It’s rare to work in a bakery where you are the first person in at 6:30 AM. I’ve spent a while waking up to start work at 2 am, and there’s other bakers who start work even earlier.
That’s not where I am now though. What I’m doing now is unlocking the door, shutting off the alarm, turning on the lights and starting the ovens leisurely late in the morning before I drop my bag at my desk. I have one of those now too- a desk, half an office, and “my station” in the corner of the kitchen where I can see, supervise, and be found when needed. I’m the pastry chef, after all.
Here I thought the Kwisatz Haderach could be in many places at once.
“Matt, there’s a lot that goes into this job and I know you want to learn the administrative end of it, but it’s important to do what you want to do too, not just what you need to do.” That’s what my boss said when she asked about my career goals and ideas for the kitchen I now run.
Initially, I was interviewed just to be a baker. After looking at my resume and portfolio, though, the previous owner said “Listen, you’ve got a lot more experience than I thought, and I need help running this place. How about I make you pastry chef and turn half of the menu planning and production over to you? You can focus on the sweet stuff, I’ll handle savory. Sound good?” It did, and then I wound up taking over the savory side too as the management changed and I was suddenly the kitchen manager as well.
I’ve long since accepted I would not last long in an office environment. My place is “down on the floor,” getting my hands dirty making and creating. The idea of spending eight hours just sitting at a desk makes me shudder just thinking about it. That’s what I wonder about as I flop into the rolling chair at my desk- a wooden table with inherited decor and files but no computer- and change into the clogs underneath.
When my boss asked about my career goals and what I liked to do, I knew that the answer was “researching, developing, and teaching.” That was and is a true and honest answer, but so is “administrative stuff.” I need to learn it better in order to get where I want to go, so there is no “liking” or “not liking” it. Not too many people look forward to filling up their cars with gas or taking out the trash, but it’s got to be done all the same. I feel the same way about writing, for the record. Coming up with new blog posts, writing books, and sitting at bars or in parks typing away at telling stories is way more fun that figuring out ads, doing finances, or plugging on social media… but it’s the annoying stuff that needs to get done so the fun stuff has any point.
Sitting at my desk and powering up my iPad, I sip a cup of tea as I check the store’s emails, go through the ordering and scheduling spreadsheets, and look forward to when it’s time to start getting dirty again.
In recent years, I’ve learned that I truly enjoy training people and dumping the knowledge I’ve acquired into peoples heads. My team is primarily first-time bakers, so they are functionally blank slates. That has both positives and negatives. On one hand, they have no experience to draw on, so I need to remember to slow down and explain things that are second-nature to me. On the other hand, though, they accept criticism and instruction well with no “at my old place we did it this way” nonsense.
Most importantly, they are good people who work hard, have fun, ask questions, and want to learn. Those kinds of skills can’t be taught easily and can take them anywhere, so I’m lucky they came to me. A chef is only as good as their team, and mine is VERY good.
Dave and Gina are first-time bakers. Dave wants to go to law school eventually and was actually hired a month or two before me, but most of his kitchen was handed down from his grandma. Gina’s worked in the galleys of boats before, but that’s a much different animal from a restaurant- and even more different from a production bakery.
Both have a lot to learn, and both have been eager to learn it. It’s a sad truth that for all the fun and creativity possible in the kitchen, there’s a lot of repetition and drudgery that goes with it. Dave and Gina ask honest questions, get good results, and are eager to learn new techniques. Not just the hows, but they whys, the science behind corn starch works this way or why caramelized sugar does that.
Diligent, dutiful, patient, and keep a good head and humor. I couldn’t ask for better.
“Uh… Matt? We’ve got a problem.”
I can already feel the dread rolling up from my gut. It’s an inventory problem. It always is. I forgot to order something, or enough of something, or the right kind of something. It’s a learning process that I’m certain will have no end.
When I was hired, I was initially brought up to speed to be the pastry chef. Managing the savory side of the kitchen (and doing the ordering for it) was something I largely had to teach myself. After inventory, production scheduling, and ordering all our supplies for the week, finding out I missed something has a serious sting of “Oh goddammit what now…”
In this case, my cook Mika is lacking turnips for our Vegan Shepard Pies (trust me, they taste and smell amazing.) Mika is a very driven and fastidious cook, and unforeseen frustrations can cause hold-ups. For a line cook this would be a death sentence, but in production cooking she has the luxury of putting a recipe on hold until more ingredients can be found. That means coming to me to fix my screwup.
Normally that means a quick trip down to the local restaurant supply store- a 10 minute walk for us. I don’t always mind that. Yes, it takes me off the floor for a bit- but my team can handle things just fine. Besides, it’s an opportunity to breathe, see what’s available, and get ideas.
Thanks to supply chain problems, however, turnips are a special order item. Turnips. I’m debating the wisdom of a bike ride to the nearest supermarket and the logistics of carrying 15 lbs. of turnips when my boss arrives and reminds me that I can put in a will-call order… and that the local produce company is a customer of ours that she needs to deliver to today anyway.
Home at last.
I’m officially working harder than I ever have in my life, but in a strange way I’m fine with that.
The rocking chair, whiskey, and jazz on the stereo is still very welcome of course- as is Cleo flopped across my lap under my book- but the difference is how you get this tired in the first place. I’ve worked long and hard days before to be sure… but it was always in service to someone else’s vision. Making someone else’s ideas and dreams come true, and being a means to an end.
It can be argued that I’m still making someone else’s dream come true, and I’m still a means to an end, but for the first time in a long time my ideas and goals are part of that vision. I’m allowed to experiment, test, teach, try, and grow rather than stay in place and stay quiet.
I’ll flop into bed at the end of each day anyway… but now I’ll do it looking forward to tomorrow.