Name: Nick Nauman
Location: Brooklyn, NY
How were you introduced to Buddhism? I was raised Catholic, but when I was a teenager, a lot of the fiction I liked referenced Buddhism, like Salinger and Hesse and Kerouac. So I started investigating a bit. And then I got really interested in linguistics and semiotic theory for a while, and when I started seeing overlap with Western theory and Buddhist philosophy, I got pretty excited. When I went to college, I started going to a weekly meditation group and taking classes about Eastern religion.
Buddhism made sense to me because I could apply to my own life so many of the descriptions of reality and perception and the world, especially those that subverted what I saw as Catholicism’s reification of the material world and its social hierarchies.
As part of your college studies you spent several months traveling through Asia and living in a Burmese monastery in Bodhgaya, India. How did this experience change your understanding of the dharma and yourself ? I went to India because I was interested in shattering the loftiness shrouding the Buddhism that came to me through its American history: perfect truths and small-h holy people, peace and love and incense and floating folks in the lotus position. I found plenty of what I was looking for: monks who ate meat and made sexual passes at fellow students, no-bullshit money-chasing sellers of laminated sutras and framed bodhi leaves. And meanwhile, here was the dharma, not challenged one iota by any of these “unsavory” or “illusion-busting” things I observed.
This experience left an indelible imprint of dharma-as-living on me. I met and practiced with so many people who, in whatever way they could or allowed themselves to, were engaging the dharma as their primary way of being in the world.
You’re a chef at Eat, a restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. How did you become interested in cooking? I remember once when I was 9 or 10, I put a can of Chicken of the Sea in a pan with some vegetable oil and every spice in my parents’ cabinet and called it Tuna Surprise. That blew my mind. It tasted different than anything I’d ever eaten, because only I knew exactly what was in it. Then I declared myself a vegetarian when I was 13, but my family was not interested in giving up meat, so I started making things for myself. Now I view cooking as a creative endeavor.
What’s your understanding of the politics of food? When I was 13, I volunteered at Food Not Bombs in Boston. It’s a loose-knit organization that redistributes food. We’d take food that was being thrown away but wasn’t actually spoiled, make vegan meals out of it, and serve them to the city’s homeless population. It was a good way for me to develop a sense of the counter-culture, and I got to be self-righteous with all the other high school and college students.
When I use the term “food politics,” I’m referring to the simple process of politicizing food. It’s not an idea or philosophy that’s basic to how Americans think. It’s thinking about how we get our food, how it’s grown, and the way people do or do not have food in American society. We live during a time in which industrialized agriculture is the overriding system, where food is a commodity coming from places people don’t see, and where the monoculture of farms is dangerous to the environment and keeps more nutritious food from getting to people.
How can we be involved in food in a way that plays into the industrialized agricultural system as minimally as possible? I want to serve food that is nondestructive, physically nutritious, and spiritually the most conscionable.
Last year, you initiated the weekly practice of eating a four-course meal in silence at Eat, and it has become surprisingly popular with the general public. How do these silent meals fit into your culinary political philosophy and Buddhist values? The silent meal is just one expression on our food politics spectrum. I used to have an antagonistic relationship with our industrialized food culture. But I don’t want to reside in that antagonism, ferocity, and anger anymore. Now I’m open to alternative ways of being, not having to live defined by that militance.
The silent meal is one of these alternatives. It’s a simple, elegant idea: four courses in silence. If we eliminate noise and talking, both in the kitchen and in the dining room, and just focus on cooking and bringing it out, then there’s nothing else. No sleight of hand. I wanted to see what would happen when you have an event like this that relates to a Buddhist experience introduced into a context—a New York restaurant—that’s so removed from the spirit and intention found in a monastery. The fact that it has resonated with so many people has surprised me.
How is cooking a meditation for you? When I’m cooking or preparing food, I want it to be a full engagement of how profound food and eating are as human activities. When we eat, we are collapsing the illusory division between self and other. We are breaking down the boundaries between our bodies and the outside world. That’s also what we’re doing when we meditate.
It requires a lot of attention to make good food: chopping, standing, and engaging the senses in a direct way by tasting, touching, and smelling. When cooking is a meditation, it opens up a lot of possibilities to let go of our rigid definitions of ourselves.
How does the dharma guide you during your everyday life? That’s a little like asking how the air affects my breathing. Sometimes I engage the dharma consciously, call myself a Buddhist, meditate, and read sutras. Sometimes I make a silent meal and talk to the press about my Buddhist influence and how the philosophy is central to my work. Sometimes I just think about right speech and right action as I bumble about the city. Sometimes I consider the possibility that every gnarly human I encounter is a bodhisattva, nudging me along.