Good morning, friends and neighbors!
The night before last, I had discovered Overdrive and Libby– apps for Kindle/iPad/etc that let you borrow ebooks and audiobooks from any library you have a library card for, and download them straight to your device.
So after running through the catalog like a kid in a candy store, I decided to go ahead and borrow a recipe book by a famous pastry chef I’d never heard of. If that sounds odd in your head, don’t worry- there’s a lot of famous people you’ve never heard of.
I honestly do like a good, well-written, lovingly photographed or illustrated cookbook. One thing that does sometimes happen, though- and this is no one’s fault but my own- is that really beautiful work and food can make me utterly depressed.
“Christ, LOOK at this.” I think to myself. “What do I even have to friggin’ offer? Work like this is out there in the world, and what am I doing? I’m not at the the kiddie table- I’m not even in the HOUSE.” Eventually, though, I get some flour on my hands, put some work in, and it wears off.
Before getting into the actual recipes (which where pretty straightforward, but seemed highly technical,) the chef author of this cookbook goes through his entire career in four pages. Dishwasher at 15. Line cook at 18. Cooked by day, worked the door at a club by night. Badgered a pastry chef into teaching him at 20. Sous chef at 23. Executive pastry chef at 25. Given $10,000 interest-free loan from his boss to go out and see the world, then come back and work for him. Award-winning executive pastry chef at 29.
I lay in bed and set the reader down, staring at the ceiling.
Emily climbs in to bed, looks over at me. “Everything OK?”
“Yeah… no… I don’t know.”
I’m fully aware- and I am reminded over and over again- that I got started in this business comparatively late. I started culinary school at the ripe old age of 24, where most of the cooks and accomplished chefs I’ve heard of started out “the old way”- washing dishes at 14 or 15, then getting bumped up to line cook, etc.
At that age, I was working on an ambulance as an EMT.
When they are 29, that’s 14 years in the industry- working hard the entire time, of COURSE they are accomplished! They deserve all they’ve earned.
In that respect, watching talented chefs be younger than my 32-year-old self and feeling a little envious is utterly ridiculous. The industry doesn’t care that I’m 32. It cares that I’ve been at this for 8 years, and someone younger than me has been at it for twice that long. Suck it up, champ, and get back to work.
This is what I tell Emily as I’m lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself. “I started too late. I’m never gonna do anything worth knowing about in this industry.”
Emily, thank God, is used to hearing this crap. Not just from me- from music students too. She remembers listening to a program called “From The Top” on NPR, and listening to the incredible skills of pre-teen musicians. She used to dream of being on that program… but time went on. She never got on, and soon was too old to be featured. For a long time, she couldn’t bear listening to the program- it just made her too angry and frustrated with herself.
Rolling over, she pulls the recipe book from my hands and reads some of the chef’s intro. “Wow… yeah, he started early. He got the notice of some important chefs and mentors… found a chef that COULD and WOULD drop $10,000 to send a kid around the world. Good for him.”
She looks at me and says, “Hun… is this actually what you want? Fame?”
I shift a little… “I guess… but not really. I mean… I’d like fame and money for what it would let me see and do.”
“Well, money would let us live comfortably and travel more.. and a little notoriety might help open a few doors…”
“Ok… but WHY?”
I read somewhere that, because of our theoretically-higher intellect, humans are the only creatures on the planet whose very existence can be problematic for them. It’s not enough for humans to be alive- we need to know “WHY.”
“Well… I guess I just want to leave something good behind, you know? Leave an impact. I know I won’t be here forever, and I probably won’t be able to bake forever… I just want to leave my name in stone somehow, you know? I want to know I’m not wasting my time on Earth.”
If I’m being truthful, though, that’s not the only reason.
Chris Guillebeau puts it very well in his work- once you achieve success, you need ANOTHER reason, or it’ll all feel hollow. You need to be able to do something for others- and there’s no reason “becoming successful” and “helping others” can’t be done at the same time.
When asked why I love baking, and why I chose to do it as a career, I say the same thing I’ve heard a lot of other cooks and chefs answer. It goes something like this, and in fact WAS the answer one of the line cooks at the restaurant gave as we were on the bus:
I love feeding other people. I love looking after other people. Every now and then, when I’m feeling down, I’ll look through the doors and try to find something I made. Watching someone else enjoy my work is a thrill beyond words. Not just a ‘F** yeah, they want it!’ but a “Look how much they like it. Look how happy they are. I did that.”
For the record, this is exactly why- when I get shift meal- I find out who made it and tell them to their face how good it was. I show them the empty plate- because that can be a really huge “thank you.”
Attitude of gratitude, people.
At my current job, I might not have very glamorous work- it’s very technical. I set up things for others to finish, or make the materials they decorate with.
In that way, when someone comes into the restaurant, I’m at the table too. It’s why I tell people “It’s just food, but it’s never just food”– the Baked Alaska you moaned about having to make, the baguettes you grumble over getting just right- they are part of someone’s day when they are served.
Part of the night out they’ve been waiting all week for.
Part of their LIFE- and it was made by you.
Back at the cafe, one of my very favorite things was when I’d bring out some new pastry, and watch eyes go wide. “Never mind, I’ll have THAT”, or “Yes, they have the rugelach again!” No matter what day I had, that made it worth it.
As an EMT, I saved lives.
As a baker, I help make them better, even just for the space of one course.
I set down the book and went to sleep. You might have noticed the next morning (if you follow my Instagram, that is) that I’ve started asking “What can I help you with today?”
Using my talents and skills to serve others and make them happier.
That’s what makes a life worth living.
Fame can take care of itself.