Age: 45
French Chef
Location: New York City

Where did you grow up? I was born in France, in Antibes. When I was 9, my parents moved to Andorra, a very small country in the mountains between France and Spain, where I lived until I was 17.

When did you first take an interest in cooking?
I’ve had a passion for food since I was young. I was always around the kitchen with whoever was cooking, and then—at a very young age—I decided on what they call “a profession.” I decided to go to culinary school because I had a passion for eating and cooking.

What’s the last thing you cooked? Paella.

What first drew you to Buddhism? I grew up in a Christian environment, and at that time in France we didn’t have very much information about Buddhism. Then, in 1989, I finally ended up with a book about Tibet. I was interested in Tibetan civilization, and I was eager to read more and ended up reading a book by the Dalai Lama. The French name, if I translate it exactly, was “A hundred elephants on a blade of grass,” and it started with his Nobel Prize speech. After that, I was like “Wow! Buddhism!” It was a revelation.

Do you find, as a chef, that Buddhist practice helps your work? Yes, in many ways. It gives me respect for the lives of the products that we are using, and I try to create an environment that is as peaceful as I can and to promote Buddhist principles of tolerance and compassion. It’s an exercise that I practice for myself, then for my team and for the restaurant.

I imagine that can be challenging in the fast-paced New York restaurant world. It is challenging. The challenge is that the kitchen world is a hardcore environment and has a certain tradition of being tough. I’m trying to change that, and I think we have done a tremendous amount of work collectively with the team to change that sort of tough atmosphere and make it a more convivial atmosphere. But to fight toughness, I cannot be tough to the guy who is tough; I have to be kind to the guy who is tough. So it takes longer, but I get a better result.

Can you tell us about the work you’ve done with Tibetans or Buddhist communities? I am on the board of Tibetan Aid Project [in San Francisco], and I’m helping Tibet Fund in New York City. I cohost events at Tibet House. Whenever I can, I do a little contribution here and there.

You mentioned your practice being beneficial in the kitchen. Has it ever affected an actual dish? Tibetan cuisine hasn’t helped me much. I haven’t done much research, except the momo [Tibetan dumpling], which I don’t serve here because of the French tradition. [Buddhism] is not a culinary adventure or inspiration, it’s more like a lifestyle and life-progression adventure that I’m picking up from the teachings.

When you were in Dharamasala, India, visiting Norbulinka Institute for a week of meditation, did you have any encounters with the famous mischievous monkeys that mess with everybody? I [was in] Dharamsala for the anniversary of the Chinese invasion [of Tibet], and there was a lot of turmoil between young Tibetans who wanted to have a more aggressive way of working against the Chinese. The Dalai Lama was going to make a speech, and I remember the monkeys struck me because they were on the roofs of the temple, and maybe a half hour before [the Dalai Lama] came out of his residence they were starting to look around, almost like they were protecting him. I was amazed. I thought it was magical because they were really like bodyguards.

What was your favorite dish to eat in India? Curry chicken, of course.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
Yes. One thing I’m struggling a bit with is the fact that I serve animals. I know the nature of human beings is to be omnivores, and very few of us can be vegetarian or even vegan, very few. I believe the Dalai Lama himself cannot be on a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, he needs some animal protein. But this is something that I’m really struggling with. I’m a chef in New York with a successful restaurant, and I’m kind of asking myself, What’s the right thing to do without being too militant or extremist but at the same time doing something right? I don’t have an answer, really—maybe someone who reads the article will—but my only refuge is to follow the middle way. My middle way is to try to encourage farmers to raise animals in a more humane way.

As far as I know there is not any definitive answer, but I think the fact that you are contemplating this is a wonderful thing.
Yes, well, it’s better than just ignoring it or being totally ignorant about it. But now I need to go to the next level, and I don’t know what that is.

You’re the newest judge on the popular television show Top Chef. Do you find that it’s difficult to balance Buddhist practice with the world of celebrity? The idea of being considered a celebrity has no impact on the way I live my life.

—Monty McKeever

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