wanted: Average Cook

“Seeking cook of moderate skill for 9-5 employment in the downtown area. Must be comfortable preparing a wide variety of dishes (asian, mediterranean, traditional, indian, etc). Applicants should be competent but not excel or stand out in any regard. Love of the job discouraged. Begrudging attitude highly preferable. $16/hour, at-will employment. No benefits.”

Many unemployed cooks looked at the advertisement and found it quite strange. Their instincts warned them that something was amiss and they wisely decided not to apply. What, they wondered, could such an advertisement possibly be meant to accomplish? What sort of person would it attract?

It attracted precisely the sort of person it was meant to. Her name was Jane.

Jane did not hate cooking, but she did hate to cook. Her mother had made her learn the craft against her will, and her bitterness over her instruction matched her lack of aptitude in the field. But while she hated to cook, she also loved money, and her affection for a regular paycheck outweighed her distaste for the work.

It did not take her long to grasp the nature of her task. The young woman’s mercenaries, the men whose machines destroyed lives, had created something new at her behest. It was a small, precise, inexpensive robotic arm, capable of independent movements around a room. With training, it could operate any tool a human could operate with equivalent or greater dexterity. But while it knew how to move around a kitchen, how to grasp a knife, how to flick a switch, it did not know anything about cooking.

Jane would correct that. It would watch her, and it would learn. And so Jane and the young woman worked together. They taught the machine just what a properly shaved carrot looked like, and how to produce one without leaving carrot shavings over half the floor. They taught it the correct flavors for meat, and how to make crisp bread, and a hundred other skills it would need to know so that they would never be performed by humans again.

Jane asked few questions. The young woman seemed to prefer it that way. But one day, her curiosity became too great: “Why did you hire me? You could have afforded the finest chefs in the world. They would have taught your machine much faster, and could teach it finer recipes.”

“Indeed they could have,” the young woman replied, “but that is not why you are here. You are here so that everything you create can be destroyed. You see, I hate you. Or more precisely, I hate what you are—I am somewhat ambivalent to you personally.”

Jane bristled. She looked down at herself. Discrimination was not unknown to her, but she was white, straight, and fairly pretty, and while she was female so was her employer. After a moment she asked: “And what am I?”

“Mediocrity.” From the kitchen counter Jane had been using minutes ago, the young woman picked up a knife. “Look at this,” she said, holding the blade between two fingers and submitting it for inspection.

“A man studied for four years before he was allowed to touch the machine that would mill the metal destined to become his knife’s blade.” The young woman said. “He worked under the direction of a yet more skilled and senior engineer, with many decades of practice in metalwork. The handle was made with as much care by a specialist in injection moulding, and a dozen chemists labored for a year or more to design the glue that attaches the two.”

She ran a finger along the flat of the blade. "Any kitchen populated exclusively by chefs with four years of careful training and years more of diligent experience would be a fine kitchen indeed! Four stars, if not potentially five. And yet this knife is, in all truth, only somewhat above average. To the chefs in the world who take the time to truly master their craft I say, bravo. Be they a hundred or a thousand, or perhaps even a million souls. But to the other billion chefs in the world, I give the scorn that is due to someone who has contended themselves with adequacy."

She laid the knife back on the counter. “And that is why you are here. Because you do not deserve so much as the tools you use. You are here so that I can teach a robot to do everything you can do, and then produce them for nearly nothing. It will render you and yours not merely unemployed, but unemployable, and forever destroy the lackluster waste that you peddle as a trade.”

Jane considered that for some time, and then said: "And what of the people who use your machine? Are they not settling for mediocrity? Choosing the reliable output of a machine over the possibility for true original greatness?"

"What they receive," said the young woman, "shall be inexpensive food, reliable and sustaining, without the waste and baggage of individual variation or inefficient traditions. If that is a punishment or a reward is outside the scope of my understanding, but I am comforted by the knowledge that each shall receive what they desired, and each shall receive what they deserve."

Eventually, the two finished the cooking machine. It was first adopted by fast food chains, but as its repertoire grew, its popularity spread. Many millions of cooks across the world were put out of work, and in time, a mob of them formed outside the building. The hired men ran, and the mob broke through the walls and beat the young woman to death. They smashed the machines and burned the workshop, but it did them little good, and most were out of work forevermore.

Jane escaped the conflagration, and went on to open a restaurant in the heart of the city. She advertised that it was she upon whom the machines were based, and that those her sampled her works were seeing the world without the lens of the mechanical.

She called this food "Traditional," and it was inferior to the machine in all ways. She had not bothered to learn any new recipes, and so it was the same work performed less reliably. She charged three times as much as the machines did, and in truth, her waiter was prone to forget orders, to drop things, and bring customers regular soda when they clearly asked for diet.

As she looked over her restaurant and overcharged her customers for their meals, she reflected on her patron's words -- that each should, in the end, receive precisely what they deserve.

Some days, customer came to her and thanked her. They expressed that they felt overwhelmed at the modern world, with its crushing uniformity and omnipresent technology. Her cooking, they said, was a refuge. In her restaurant, they could feel human again. They called her a treasure.

She burned their food on purpose.

This story was first published on LinkedIn.

Tristan Morris