The Eye For Detail

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

There are reasons I call myself a “baker,” and not a “pastry chef.”

Beyond the respect and station that I think comes with the “chef” title that I personally don’t think I’ve earned just yet, or the argument that “a chef is a cook who leads other cooks” and I haven’t had any cooks under my command for longer than a couple hours, there’s the fact that… well… I don’t think I’m quite crazy enough yet.

Let me explain- when I say “not crazy enough,” I mean that I still stand in rapt awe, wonder, and a little fear, of people who possess the meticulous attention to detail necessary to do certain things. Not just do them once or twice, but REPETITIVELY, and CONSISTENTLY. No cutting corners, no shrugging things off as “rustic” or “it’s meant to be like that”- if whatever these people do isn’t looking pristine, it’s unacceptable.
While I’m not exactly envious of the perfectionism these individuals have (my grandfather’s saying “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good’” comes to mind- and he was a brain surgeon) I am constantly in wonder of the level of PERCEPTION involved in noticing minuscule details.

Like many things in this world, an ideal case study for it comes from a certain mouse.

From the time I was little, my family were very much fans of Walt Disney World. We were regular attendees, and developed our own Disney-related jokes and traditions.
Nerdy family spends all its time in Epcot,”
Great Movie Ride and Spaceship Earth MUST happen.”
Just drop off Mom and Lauren in Japan, Matt will find his way to England or Canada.”
“Matt WILL get a picture with Winnie the Pooh.”

No, I’m not ashamed. Winnie the Pooh is the best. Fight me.

The time, attention, and devotion to PERFECT detail and showmanship throughout the Disney experience were not lost on me even as a kid- though I’m certain I didn’t have the vocabulary or reference of education to articulate it at the time.

  • At the “Living with the Land” ride in Epcot, explicit detail is paid to the outside of a farmhouse with a light on in the upper window. If you then get a meal at the rotating “Land” restaurant above, you can see into that window- and see a complete bedroom with books on the end table, and a hatbox on a perfectly made bed.
  • While each area of the Magic Kingdom has its own soundtrack played on hidden speakers, what you might not realize is that each area also has its own SCENTSCAPE, with atomizers releasing subtle, appropriate scents into the air of each area. Frontierland smells like sage and leather, Adventureland like tropical flowers and fruit, Main Street like popcorn and baked goods, etc.

  • Regardless of where you go or what you are standing near in Hollywood Studios, the lighting fixtures are always reminiscent of cinema lighting and spotlights, creating the feeling that your are CONSTANTLY walking on to a scene in a movie or a soundstage- exactly what Hollywood Studios is intended to be based on.
All of this, of course, falls into place as part of a “magic circle”- a term often used in the creation of virtual worlds and video games, though easily applied to any form of performance and storytelling. In short, it is a series of cues or indications to an audience that they are entering a space where the “outside world” need not concern them, and they can abandon themselves to the sensations and story within the circle.

The Walt Disney Company is, and hires, MASTER storytellers, and spare no expense or effort to make sure that, once past the front gate (or even just approaching the property), you know that you are in “The Magical World of Disney.”

In an older entry, I describe how the concept of the magic circle is not entirely divorced from the culinary world. In a lot of ways (especially with the advent of Food Network and food entertainment), cooking and restaurants have become a form of performance art. Once seated, the customers are meant to be front-and-center for not just a meal, but an EXPERIENCE. The contract of the magic circle is simple here- “For the next few hours, we will drop you into a universe of leisure, intrigue, and the fabulous story of your night out told in food.”

It’s an attentiveness to detail that I confess I have not fully mastered yet myself. There are certain things I catch better than others- usually textures, smells, and spacial relations more that colors or fine details. In my writing, I have a keen sense of flow, rhythm, style, and word choice- but I then need to revise for clarity.

The cover of the original

​In a very old copy I have of “Scouting for Boys” (the original Boy Scout Handbook,) Lord Baden-Powell makes no bones about the need for Scouts to be able to notice the smallest details (or “sign” as he called them) and remember them with clarity. In his military career, this was a vital skill for military scouts and intelligencers. For civilian boys, however, it was mostly intended for the ability to stalk game, or romanticized as an ability to gather evidence to solve crimes. In “Scouting for Boys,” he offers a memory game that was presented in Rudyard Kipling’s book “Kim.” The idea is that a tray of objects would be shown for a minute so the Scout could study them, and then covered. The Scout would then be quizzed on details- “How many blue stones were there?” “Was the pine cone closed, or open?”

When I was in culinary school, I remember being obliquely drilled on this in my classes on Classical Confections (all truffles to be identical,) Dessert Concepts (come up with a plating for a certain dessert, and replicate it perfectly 4 times,) and Culinary 101 (practicing vegetable cuts, all of which had to be identical length, thickness, etc.).

I wonder what a “Kim’s Game” for pastry chefs would look like. “What’s wrong with all these plates?” Perhaps it’s just something that comes with practice- though if I can get that practice without the blood pressure-jarring obsession, that’d be ideal.

Stay Attentive,

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