I got up before my 5 am alarm clock again the other day- thanks mostly to my cat. It’s a little hard to sleep through eight pounds of furry, purring lump flopping itself on to your chest- even if your alarm isn’t supposed to go off for another half-hour.
Ugh… fine. Covers off. Slippers and house hoodie on because the heater has yet to kick on. I use my phone and watch as a flashlight to find my glasses- Emily doesn’t have to be up for a few hours yet. Best not to wake her.
Shuffling through the dark apartment on the way to a lightswitch, I almost trip over Cleo twice. She’s weaving in and out of my legs and purring- thrilled as all get out that I’m awake to feed her, even before I fix my own breakfast.
“Yes, cat, I’m coming.”
“Yes cat, you’re getting fed.”
“Jesus Christ, you act like we never feed you. Keep your fur on.”
As I tip out half a can of weirdly uniform, monochromatic glop that claims to be turkey with sweet potatoes and gravy into her bowl, watch her take a few sniffs and walk away, I reach over and shut my alarm off.
“This is my life.”
Yes, yes it really is. I asked for it to be this way.
“In time travel stories, people are amazed at how the smallest changes in the past can drastically change the future/ their present. None of them realize that they are making those changes right now, and radically changing THEIR futures. ”
Then where were the changes made? What butterfly did I step on, or flower did I pick, that led to being flopped on the couch and trying to write a blog post around an adorable-yet-pain-in-the-ass cat that is trying to use my arm as a body pillow? Is there any evidence of it all left?
Of course there is- me.
1. Plans- You Need One.
The idea of me having a “plan” or “goals” in life had more or less died out after college. I had, after all, been sticking to “THE PLAN” that most of us kids born in the late 80s were given:
- Go to school. Get the best grades and test scores possible.
- Get into the best college possible, majoring in whatever it is you did best at in high school.
- Graduate college at all costs, get a job or go to post-grad school if needed (also at all costs)
- Get a job, stick with it forever, rise in the ranks and make money.
- Somewhere along the line, figure out how to be happy while also dying with the most toys.
As most of us figured out when the recession hit, no plan ever survives first impact with reality. When getting into a graduate program for psychology didn’t pan out, I bailed on having a plan or goals. I went home with my BA in Psychology, got a job as an EMT (because that’s what I had done before), and decided to just roll with the uncertainty.
Goal: Figure out a plan.
Plan: Roll with whatever happens, and do what needs doing.
You’d be amazed at how many people are going through life right now on this awe-inspiring wisdom.
In a lot of ways, I didn’t even have a plan when I got into culinary school. Baking was something I liked doing, culinary school seemed like a logical step toward doing something with it.
In the bakery, though- having a plan is VITAL. The sequence of each day is planned out, usually at least 24 hours in advance, to make sure things that have their own timetable get the attention they need and that materials and effort are not wasted. It’s time management and mise en place, all rolled up into one.
No surprise, then, that I became a LOT more contemplative and planning since starting in the kitchen. Every day has a list of what I want done, a rough schedule of how it will go- in other words, a routine. My goals for the future may still be nebulous, but long-term goals can be- they solidify in the short-term.
You can still roll with the punches- but it’s better to know when you’ll throw a few of your own.
2. Details Matter.
“Life is what happens when you’re not paying attention.” Sort of part and parcel to my “go with the flow” philosophy was “don’t sweat the small stuff-” as long as the big important stuff got handled, everything else would take care of itself.If I’m honest, this started changing when I was an EMT- noticing small changes and details could change what needed to be done, and possibly save someone’s life. In the years I spent on an ambulance, I lost count of how many times noticing a single medication on a list changed how a patient was handled, or finding a medical alert bracelet on a seizing patient gave information they were in no condition to provide.
In baking, the stakes aren’t QUITE so high as life-or-death- but being exacting in measurements absolutely is. It’s no secret that baking is a lot more precise than cooking- the baker has a lot less hands-on control during the actual process, so it becomes a precise mathematical and chemical equation to make sure the product comes out at the end exactly as it is meant to.Since I’ve started in the culinary world, in addition to planning, I have noticed that I tend to pick up on small things a lot more. Certain smells, the balance and organization of things, inflections of voice- you never know what might prove to be important.
Ideally, I’d like to call this “attentiveness” or “being detail-oriented.” My wife would call it “being neurotic” or “Goddammit, Matt it’s fine, can we please go already.”
Six of one, half-dozen of another I guess.
3. Always Be Moving.
I’ve mentioned before how, since changing my health and lifestyle, it’s hard to enjoy a simple lazy day. I always need to be moving or accomplishing something, or it feels like wasted time. Yes, part of it is due to having more energy and excitement for life- but most of it comes from the kitchen life.
“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”
“Always be moving.”
“If you’re standing still in a kitchen, you either don’t work there or soon won’t be anymore.”
“If you’ve got nothing to do, you’ve forgotten something.”
In the real world, trying to get a jump on things has often led to me jumping the gun, simply because it rarely occurs to me anymore that the best thing I can do for the moment… is nothing. As my friend Karen likes to say, “Life is a dance between making things happen and letting things happen.”
4. Practicality Over Theory, Results > Intentions
In a lot of ways, the culinary world remains a meritocracy. It doesn’t matter what you did before, who you know, or where you went to school. What matters is what you bring to the table NOW, and trying to sell your boss on letting you make a new pastry will go better if you put one under their nose rather than describe it to them on paper.
While all the time spent reading, researching, and looking up neat recipes is all well and good, it comes down to the harsh realities of what I can do, cleanly, elegantly, repetitively, and on budget.
5. The Need For Control
Cooking and Baking are about making food for others. They are about mathematics, and chemistry, and the alchemy of transmuting basic materials into beautiful and delicious works of art- simple or elaborate, rustic or pristine.It is also about absolute control.
Careful planning to control your time and activity.
Mise en place to control your ingredients and environment.
Letting nothing go unnoticed to keep them under your control.
The feeling of discomfort that comes from something affecting you that ISN’T under your control, and feels like it should be.
Constantly demonstrating your control and mastery in order to reassure others and yourself that “it’s all under control.”
One thing I’ve caught myself saying to Emily more than once is “I like the kitchen because, in the kitchen, everything makes sense.” When I bake, everything that is supposed to be under my control… is. Everything that isn’t can usually be fixed or worked around. The feeling of absolute personal dominion is a hard thing to lose if you are used to experiencing it often- the lack of it can be absurdly frustrating.
This is one of the reasons that “remembering to go home” is so vital. In a lot of ways, “going home” is me giving myself permission to let things go, and that I don’t have to be responsible for every little thing.
Easier said than done, of course- but that’s what it is.
In the end, some parts of your professional life will always come home, for good or ill. The biggest trick is sometimes knowing which parts ought to hang around- and which ones need to stay in your knife roll. Just know that whatever it is you choose, what you are and do now will affect what you become.
If you figure out how to do this perfectly, shoot me an email. I’ll try to answer it when Cleo is napping.