Welcome to the Kitchen

There’s a phenomenal article about Elon Musk called “The Cook and the Chef,” by Tim Urban over on his blog “Wait But Why,” where he talks about innovation and forward-thinkers.

After working my way through it, I realized this is a perfect mental model to use when thinking about your martial arts training.

Cook vs Chef

What’s the Difference?

While most people use the two terms to mean the same thing; “someone who makes something to eat,” the difference in philosophy between the two couldn’t be farther apart.

The Cook

This is someone who gets results by following a recipe.

The meal can be incredibly elaborate, involved, difficult to do, but there’s a very clear plan laid out. The outcome is guaranteed as long as you follow the recipe every step of the way.

Flavors of Cooks

It’s important to realize there’s a lot of variation within the realm of “cook,” too. There are those folks who are incredibly exact. They do precisely what the recipe says with zero deviation.

Then there are the cooks who start with a solid base, and then substitute ingredients here and there. They might play with cooking methods. They like knowing the landscape before playing around. This is how I approach the kitchen when I’m feeling like getting my hands dirty.

Regardless of how much play there is in the process, cooks are still following a pre-set plan for success which is what provides them the liberty to explore.

This accounts for most people.

The Chef

This is someone who creates the recipes, and they’re pretty rare.

They’re an innovator. They make something unique that’s never existed before. They’re the person who formulates the recipes that Cooks follow.


Don’t get me wrong; Chefs may not always be innovating. Sometimes they’re just looking for something to eat. They might make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Most of the time they’re just trying to get from point A (hungry) to point B (fed).

But every once in awhile a unique situation crops up, and it requires a new way of thinking. This is where cooks get left behind.

Martial Cook

Most people are cooks when it comes to their martial arts. They practice forms. They practice kicks 10,000x so they can scare Bruce Lee.

They study recipes. And it looks a lot like “if-then” logic statements.

“If he gets me in a head-lock, then I do this move. If he gets me in a guillotine, then I do that move.”

You can instantly identify a cook when they ask, “When do I use this technique?” They’re focused on the tools of the trade, and study how to use them.

Defined by “what.”

Martial Chef

This is someone who studies the principles that govern self defense. Once they fully understand the principles, they can combine the elements/ingredients in their own unique way.

It looks a lot like cooking, but it’s subtly different. They’re usually asking questions like this:

“What could this posture/position do? What could it be?”

Defined by “why.”

Make the Transition

You’re realizing you’ve been training as a cook instead of working to be a chef. What now? What’s the first thing you can do to shift your thinking?

Think Like Socrates: All I know is I know nothing.

You’ve been in the grip of the particular assumptions and concepts that govern the nature of your particular style. With those assumptions come unique pitfalls and problems. But, since you’ve been in it so long, you’ve lost the ability to see the problems that are staring you in the face.

It’s like your nose. You can see it all the time, but your mind ignores it. (And now that I brought your attention to it, you can’t help but not see it, right?)

Certainty Will Kill You

Question everything. It’s not always what you don’t know that will kill you. It’s what you know for certain that just isn’t right that will do you in.

There’s a 4 stage cycle of ability that’s important to remember:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know what you don’t know. Unaware of deficit.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: You know what you don’t know. Aware of deficit.
  3. Conscious Competence: You can do it, but requires focus. Aware of ability.
  4. Unconscious Competence: You can do it without thinking about it. Unaware of ability.

4 Stages of Chef Development

  1. Bible Thumper: This is what I call someone who proudly proclaims what they know to be true based on their good book, or the lessons of their teacher.
  2. Doubtful Follower: This is the student who still blindly follows tradition, but is aware things might not be exactly right.
  3. Disillusioned Floater: This is a student who has become untethered. They realized he was following a made-up recipe created by someone who didn’t know what they were talking about.
  4. Chef: Realizes the need to explore and understand first principles, build a skillbase that’s rock solid. Accepts the fear and doubt, and builds their own path anyway.

Where Are You?

Do you plan methods of attack based on “if/then” logic? Do you practice sequence drills? Do you ask your instructor “What does this technique do?” Do you train by analogy (like a tiger)?

Or, do you ask your instructor “What types of situations would make this technique useful?” Do you look for the fundamental principles that govern self defense, and build a training approach centered there? Do you train from first principles?

Don’t make the mistake of bringing a recipe to a gun fight.