Thierry Marx: the creations of a Zen cook

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Two-star chef, at the head of several renowned tables in France and abroad, director of a company with 800 employees worldwide, Thierry Marx rethinks hierarchical relationships by focusing on collective intelligence. This pioneer of molecular cuisine, always looking for the right gesture, whether in front of his stove or in the dojos, applies the teachings of Buddhism in his daily life. From Dôgen to the food challenges of tomorrow, Marx acts on consciences by revolutionizing the content of the plates.

How did you discover Buddhism?

At one time in my life, I felt the need for silence, which I translated into a need for spirituality, and so I visited places of worship in search of a little peace.

At the age of thirty, my job took me to Japan; there, I discovered Zen Buddhism and Shintoism, I felt connected to this culture, especially during a visit to Mount Koya (1). I spent a few days among the Buddhist monks, and since then I have been going back regularly. This spirituality, interconnected with nature, allows me to live in harmony with society and with myself. It's fundamental: if you want to spread a positive message, you must first be positive, benevolent with yourself. Before this first immersion in Japan, I read books on Buddhism, I followed programs, but without really understanding the ins and outs. Reading it in France seemed complicated to me, especially since for me, Buddhism suffered from certain clichés about these monks in orange robes, who, it seemed to me, amused and worried the Judeo- Christian.

Do you find time to practice daily?

I do a fairly advanced meditation session a week and I give myself a moment each day when I sit down to work on my breathing. I have intensified this daily parenthesis for a few years, because I wanted to be able to put time between my emotions and my actions. In the business world, where the pressure is always stronger and the demand for immediate answers constantly increased, I felt the need to accentuate these times of meditation to find more serenity and spontaneity.

Concretely, how do you manage to juggle between your restaurants, bakeries, culinary research workshops, cooking schools and charities, without being overwhelmed by time? Does Buddhism help you manage this whirlwind?

I wouldn't call it a whirlwind, but a dynamic spiral that revolves around the simple things in life. First of all, there is cooking, my job, an activity that creates social ties, sharing. Then there are these charities, which also respond to an environmental approach. Even though I come from a very modest working-class background, I never said to myself: from now on, I will help the poor! My reflection, nourished by Buddhist principles, consists in asking myself how to act against this environmental debacle, in particular by proposing projects to young people. I remember a portrait of me broadcast on TV, in which the journalist underlined the fact that a neighborhood kid like me could succeed, or at least get out of his social condition. This challenged me, I said to myself: for a guy who comes out of the stairwell, how many stay there? According to a study (2), 1,3 million young people have no plans for the future, it's a disaster! This idea of ​​a dynamic spiral is based on the law of cause and effect, and makes it possible to involve young people, for example, in projects and to prevent them from remaining trapped in a negative whirlwind.

This approach is part of the vision of committed Buddhism that you follow.

Absolutely. I like this idea of ​​committed Buddhism. In my eyes, altruism is an absolute necessity! It is not a question of a fraternity which would consist in carrying the other, but rather in helping him to flourish. I find that much more interesting than giving someone crutches.

This commitment also involves bushido (the « warrior's voice "), this code of chivalry of medieval Japan that you mention regularly. Could we detect a feeling of revenge on a complicated childhood?

No, quite the contrary. Master Musashi, a great Japanese swordsman, who lived in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, said: « Saber and meditation are one« . Like all business leaders, I regularly have to make a decision, but nothing requires me to do it like an executioner! Bushido imparts a sense of calm, a quiet adherence to the inevitable, a connivance with death. When you no longer dread the moment when the night light will go out, it frees you up and greatly simplifies your life!

Whether it's martial arts or cooking, you often talk about the search for the right gesture, zanshin (the spirit of gesture) in Zen Buddhism. What is the benefit of this practice?

I learned pastry and cooking in the Western way, where I was told that in a fish, for example, there was 70% loss! In Japan, the cooks work on each part of the product: the head is used for the kabuto daishi (3), the belly, the viscera, the tail, the bones, everything is used. In short, it consists in recognizing the full value of a product offered by nature.

“Cooking is similar to Buddhism in that it combines the notions of pleasure, well-being and health. »

When I arrived in Japan, I discovered another way of cooking, I felt like an ignoramus. The great local masters told me: “Cooking is about mastering the gesture: the right cut, the right taste; control of fire (cooking); mastery of time, that of (TO DO) action and that of seasonality. With this grammar, you stay as close as possible to the original taste of the product. Sublimating a food therefore requires the right gesture. The same is true in the martial arts: in judo, a beautiful gesture is an effective gesture, which responds to this same triptych: mastery of gesture, mastery of fire, which is the contained energy, and mastery of time, it i.e. the right timing to make the move.

One cannot help but see a link to Zen Cook's Instructions of Dogen.

This work influenced me a lot; I have read and re-read it several times, because this philosophy inevitably affects us when we work in the kitchen. As a cook, you are constantly transforming products, you have to sublimate them while raising your spirit, one does not go without the other. This is what is interesting in these Instructions of Dogen and in the profession of cooking, it goes far beyond filling stomachs.

Do you apply any of the Buddhist teachings, such as impermanence or the interdependence of phenomena, when you cook? Or when you conduct research in molecular cuisine?

At the French Center for Culinary Innovation in Orsay, with Raphaël Haumont (4) we work a lot on biomimicry, which consists of observing and understanding what nature can bring us. An example: how to get rid of PVC, an extremely toxic polymer for the planet, by working on plant membranes like those of grapes? In this reflection, the notion of impermanence of Buddhism is very interesting, but we are still too often in copyright; I think we should rather accept to see things differently, and create, question... 

What concrete answers can Buddhism provide to the current food challenges?

First message: eat better, eat less. Consider that what you eat has a social impact. If you're not a vegetarian, but consider animal suffering a problem, start by reducing your meat intake and becoming a flexitarian. Second advice: know how to buy a product by favoring short circuits, be locavore, to finance sustainable agriculture. Just by following these two steps, you are already taking a big step for the planet!

“I like this idea of ​​committed Buddhism. In my eyes, altruism is an absolute necessity! It is not a question of a fraternity which would consist in carrying the other, but rather in helping him to flourish. I find that much more interesting than giving someone crutches. »

I remind you that specialists are announcing a possible shortage of drinking water in 2050, so the ecological emergency will concern water: today, the water we filter in specialized stations is consumed more by animals intended for slaughter than by humans! Hence the research I am doing on vegetable water. Finally, we must talk about the problem of waste. How to reduce them? Today, a cook produces 30% waste, it's huge! The kitchen of tomorrow will have to meet these challenges without selling off the notion of taste pleasure. Cooking is similar to Buddhism in that it combines the notions of pleasure, well-being and health.

What would be your most “Buddhist” signature dish?

Soy risotto. One day, following a delivery error, I ended up with cooked soy. I didn't know what to do with it, so I asked one of my Japanese trainees to cook it. As he had no recipe idea, he started cutting it into tiny pieces, it finally looked like carnaroli rice. I thought to myself: why not cook it in risotto? This gave a very interesting game of texture and temperature. This dish is a good symbol of the Buddhist state of mind, because it illustrates the idea that there is real wealth in diversity and the crossing of cultures.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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