Good evening, friends and neighbors.
I am going to be 34 in July. I have been baking for about nine years after being a Nurse’s Aide, an EMT, and various positions at a Boy Scout summer camp (Health Officer, Trading Post Clerk, and counselor for seven merit badges.)
I also used to be very overweight. I lost 110 lbs about 6 years ago, and I have more or less maintained it (I gained back 15 over the last year. Depression is a hell of a drug.)
The folks I work with are about my age. This post is about us- the folks that make the pastries you love, and what this industry does to you. If you’re a student, take this as a warning. Start an exercise regimen now, invest in some good shoes, and eat your veggies.
Kyle is my boss, and at 45 he’s the oldest guy in the bakeshop, having lived this life for twenty-some-odd years. His hands and arms are gnarled but strong, and the bags under his eyes tell you everything you need to know about the life of pre-dawn punch-ins. He’s lately started smoking again- of all reasons, as a psychological excuse to make him take breaks at work. Without some social or physical imperative, he’d work straight through a ten hour shift and MAYBE stop for lunch.
Kyle does yoga. He meditates sometimes. He plays guitar. Focusing is sometimes tricky, as usually happens with long-time kitchen workers and line cooks- too much time spent “multitasking” ironically robs you of your ability to concentrate on just one thing. As we speak, he likes to take notes. You can see the “pachinko” machine that is his brain there on the page.
Kyle’s back is hurting him. Last summer, he landed himself in the hospital with a heart problem that turned his entire right arm Teletubby Purple. The color’s faded and he’s recuperated alright, but I still do some of the heavy lifting for him- that right arm’s not 100% yet.
Rex is closing on 40. He’s been baking about as long as me. A perpetually-skinny Italian/German boy, he seems powered by cigarettes, good vibes, and sass. His hands and back are fucked. Pick a musculoskeletal ailment out of the medical dictionary, Rex has a story.
He’s been in and out of an abusive marriage, and has a partner that loves him and is content to let him be in his own world. All our partners can see when our brains haven’t “gone home” just yet- but know when (and how) they need to pull us back. It’s a duty that shouldn’t be theirs- holding keys to help unlock someone else from their own minds. It’s something we never fail to appreciate, and also never feel quite worthy of.
Ryan’s past has given him a good sense of boundaries (for other’s sake, if not always ourselves) and how to keep his nose clean. I might be the “Uncle Iroh” of the kitchen, but he is definitely the “Sokka”- the tactician and heart.
Rex and I have learned to check in on each other, and our teammates. We know how to laugh through pain- and it’s not a skill we necessarily want to pass on. We remind each other to “look after ourselves first-“ and kind of already know that we won’t.
Sasha is only 24. This is her first real kitchen job, and she’s the same age I was when I started at culinary school without having one. She’s got delicate hands and fingers that were supposed to be for dancing- until that fell through. Then it was meant to be massage therapy- until that also fell through. “Why not baking?,” she thought.
She loves baking. She loves the team. She enjoys the work, most of the time. It’s starting to take more of a toll than she expected, though. The stress is manifesting in sickness. She’s a self-admitted “wuss” when it comes to the pain of small injuries- though she says she heard it from across the restaurant when I blistered my fingertips on hot sugar.
I’m not gonna disagree- caramelized sugar is not just ridiculously hot (a minimum of 300 F to color and become “caramel”) but it STICKS TO YOU. If it gets on bare skin, your best bet is to submerge your hand in ice water, hope nothing comes away when the sugar releases, then bandage your 2nd degree burns and keep moving. You try staying silent while that happens.
She’s worried about doing a bad job. She’s worried about the toll the job takes on her personal life. She’s worried about me and whether or not she’s actually being a burden (she is absolutely, 100% NOT a burden, by the way.) It’s stressing her out. It’s fucking with her sleep. It’s messing with her hobbies and everything she does to relax. She tells me, according to her boyfriend, she was reciting the recipe for a triple batch of almond cream in her sleep. She wants it all to go back to being fun and not mattering as much.
It both matters, and it doesn’t. That’s the real bitch of it. If I opened a bakery of my own, hired a staff, and only managed to instill in them a love of the industry and the work like hers, my job would be 90% done.
Then there’s me.
The burns on my fingertips from the caramel have nearly healed- a couple more scars for the book. Right now, they aren’t noticeable for pain as much as numbness- like I’ve developed paper-thin callouses over them in just a few days.
Over the last year or so, I’ve fallen back into stress-eating, and gained back a little bit of my lost weight. Not enough to slow me down, but enough that I notice and can feel a little disappointed. Like it’s a physical testament to my lack of personal control, which- in a very real sense- it is. Depression and anxiety are elements of my psychology I am only recently learning to manage. That’s going to take a new toolbox of skills that I have yet to develop. Right now, though, at least I’m aware.
My back acts up sometimes. My knees too. I have (likely) kidney stones and some other small injuries from exercising obsessively to relieve stress.
This was the price I was promised I’d have to pay eventually. It’s a price I tried to outrun in exercise and good diet, but caught up with me in different forms. Every cook you know has stories like this.
For an upcoming book, I asked a group of chefs online to list every injury and ailment they acquired on the job, mental or physical. They ran the gamut- from cuts and scrapes to addiction and suicide attempts.
We aren’t martyrs, and don’t want to be treated like martyrs.
This is what our job calls for right now. This is what we are trying to fix.