Italian Food and Woodworking

Article - February 10, 2009

An amazing and groundbreaking thing happened in my neighborhood this week: The Olive Garden opened its doors! Nicole was very excited. Me? Not so much. Where Nicole grew up, Italian food WAS the Olive Garden. Where I grew up (in a predominantly Italian area known as “The Burg” in Trenton, NJ), Olive Garden was the punchline to a joke. But despite having access to all of these small, ambiance-rich, high quality restaurants, our local Olive Garden was always packed. And many truly considered it to be “fine dining”. As far as I was concerned back then, it was all just food and I ate where my parents told me to. If they had Chicken Parmesan and French dressing, I was a happy boy. But as I got older, I developed an appreciation for the true difference between the mundane consistency of Olive Garden, and the punchy, fresh, and vibrant flavors delivered by a thoughtful and prideful chef.

Well today, Nicole finally got her wish as we headed to Olive Garden for lunch. The meal was everything I thought it would be: one-dimensional and heavy on the oil. But as we were eating, I noticed that the trim on the walls was nothing more than construction grade douglas fir. Upon further inspection, I could see oodles of nail holes and even the tell-tale ridge that develops when your round-over bit is set too low. Nicole laughed at me as I pointed out the lack of care and attention given to the finer details. Douglas fir or not, the wood deserved a better fate than that! Now don’t get me wrong. I realize that this is a commercial chain restaurant. I am just illustrating a point. Just as refined taste buds and an appreciation of quality ingredients helped me realize where Olive Garden stands in the world of food, an ever-increasing knowledge of quality wood and refined techniques allows me to discern the difference between good woodwork and bad. Believe it or not, it wasn’t long ago that I would walk through IKEA wishing I could build some of the cool modern furniture I saw there. Today, needless to say, I see things with a different pair of eyes.

So this brings up a thought-invoking question. Does enlightenment bring with it responsibility and obligation? That is, making sure your projects live up to the standards you are aware of and are capable of. As a lover of great food, should I kick and scream as Nicole drags me by my ear into the Olive Garden? Or should I shut up and just eat my oily pasta dish? As you progress as a woodworker and learn more about creating quality work, do you feel guilty if you stop short? Do you ever say “good enough”, even though you know you could do better? I am curious to hear where you draw that line.

I’ll go first. I definitely feel a sense of guilt if I don’t do something to the absolute best of my abilities. But there are times, as a business, that I must come up with cost saving solutions that frequently mean lowering my standards. When making my own personal pieces, however, I really do try to make everything as good as it can possibly be given the tools/materials on hand and my current skill set.

And just an FYI, after years of taking Nicole to what I consider “good” Italian restaurants, she walked out of the Olive Garden slightly disappointed today. For some reason, she just remembered it tasting better. Haha! My evil plan is working!