The other day, one of my bakers and I were chatting while putting together some savory pies. I’d been filling and crimping Spinach Feta Pasties, and she was filling up crusts with Lemon Chicken. In short, it was the exact type of repetitive work that lets your mind wander while your hands move. It can be dull, but also meditative.
My baker had graduated from culinary school two years before. She’d worked at a couple places, but the environments and cultures there had left a bad taste in her mouth. She loved baking though and was dedicated to figuring out a way forward in her career. We discussed why we loved this field, and- most importantly- our attitudes toward working in general.
“I go to pieces if I don’t have work or something to do. Not that I’ll ever be able to retire, but I have a feeling that even if I was I’d wind up only being semi-retired and working until the day I died. I just need to work.”
“People need passion in order to work in fields like this.” my baker continued. “If you don’t have passion for the work, you won’t be able to get out of bed to do it.”
“Yep- and what’s more, you need to have the right attitude toward that passion as well,” I said, crimping away at my pasties. “I don’t think of myself as an artist doing this, you know. I’m a craftsman, and this is my craft. There’s a craft of baking, and the craft of living as a baker.” She froze and looked at me a moment then said, “Wait, go back… what do you mean the craft of living?”
No One Wants To Labor- Everyone Wants to Create
I don’t believe for a moment that “some people just don’t want to work.” The urge for creation and industry is part of our biological make-up. Humans make stuff. Even when we were living hand-to-mouth in caves, our ancestors felt the need to make art and tell stories. Just look at some of the things that people have created over the last few years with no intent for profit just because they suddenly had the time.
We don’t necessarily like having to work at jobs we don’t like in order to survive. I don’t think anyone does. That is not the same thing as being shiftless or lazy, and it’s definitely not the same thing as wanting to work at jobs that reward us with more than a crappy paycheck. People need a purpose to live, no less than they need food and water. When people lose their feeling of purpose, they lose the will to live and the will to strive.
Finding your purpose or your calling is a beautiful thing, but it’s not always an easy thing. People can absolutely be born with a “knack” for some skill or activity, but honing and developing it takes time, patience, and endurance. It takes work to hone your craft- and living with that work is also a craft.
The Craft of Being A Baker
When I was planning out what to write this week, I started with a basic “listicle” idea of what qualities a baker needs to have:
- Be punctual.
- Be creative and curious (a “mad scientist” streak)
- Be Patient and Process-minded.
- Be Diligent.
- Be Humble.
- Be confident in math and chemistry (“Confident” is the operative word. You don’t have to be good to start, but you need to have the confidence and will to become so.)
After that conversation, I realized that this wasn’t enough. In order to make a living as a baker (and do so well and happily), a person has to love being or the process of becoming these things. Sure a person might like getting up early- but there’s being the first person up so you have the house to yourself for a few hours, and then there’s clocking in at 2am so you can start your day. A person might consider themselves humble and curious about how to do something they don’t know, but it’s something else to take enthusiastic joy in learning new things or finding out they were wrong.
One of the most frustrating parts of this craft of living is also the most ironic. You have to be mentally ready for something you love doing to become a job. I think it was science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin who said “I knew I was a professional writer when I sat down to write one day and didn’t feel like it, but I wrote anyway. When it’s a profession, your mood doesn’t matter. It has to get done.”
Lots of folks- including professional cooks and bakers- deal with that on a daily basis. There’s a feeling of loss when you can’t just do a thing you love “for the fun of it” anymore. Where you stop feeling blessed to be making a living doing what you love, and instead the sentiment is “I wanted to be this for so long, and for my sins they let me.”
I deal with it especially when it comes to writing. For years, writing was an outlet and means of self-expression for me. Now it’s the basis on which I want to work for myself… and that means sitting down whether or not I’m “in the mood” and cranking out work on a deadline.
There’s nothing wrong with loving an art or craft- the word “amateur” is derived from the French for “lover of”- but amateurs can choose when and how they want to work. Professionals create and work regardless. It takes introspection, self-awareness, and the time and effort involved to build good habits that will keep you from falling into the “feeling like it” and “uninspired” traps.
For baking, regardless of whether you are making whatever you want at your job or following production and recipes from others, you have to love the act and the processes of baking enough to do a good job despite your mood.
Living as Opposed to Being
I have lived with myself long enough now that I know that whatever I do for the rest of my life, I want it to be around food. I want to build my life around the creation, study, examination, search, and sharing of food.
I have designed my life around working in a kitchen, and my social calendar is curated to reflect that. My kitchen- at home and at work- serves as a studio, laboratory, office, and sanctuary. I know I will never know or learn everything about my craft, but I am mentally and emotionally ready to enjoy discovering how wrong I can be.
Those close to me see the “look” in my eyes when I start talking about food and waxing philosophical about dining. When early mornings, last-minute orders, and troublesome recipes crop up, I grit my teeth over it but some part of me still smiles and goes “Challenge accepted”- because I’ve learned to love the processes, the steps, and the rush of going through them at high speed.
It’s taken close to a decade, but I know how to live as a baker, not just be a baker. It’s a hard craft to learn, but everyone should be lucky enough to try.