Baking 101: The First Lecture

If you were to teach a semester of classes on something you do for a living, what would Day 1 consist of?

For the last year or so, especially as I’ve started doing Live Bake-along videos on Facebook, I’ve played with the idea that the next step in my culinary career might be teaching- and if the last two years of training and mentoring apprentices at the bakery has shown me anything, it’s that I’m apparently not bad at it.

The other day while chatting on my lunch break, my manager mentioned that she had taught baking at a community college for a semester as adjunct faculty. While she didn’t necessarily enjoy it (my manager confesses that she does not have the patience for teaching,) the $4000/semester paycheck made it quite a lucrative side hustle for one six-hour class a week in addition to a full-time income baking professionally.

After she brought it up, I found myself wondering what I would say on the first day to a class of new, inexperienced students. You can consider this a companion to my open letters to new culinary students and graduates.

Here we go:

An empty college lecture hall

“Hello, everyone, and welcome to Baking 101. My name is Chef Matt Strenger- you can call me “Chef,” “Chef Matt,” “Chef Strenger,” or something along those lines.

For the next few weeks, this room will be a laboratory and you will be learning alchemy. I know it says “Baking 101“ on your syllabus, but alchemy is really the best description I can give for what you all will learn in this class.
You will be learning to take substances from around the world, the various techniques to process them using machines, heat, and time, and make them into something new, useful and, ideally, delicious.

This will not be haphazard. You will be expected to take a lot of careful notes. You will be expected to make progress, and you will be expected to repeat successes to demonstrate that initial results were not a fluke.

“The difference between science and screwing around is writing it all down.”

Adam Savage, “Mythbusters”

You will also be expected to manage your tasks, time and materials well to avoid wasting any of them. This will take a level of organization and discipline that, if you are very lucky, will bleed over into the rest of your lives.

Yes, it’s all very dramatic-sounding. I need to make this clear to you, though- even for people who have been cooking professionally their entire lives, baking may as well be mad science. Cooks that I have spoken to about it say they don’t feel comfortable with the precision involved, the finickiness of ingredients, the strict time management, and the lack of room to improvise. They are both correct AND incorrect- not least because their job calls for the exact same things but in a high-speed environment.

When it comes to cooking, a cook can change the texture, flavor, or appearance of a dish from the moment they get their hands on ingredients to the moment it is put on the table in front of the customer. That is not the case in Baking. Textures, flavors, and appearance of your final product are often decided before you ever put it in the oven, and while it’s baking you have to hope that you did everything right. You can’t exactly reach in and mess with it. That is why care and precision is important- you need to control everything about your work, because when the baking happens you are no longer in control.

The good news is that, once you know how all those processes work and know what will happen in the oven, there is plenty of room for a mad scientist to experiment.

Animated GIF of Bill Nye throwing his hands up and yelling “SCIENCE” with a lightning flash effect

With all of that out of way, let’s start the first lesson. Read this off the board and each of you, one at a time, repeat after me:

“Sorry, Chef- I screwed up. It won’t happen again.”

Read it aloud. Say it and mean it.

Wow, look around- none of you have died. None of you have shriveled up into weak, limp, emasculated little string beans by saying those words.

Baking and cooking are the arts of control. If you are not in control when things go wrong, you are definitely not in control when things go right either. Whatever you work on in this kitchen, you are completely responsible for. If you are taking the credit, you are taking the blame too. Own your successes, and own your failures- I guarantee you will learn a lot more from the failures.

Success breeds success, but failure also breeds success if you do it right. Own your mistakes, write it down, and don’t do it again. There’s no shame in making a mistake- just in repeating the same ones over and over.

Next lesson, everyone stick your hand in this big bucket of hot, soapy water.

Close up of dish soap being applied to a sponge by two gloved hands

Look at that- once again, you all have a knack for continuing to live.

We don’t have dishwashers in this class. We don’t have porters. Everyone will be expected to clean up their own dishes and tidy their own messes. Again, you are responsible– to yourselves, to your classmates, and to each other.

In my entire career, I have never met a single person– cook, baker, owner, or manager- that was too good for doing dishes and mopping floors. If you think you’re too good for keeping your workspace clean- there is the door. Leave now, and maybe the registrar will find you another class because I flatly, completely, and utterly refuse to have you in mine.

not too good to wash dishes and scrub nastiness off of floors- like hell one of my students will be.

One last thing, and for some of you this will be a painful surprise: none of you are going to graduate from this program and be chefs.

You are not going to receive your diplomas and suddenly transform into Nigella, Emeril, Redzeppi, or Adria- and you should thank the heavens every single day for it. They all worked for years, messed up in a million small ways, and are still learning. The fame, fortune, and celebrity you are seeing is- for every single one of them- a complication. At best, it’s a means to an end- at worst, a constant distraction.

You all have so far to go and so much to learn, you will thank God everyday that the eyes of the world are not on you yet. That you have the freedom and safety to mess up over and over again, learn from it all, and at worst be out the cost of some groceries.

Ok, I’m going to put away the pulpit and stow the brimstone- we have actual theory and product to work on today- but I wanted to make those things clear to all of you first.

Baking is wonderful, and it’s tricky, and it’s hard. You are going to learn mathematics, history, physics, chemistry, ratios, botany, and thermodynamics in this class. A lot of it you will commit to memory just by repetition and through experience.

It will not be easy or fun the entire time. I will correct you, I will criticize, and of course I will have to evaluate and grade you- but if you understand Responsibility, Organization, Discipline, Integrity, and Humility, I can guarantee that nothing in this field will pose a challenge to you for very long, and I promise I will do everything in my power to give you the tools for a career you will love.

Now, crack open your notebooks, and let’s get some terminology down…”

I’ll probably trim it down a bit for my first class, but those are the main points. What do you all think?

Stay Classy,

2 thoughts on “Baking 101: The First Lecture

  1. It was ok. I like rules written simply, then expound on each, with an uplifting “welcome to this career that I love” at the end. Reading this seemed to be a bit negative and mostly commuted your power, as opposed what I’m actually going to get out of the class or the rules of the class, which is what the student would want to know.

  2. I think this was a great intro! I could picture you saying it in front of a class. Very engaging, and it sets a strong foundation for the theory and practice you will be working on. An interesting addition might be to start them off with a very basic recipie that does not include a lot of detail (like “bake until brown” with out specifying a time and temp) and just see what they do with it based on their past experiance. Then at the end of the class repeat the exercise.

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