The Improviser vs The Conformist: What Habits Make for a Great Chef?

(6 minute read)

(above: ‘Bread Baking’ by Anders Zorn, 1889)

Dear friends, there is a tale,

In a small town there was a baker whose talent was well known throughout the land.

His bakery, so renowned it was that passerby were known to adjust their routes so as to smell his delicious bread in passing.

But one day his fame attracted the attention of the wrong sort of people.

An unscrupulous mother, also a baker by trade though of no fame.

The unscrupulous mother, envious of the famous baker, sent her son to spy on him through a kitchen window before dawn.

The son did as he was bid. He studiously recorded everything he saw and later returned with a detailed recipe.

The unscrupulous mother immediately set to work replicating the bread.

As she proceeded to cook she found ingredients & instructions that conflicted with her own experience.

‘Son you must have seen incorrectly, it would be absurd to use whey! Surely it was water.’

‘4 pinches of salt, what a waste! Such precious spice must be used sparingly. 1 pinch will do.’

‘Are you certain you saw him rest the dough for 3 hours? 2 has long been our family tradition.’

Soon the bread was complete & the unscrupulous mother eagerly sampled her work, only to find it lacking. A second class loaf. An obvious forgery.

Outraged, the unscrupulous mother directed her anger at the famous baker.

‘He must have known you were watching and deliberately lead you astray! Curse him for doing this to me!

-Author Currently Unknown. This story is retold from Michael’s memory of a long lost children’s story.
(‘Woman Baking Pancakes’ by Adriaan de Lelie, 1790)


Take a look at the paintings above & consider which of these two chefs you would prefer to cook for you.

In ”Baking Bread’ you see a family dedicated to their work. Each person is visibly absorbed in their own specific task. Even the kid has been given a toy so as not to be a distraction to the workers.

The room itself is clearly intended to accommodate baking, being well lit with a dedicated workspace.

In contrast, the ‘Woman Baking Pancakes’ isn’t even looking at what she is cooking.

The atmosphere is chaotic with people distracting her. The man appears to be smoking. The flame lacks a grilling rack for control, and her work space is full of things unrelated to her task.


The Improviser vs The Conformist

My sister and I both know our way around a kitchen, but our styles couldn’t be more different.

She makes amazing meals every time because she strictly adheres to proven & well reviewed recipes. If she doesn’t have a listed ingredient, she’d prefer to make a special trip to the store rather than substituting an ingredient.

I can whip up a good spread too; I practice almost every day!

This may come as a surprise after reading the above but I rarely follow recipes after the first time I make them. It keeps dinner interesting and being flexible is an excellent way to reduce food waste.

If you want novelty give me a shot, but if you want consistent quality I’d send you to her to house.

Both approaches have merits, and despite our differences there are a couple things we can agree on:

*When you create a recipe for others, you take responsibility for a promised outcome.

*When following a recipe, you take responsibility for the outcome the moment you knowingly deviate from it.

These ideas have applications beyond cooking of course. Replace ‘recipe’ with quality control procedure or work instructions and you’ll see the relevance to this blog.

Producing comprehensive supporting documentation to accompany any equipment you produce is a necessity. Boring as it often is, I’d still prefer a little drudgery over being on the hook for unanticipated failure modes like this:


From a Consumer’s Perspective:

My first 3D printer was a complete hack. A PrintrBot original version with parts sourced from scratch.

I learned much from the experience, including what kind of consistency you can expect from such a machine.

When the time came to start growing my farm I narrowed my choices down to the popular yet expensive Prusa I3 series and a Chinese clone of it, available for less than half the price.

My goal is to work with my 3d printers, not on them! (Plus I like supporting innovators)

So I opted for the high price of consistency. My small print farm now includes 6 Original Prusa printers.

Time has seen the copycat technology catch up with him though. All creative work is inspired by something else and as improvisers hone their own recipe they end up creating a new standard.

Nowadays you can get a full featured work horse of a machine for $250! … I hate to admit it but my 7th printer is an Anycubic Kobra, made in China. Though just days ago Prusa finally released amazing new tech so guess what printer #8 will be?

From a Producer’s Perspective:

I chose to share the bread baking story after recently reading a negative critique of my own work.

Someone attempted to build a CylinDraw without one of my kits. The project is open source so that’s acceptable, but the maker criticized my sales price and design choices, choosing to substitute his own hardware in places.

Sure enough the result appeared to be a problematic machine. A project abandoned. I can sympathize with failed experiments but I feel great about my documentation so I’ll give you one guess how responsible I feel for that result.

On the other hand, sometimes customers will surprise you with a pleasant improvisation.

Adam Soule & his team of scientists used a CylinDraw kit to help get kids interested in ocean science.

They collected children’s drawings and used my software to directly convert them into art on Styrofoam cups.

Then they took those cups on a manned submarine deep underwater where the high pressure compressed the open cell foam into cute mini cups. 🙂


Further Reading:

The intro to this post was written in a style meant to imitate one of my favorite bloggers. Simon Sarris from The Map is Mostly Water knows how to give new relevance to ancient stories!

Not that I intend to make a habit out of mimicking him, I only had the one old story to tell. It’s based on a fable I remember from my childhood but neither I nor 2 librarians have been able to track it down.

The art has no direct relation to the story beyond similar subject matter. I picked those 2 pieces to illustrate my point.


I recently finished reading the entirety of a cookbook… Which sounds like an odd thing to do except this was not your typical cookbook.

Each recipe in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter is preceded by a short story from the authors life. I’ll leave you with her words:

” ‘People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (sic. Uncrustables) for their children’s lunch boxes.’ …I felt briefly smug in the certainty that I was not so lazy or compromised that I would ever buy mass-produced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then I thought, People probably once said that about peanut butter. And bread. And jelly. They almost certainly said it about waffles, and pie crust, and pudding. Not so long ago, people must have wondered who couldn’t fry her own donuts, grind her own sausage, cure her own bacon. Kill her own bacon! The more I thought about it, the more arbitrary it seemed to draw a line in the sand at the frozen PB&J.”

 Jennifer Reese





    • Thank you!! I took a break from offering the fully assembled Cylindraw because the time commitment is a bit much right now. If I deactivate that option on Etsy then customers cant see any options and think they are getting the assembled version for the cost of the kit version, so the 9k is a place holder.


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