The advent of a new school year reminds that most of us, formally educated or not, seek to optimize our talents to support ourselves, as well as improve the lot of those around us. We often search through inspiring commencement speeches at prestigious universities to find inspiration. Instead, I found glints of enduring wisdom as I considered what I would be eating for dinner on an upcoming business trip to Asia last month.
I must confess that I am not the most adventurous gourmand. My more daring daughter, who overcame her father’s pickiness to explore cuisines far afield, constantly chides me when I travel abroad for sticking with a few tried and true dishes that are too close to home for her liking.
This all changed when I began planning a business trip to Singapore. I didn’t expect, however, to find a clue to our individual destiny, much less the fact that it may be connected to our DNA, sitting before me in a plate of street food, but I did.
Among the myriad of food shows inundating the airwaves during the past several years, I began to watch a series entitled, “Street Food,” on Netflix. This is not a ratings-driven show that follows modish cooks around trendy restaurants serving up pate-infused pearls with exotic entrées, but follows instead the steady hands of Asia’s most gifted purveyors of noodles in Yogyakarta, crab omelets in Bangkok and chicken rice in Singapore.
The stories of these humble men and women, in almost every case, started generations before his or her own rise to prominence, and centered around the commonplace of performing a task on a daily basis — a process that often led to uncommon recognition, but consistently resulted in great joy and personal satisfaction doing so simple a task as feeding another human being.
Take Jay Fie, for example; arguably, the most famous street chef in the world, who in her 70s, continues to find fulfillment at the bottom of a searing wok on the streets of Bangkok. Two challenges befell her as a young woman. Her mother doubted her ability to cook. Second, a devastating fire destroyed her sewing machine, which forced her to look for alternative means of making a living.
Her mother’s doubts fueled her curiosity to find innovative ways to grind out an existence mixing common ingredients found in Bangkok’s wet and dry markets. She serendipitously found that she could make tasty noodles in a wok without using oil, and then, in an act of desperation, stuffed a Japanese-style omelet with a pound of succulent crab chunks in order to boost her earnings. Years later she closed her storefront to attend, unknowingly, the awarding of a Michelin star to her street stall.
“My path opened before me,” she said with resounding self-assurance. Destiny then touched the next generation. Her daughter quit her job to manage her mother’s successful enterprise.
What happened in Jay Fie’s case transpired over and over again on the streets of Asia. A young man or woman inherited skills from a previous generation — in one case a young man taking over a bahn mi cart in Ho Chi Minh City that had been in the family for over 80 years — and improving upon it.
Ultimately, the common thread of these street chefs is that they found their calling in refining a seemingly mundane practice handed down from the previous generation and sharing it with others. This perfecting of a task is not something unknown with us here in the West. It was Malcolm Gladwell who, in his book “Outliers,” popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a single art — be that cooking a certain dish, performing a difficult surgical procedure or raising a child.
For many of us, we can find our calling somewhere in our past as we learn about our family and their given pursuits. Destiny may not always be found in our dinner, but considering where we come from, as well as what we do best on a daily basis, can often lead to greater good for ourselves and those around us.
Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University.