The Heart of Life- 5 Lessons from the Kitchen to Take Anywhere

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The bakery was going through a spat of high turnover. New hires were either leaving, vanishing, or simply showing themselves not up to handling the work. It was becoming disheartening, frustrating… and more than a little exhausting. “Many hands make light work” kinda relies on there being “many hands.”

In the seven months I had been working for the bakery, I’ve had to train six people in my station as the morning baker and “ovenlord.” The work is not especially difficult- the specifics of it can be written down or memorized quickly, and the skills involved can be mastered with practice.

When our production manager started wondering aloud how they could train employees to make them better, and more quickly- I suggested they all learn my position first. While the specific knowledge and skills of the morning bake are easy to learn (I actually wrote a teaching aide/cheat sheet to help people who got lost), the most challenging thing for a new person on the shift to learn is something they can take anywhere in the kitchen- or in life: time management.

clear glass with red sand grainer

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A Toolbox to Carry Anywhere

I wasn’t kidding when I suggested that my position would teach new employees the personal skills they would need to succeed.

As a morning baker, one is responsible for baking off all the pastries for early morning wholesale deliveries AND for the store itself in a timely fashion. It requires:

  • Prioritization of certain pastries over others for time in the oven.
  • Observation and Evaluating when pastries are ready to bake, still need time, are finished, are sellable, etc.
  • Being mindful of deadlines- what pastries need to go out the door in time for delivery, and which need to be ready for the store opening.
  • Keeping track of production and staying on top of materials for the other stations.
  • As “ovenlord,” organizing and timing the rest of the kitchen’s output so everyone goes through the oven in a timely fashion.

In other, less culinary terms, learning to be a morning baker means mastering:

All in the space of four early-morning hours. I don’t feel like I need to highlight how these skills bleed over past the double-doors of the kitchen and into other careers. Look at the job description for any Project Manager or office position. If you can learn these truly “universal” skills, the specifics of any other industry are just window-dressing.

Couple that with the tenacity, work ethic, and cooperative drive that comes as part being in any kitchen, and having “cook” or “baker” on your resume can speak plenty.

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“Chop Wood, Carry Water”

Food, and the making of it, is one of those basic functions of life that we tend to forget or take for granted if you spend too long separated from the work. There’s a reason that the kitchen is called “the heart of the home.” You might think that these days it’s the TV room or the bedroom- the places we go to unwind, be by ourselves, and sleep. Instead, it remains the kitchen. The place we gather together to fulfill one of our most basic, universal, biological imperatives- feeding ourselves and each other.

For me, baking and cooking is the time when I “chop wood and carry water”– or, go back to the basics to clear my mind. My hands can move on their own, and the rest of me can “switch off.” The operations of a kitchen are, to someone like me, as natural as breathing.

Quote from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

When I was a kid, my parents had a small book on their shelf called “Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It was a simple book of colorful pages, with small statements written in a crayon-like font:

  • “Share.”
  • “Sometimes it’s nap time.”
  • “Eat your vegetables.”
  • “Be nice to the new kids.”
  • “Wash your hands after picking your nose.”

I’d like to think the kitchen offers a couple more… cleanly concepts than these. I’ve already written a few specific maxims I’ve learned in previous posts- you can read those here and here. All of them apply to the kitchen, and some apply to creative lifestyles, but here are a few I think apply to everyone.

1. If You Start It, You Own It.

As the “ovenlord”, people would have to ask me when/if they could bake things. As they went into the oven, my first question was “Do you have a timer on this or do you need one?” Someone is always responsible, and if they couldn’t keep track of their baking, I had to. When you start a task, you own it. See it to completion, or pass it on to someone who will… and then check with them to see that it’s complete.

2. You Impact Everyone.

As a morning baker, one of my jobs was making all the pate au choux for the shop- the pastry that becomes cream puffs and eclairs which, in a French bakery, are a big friggin’ deal. I would have to make sure how much was needed,  pipe them properly, bake them, and make sure they were in good condition for the pastry staff to use and make into finished work.
This was a difficult thing to teach some of my apprentices. The idea of “I / This doesn’t matter” is a seductive one. It can lead to you pitying yourself, or being irresponsible because “who’s going to notice?”

In a small, tight team- what you do impacts EVERYONE. If your work is the building blocks of others, the finished work is that much greater. If you command resources others rely on, how you use those resources impacts others. You matter- be proud of it, and take it seriously.

3. There Is No Secret Knowledge.

The people who trained me in my position weren’t exactly the best trainers. They told me what I needed to know to do the job… but not everything they did to do it WELL. I found out after they had gone that I wasn’t special in that regard- they would often leave out the specifics of tasks to others. Whether this was to protect their positions or prestige in the kitchen, I neither know nor care. It was foolish and stupid.

If you train someone, remember that their success reflects just as much on YOU as it does on them. There is no secret knowledge. Be proud of training someone to know everything you do, and if they surpass you? Good. They were supposed to- because that’s how good of a teacher you are.

4. Helping Others Helps You

Sometimes I will find myself in a position where, to keep everything flowing in the kitchen more smoothly, I’ll need someone else to finish certain tasks or have them ready by a specific time. That’s part of being a team- you rely on others to get their jobs done as well as you do. Occasionally, it’s happened that one of my colleagues isn’t quite ready or has gotten backed up. Whenever possible, I immediately offer to help in any way I can- even if it’s some mundane task that they no longer have to think about.

When you work as a team, the question stops being “how can I succeed” and becomes “how can WE succeed”- because in the environment of a kitchen, everyone matters. You can’t hang someone else out to dry without putting yourself at risk.

5. Carry What You Can, Get Help For What You Can’t

Similarly, you need to be able to admit when you are overwhelmed. Struggling sucks- and if you’re too proud to ask for help or get advice, you’re not learning. You’re not doing as well as you can and- in trying not to distract others with your difficulties- you ironically risk dragging others down.
Do the best you can, and own it when you need some assistance. It’s not a weakness to ask for help- not nearly as damaging as pride can be.

That’s what I’ve got for you tonight. If you’re wondering if I’ll cover more about time management, training, and logistics… well, I’m working on a couple books to that effect. Keep an eye out for them!

ALSO! While I have you here- today was the Patron-Only Live Q+A Session! Tomorrow will be the Patron Only Live Bakealong, where I’ll be making banana bread! If you want to get in on those, join my Patreon by clicking here! You’ll help support me and my writing, AND get cool perks in return!

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Stay Classy,

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