Master, Apprentice, and Biofuel

George Stiffman
3 min readApr 24, 2020

I remember the moment I got up to leave.

“I’m going to Guangzhou,” I told Master Chen. “I want to see what they have to offer.”

He was hurt, and almost immediately, the openness he once had towards me changed entirely. He seemed more closed off, more vulnerable.

I had flown across the world to Xiamen, China, with the purpose of learning the Chinese culinary arts. Master Chen was a Buddhist chef, who after 30 years of toil had left his monastery kitchen to take on students. I had been studying under him, one-on-one, for almost two months, and I was learning so much — a full cannon of southeastern Chinese stir fries, soups, staples, and appetizers. Yet, I was beginning to feel, after two months studying with just one teacher, that I wasn’t learning enough.

I thought of all the famous chef’s I knew — Marcus Samuelson, Anthony Bourdain… these people were always jumping from one joint to the next. Yet for Master Chen, leaving was a major breach of loyalty. He thought I didn’t trust him enough, that I didn’t think his 30 years of experience were worthy of my full summer.

Unsurprisingly, when I left, we didn’t leave on great terms. Aside from the occasional WeChat well-wishing, we haven’t seen each other in almost 3 years. I think he wants to keep it that way.

This conundrum isn’t unique to me. In semi-Confucian “master-apprentice” relationships, a student is supposed to acknowledge their teacher has their master, their superior, literally bowing down to signal submission of autonomy. In turn, the teacher become like a “father-figure” (masters have historically been men), who raises them in their own image and cares for them as they would their own baby.

In the modern era, as information has become freer and faster, it seems impractical to have just one teacher, who is likely ignorant in many areas. Yet, there is one major benefit to this sort of relationship: because the master has power over the apprentice, they can confer their deepest, most secretive knowledge upon them knowing that that knowledge, in one sense or another, will still belong to themself.

Your student will not run and backstab you.

They’ll join your army and fight alongside you.

While I never formally acknowledge to Master Chen as my master (his title was simply Master Chen), I found that the more deference I showed him, the closer we became, and the more he would open up. By the end of our training, he genuinely wanted me to learn. He was pushing me grow like I would never have expected on day one. There was a power to our closeness.

Leaving Master Chen was certainly the right decision for my learning. Yet, while fierce, unyielding devotion to one teacher is simply not practical in the 21st century, intimacy is still incredibly important.

More specifically, we need better ways to give back to our teachers, who pass along knowledge that they’ve spent lifetimes accumulating so that we can progress quicker than they did. Teachers are our compass and biofuel, our guidebook and fan club. We need to show them, as students, that we appreciate their dedication. For them, and also for us. Because the more respect we show, the more they will help us grow.