Good evening, friends and neighbors.
I get to work these days before dawn. As I walk in, the first order of business is checking the oven to make sure the settings are right.
Next, the days first load of croissants- waiting patiently in the proof box since the night before. They need to be in the oven in 30 minutes.
They aren’t ready. Small and sticky still. Crap… that’s not right.
A quick look at the control panel on the box confirms my fears. They’re gonna be late.
Right- time for Plan B. The cookies have time to go in.
Wait… that doesn’t look right. Why is the oven temperature tanking? Ugh… ok. Back on track, make up the time later.
The new wholesale management system is messed up. No one to call to check numbers for retail. Dammit… ok, just fudge the numbers. Wholesale is accounted for, I can bake more for the store later if needed.
The piping tip I need is missing. Use a similar one and change technique to compensate.
Not enough sheet pans- the other stores haven’t been sending them back. Rummage around and condense. There’s gotta be stuff to layer.
It’s cool. I’ll figure it out. It’s fine.
“At least I’m learning some interesting tricks…”
Plan B and System D
We all want things to go well. All our plans should work out, machines should work the way they are meant to, people should communicate vital information to each other easily and freely, and your workspace should run like a Swiss watch.
In related news, if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bop its ass when it hopped.
The fact is, things don’t always work out like they’re supposed to. When I was job searching, knowing how to handle yourself when things go pear-shaped was a very desired skill.
“Ability to think on your feet.”
“Able to deal with ambiguity.”
Echoing platitudes doesn’t cover it though. Having a reminder that reads “Life is spent in Plan B” doesn’t help when problems crop up that aren’t your fault, but it’s your head on the block if they don’t get handled.
In the kitchen, the ability to be resourceful and think on the fly is called “system D”- a term inspired by George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”. The “D” stands from “debrouillard” or “resourcefulness.”
It’s realizing you can use a spoon to fix a screw on the mixer, vent the oven with a hand towel to drop it’s temperature quickly, and that fishing line can be used to fix a sauce dropper AND slice a cheesecake. Anthony Bourdain referred to it in “Medium Raw” as “the kitchen version of MacGuyver.”
Those are all tricks and gimmicks, though. It’s the show- the result of being a debrouillard. Being able to see, identify, and come up with those tricks is a mindset all its own- as is the ability to having to rely on those tricks regularly.
To quote WAY too many people on the internet- you “get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Comfort- The Goal (and Enemy) of Progress
A year or so before he died, Tony Bourdain did a short YouTube series with Balvenie Whiskey called “Raw Craft.” In the show, he highlighted 14 American artisans that are dedicated to doing what they do “the hard way”- “the slow way, the stupid way, the expensive way, etc.” because it makes a difference, and the craft means more than the money (though certainly, everyone involved charges VERY well for their work and attention.)
The last episode focused on SJC Drums, who made a special snare drum for Tre Cool- drummer of Green Day.
Toward the end of the interview, Tre relates when Green Day was first touring and says something that struck deep when I heard it.
Tony: “Jack White of the White Stripes said that he positions his equipment just a little out of reach, or in deliberately uncomfortable ways. He said it would force him to be better than he was. Do you see value in that?”
Tre: “Back in ’91, Green Day did this European tour… I brought my snare drum, my cymbal bag, and a stick bag. Billy brought his guitar, and Mike brought his bass, and that was it. We played 64 shows in 3 months on other peoples equipment. We came back from that tour so f***ing tight, it was incredible. Being uncomfortable at what you’re trying to get great at- that’s the sweet spot.”
Why do we progress? So that we can get better. So we can handle more. So we can be comfortable with more.
I try to improve my writing every day so that I can get better at telling stories and write them faster. I tackle new recipes and responsibilities at work so that I can become a better baker- every day, a little faster, a little neater, and a little more efficient.
The goal of progress is comfort- and comfort can also be its enemy. Once you get to a place of comfort, you only have two motivations to improve. There’s boredom, where you seek a challenge (read, “make yourself uncomfortable’)- or necessity, where that comfort is suddenly stripped away and you must adapt.
In the case of my job, yes, the oven SHOULD work perfectly. It would be better- for myself, and probably for the business itself- if the oven could be one-hundred percent evenly heating and reliable. It would excellent if changes to the equipment that might impact my performance could be communicated to me. In fact, they SHOULD be.
Until they are, however, in order to get the job done, I have to think on my feet. I have to be observant, use my knowledge, and work around problems.
The croissants aren’t ready? Fine, the cookies can go first.
The oven is acting up? I’m learning to cycle products through the oven- where the warm/cool spots are. Delays? I spot hands-off time, use that to prep later work, and look for places where other things can go in the oven later.
I learn what can go a little longer in the proofer, and what has priority. I learn the bread knows when it’s done better than a timer does- so the timer reminds me that something is in the oven, but I listen to the product more.
Baking is absolutely a science- but this is the “craft” aspect of it. The alchemy part.
There’s a limit to that though. It’s good to be able to think your way around problems and do quick-fixes… but when you are doing the same quick fixes on a regular basis, you eventually need to stop and SOLVE THE PROBLEM.
Fix The Flat Tire Already
When you get a flat tire on your car, you change the tire. Hopefully, you have a full-sized spare, but some cars have a “donut”- a smaller tire that essentially acts like a crutch to get the car to a garage.
System D tricks are the “donut” of the kitchen world. It’s good to know them, and it empowers and makes you better when you can create and use them… but you shouldn’t be relying on them every day because of problems not getting solved.
That donut isn’t going to let you finish your road trip- eventually, you NEED to get a new tire.
I’m glad that I know how to handle the oven when it gets temperamental and keep my day moving. That is a level of discomfort I am glad to have had.
I can accept that some problems aren’t going to be solved easily or quickly. The business doesn’t have the funds to run out and buy a new oven every time someone gets grumpy- that’s ridiculous.
Certain problems, though- SOLVABLE problems, like communication issues or ordering and production, should be solved. Dealing with them should not be written off with “get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Discomfort can make you stronger- but it does it by creating stress. You think fast and hard to solve the problem at that moment, and then it’s done. When the problem keeps happening though- and needlessly- that is another layer of stress being placed on an individual.
What’s more, if attempts to communicate and solve the problem are pushed aside or ignored, that engenders a feeling of resignation- futility, uselessness, and disrespect. “Why complain anymore? Nothings going to happen. This sucks.”
Dealing with discomfort can be great for your development. You learn to think on your feet, new tricks, and generally become better at what you want to do. Being comfortable can lead to stagnation, and only changes when you seek out a new challenge (i.e., making yourself uncomfortable again.)
At the same time, needless discomfort is stressful and harmful. Allowing problems to continue for no reason engenders negativity and resignation, and “getting comfortable being uncomfortable” feels less like development and more like martyrdom.
Getting better includes getting smarter- and quick fixes aren’t meant to last forever.
What do you think? Where do think the line is drawn between discomfort for development and needless stress? Are there certain situations where you prefer discomfort?
Currently Reading: The Hagakure (still), and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. They are HEAVY friggin reads…