A Short Story about Your Inner Critic, Mistakes, and How To Manage Through Them

That Saturday had already put me in a funk, and it was no one’s doing but my own. Starting a new job comes with a lot of expectations- mine AND others- and it also comes with a lot to learn. A lot of that learning happens when you mess up… and it shows you where and who you really are.

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I didn’t realize the proofer was also used as a hot box by the PM shift, so my breads for the day overproofed because I never checked the settings. They weren’t unusable, just not right. Between that, fighting with my new jobs canele recipe, and being reminded of the right way to cut cake by my chef, I was already feeling down on myself.

Less than a week in, and I’m making textbook newbie mistakes. They must think I’m a fraud. I’ve gotta prove I deserve to be here.

Never mind I had already introduced and codified new, better recipes for them- as far as I was concerned, that kind of performance was the expectation. Overproofing bread because of silly mistakes and struggling with a new recipe method was not meeting expectations.

Finally the end of my shift came. It was busy friggin’ night, and I’d busted my ass to make sure everything would go smoothly. There was regular service to look after, prep for the massive Mother’s Day brunch we’d be doing the next day, and a wedding that night in a private room. I’d double and triple checked that the pastry line dude (who’d been swamped looking after both his position and the one I was now filling and was training me up) was in good shape. All that remained was going to the chef and confirming nothing was needed from me.

You’ve got everything Matt? The lines good?”
“Yes Chef.”
“And brunch prep is ready for us to rock and roll tomorrow?”
“Yes chef- all the cakes are cut, the monkey bread is baked, and the churros are ready for frying.”

And the wedding? We serve the dessert course in two hours- olive oil cake and caneles. We got those ready?”

“… Caneles?”

Yeah, 120 of them. Make sure those are ready.”

No. No they were not ready. They were not ready because they did not exist. I hadn’t made that many- I thought the ones I was fighting with were just for dinner service. The line guy looks at the event sheet with me and goes “Oh shit…. Uh.. Maybe we can just give them something else. You should go home and I’ll take the heat. I’ve gotten it in the neck before, it’s alright.”

No. This was meant to be my job. I was the new Pastry Lead- I was responsible. If you only stick to your values and morals when it’s convenient, they aren’t your values. They’re your mask. And one of mine is simple “If I have the authority, I have the responsibility, and Vice verse.”

Screaming and excoriating myself in my head, I go the chef. “We’ve got a problem, Chef. The canele were never made. I’m sorry.”

The chef barely even paused what he was doing. “How’d that happen? How many DO we have?”
Only 29, Chef.”
The chef looked at me and said, “The bride wanted those special. We are NOT disappointing the bride on her big night. I’ll 86 a dessert on our regular menu any day for any reason, but we are not doing this. Get started doing whatever it takes to make them- I’ll be over to help in a minute.

Nope, I’m not leaving anymore. The synapses click, I slip into Anxiety Crisis Mode- the mode that says “Fuck freaking out, you don’t have time. You need to move now. No thinking, no time- just bake.”

I drop my knives, grab down the recipe book, and tell the line guy to keep minding the line but help me grab tools. I’m about to scale out the house’s recipe for what we need when the chef says “NO. That recipe has only ever worked right for one person, and we only get one shot. You said you made these at the French place, right? Make the recipe you know better.”

Know the recipe? I remember that one in my bones, weighing and boiling and whisking until it felt like my shoulder would fall off, then individually waxing those molds dented from years of novices trying to knock the delicate, eggy custard filled “cakes” out through main force.

I calculate it out on the fly and drag up the method from memory. Standing at the giant pot stirring the dairy, I’m berating myself over and over while glaring at a clock that won’t stop ticking.

Goddammit Matt GODDAMMIT of all the times to drop the ball you fuck up a goddamn WEDDING. You should have quadruple checked, looked closer, these are going to be late and they may not even work and you’re costing your new job money because you are fucking shit and you’re going to go back to job hunting by the end of the week.”

Anxiety and Depression aren’t delicate. They force you to be, but are not delicate themselves. They want to protect you. To keep you safe, small, and away from pain and shame by choking off the all the things that make life exciting and livable. Anxiety and Depression remind you that if you are content and happy, you are vulnerable, and that makes you open to pain. Better to just not be happy.

As I work, the chef swings by to watch me work and casually asks “What makes your recipe and method different? Why do they take so long in the oven when they are so small?”

Science of baking. That’s stuff I know I know.

”Your recipe doesn’t pre-cook the starch in the flour, Chef. You just warm the milk enough to melt the butter, then put it all in a blender and pour. By boiling the milk before mixing, the starch in the flour gelatinizes and you have a thicker, richer batter. The bonus eggs we use in addition to yolks adds the protein in the whites, giving it more structure. The pastry is more dense, but richer and creamier. They take so long because you are essentially slow-baking a custard until it can stand on it’s own in a mold.”

I half-babble like this while I strain the batter. The chef nods, “I like all those things. Those are things it needs.”

After making the fastest batch of canele in the world and getting them in the oven- the chef himself and the line guy having greased the molds for me while I mixed and strained- I take a breath and stare straight at fate. “I’ve done what I can. What happens happens. Just be yourself, be honest, and be ready.”

I follow the chef into the walk-in to store the leftover batter and apologize again. He pauses, closes the door and looks at me.

Matt, this isn’t on you. I’ve been checking in with the line guy, not you. And I know he’s overwhelmed. That’s why I brought you in. I’m gonna have a talk with him, but everything will be fine. Like seriously- I’m not mad at you. The wedding guests will get some extra pastry as an apology, we have enough for the bride and her party to get their canele NOW, right? And hell, that fucking recipe never worked for anyone. You’re not just helping solve a problem, you’ve given us a solution and might wind up being the hero. So relax, and lets see how the canele come out.”

I felt pounds lighter. The shame lifted from my shoulders, and I nodded. “Yes Chef.”

In my mind, a calmer voice finally rises. “See Matt? You’re doing your best. He knew it wasn’t your screw-up, and he sees you staying late to make things work. You’re alright Matt. You did your best. Just accept what happens.”

As the caneles come out, I check the tops. Nice and browned, wrinkled from souffléing then shrinking again. Good signs. The moment of truth is turning them out. The custard inside is delicate. If they don’t fall out of their own accord, slamming the pains may displace the custard leaving a gap- or even slam the custard out leaving a useless crust.

Flip, tap gently, lift.
Out of 72, we only lose three.


I turn to the line guy who thanks me frankly, apologizes for his part, and urges me to go home. He’s got the rest. Chef looks me in the eye and thanks me for my work before I finally clock out.

When it comes to most people- not just those with Anxiety or Depression- shame is the real enemy. We will do anything to avoid it, even if that very acts makes us wallow in it. I was harder on myself than my chef ever could have been or wanted to be.

Instead, my chef recognized effort, held realistic expectations, and pointed out to me all the things I’d already done right. I thought I was going to be disciplined or fired- when in fact (according to the chef) I’d saved the day AND fixed a busted recipe for them AND worked late to do so.

Some cooks still want to talk about the “old times” when abuse and pain were common, shame was a motivator, and call chefs like me and my chef “snowflakes” or “soft” for messing up or not ripping me a new one for my mistake.

Those are the old ways that NEED to die, so that new cooks and chefs can come up in an industry that recognizes reality and knows how to balance severity and kindness. An industry that will actually look after it’s people and make the proud to be part of it- not just grind them up and leave them proud of surviving and comparing their trauma.

Stay Classy,

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