Sanctuary- Reclaiming What You Love by Remembering What Matters

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

In retrospect, my therapist wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. That’s really the role of a therapist or psychologist- unpacking and untangling what’s in you, and organizing it so you can figure your own mind out.

About two years ago, I had a mental breakdown after leaving a job I had loved, but no longer felt happy working. At the time, I thought it was just me reacting to doing something out of character– leaving a job without having another right away was, to my mind, colossally irresponsible.

As I spoke, though, my therapist cast it in a new light:

“Yeah, that WOULD be really irresponsible, but you did that before- when you moved out to Oregon. You got a new job way sooner this time too… why the drastic reaction?”

”I think it’s because you enjoyed this job so much. You loved the kitchen and felt at home. The kitchen has always been your safe space, and losing it regressed you- to the scared, overweight kid bullied on the schoolyard. All your work and self-improvement felt like nothing.”

It’s been a while, but I feel like I’m finally reclaiming the kitchen in my life. Here’s how.

Missing What Was Lost

As far back as I can remember, the kitchen was where I was always happiest.

As a kid, my parents cooked, and family dinners were mandatory. Holidays meant gathering around my grandmother’s big knobbly-legged dinner table, and a regular visit involved sitting in the kitchen over matzah ball soup.

Living on my own, visiting friends meant puttering around the kitchen fixing drinks and food. I always loved the idea of the kitchen being visible to the dining/sitting area simply because- while I wouldn’t always want help- company and conversation while I worked was always welcome. That’s the way my apartment is set up now.

When visiting friends, I always gravitate toward the kitchen. It’s where the beer is coldest, where I can feel useful, and where the best conversation is- normally because it involves food.

And as a professional baker, my kitchen- draining, exhausting, and work though it is- is where I feel in control. Everything makes sense. I know where I need to be and what I need to do, and I have an answer to everything. Whatever’s going on beyond the door can get bent- there has always been a feeling of “this is my domain.”

Even when something takes forever to mix.

That’s really it, I suppose. That feeling of control. Cooking is “the art of control” after all, and I love knowing where everyone and everything is in my kitchen, where I can make things work to my will.

The job I left had robbed me of that- turning a place and activity I loved, already under stress due to being how I make a living, into a place I dreaded, and activity that exhausted me with no reward.

So I left. I left the environment I called “home”, with no prospects, because the potential pain of leaving was welcome compared to the pain of staying.

Rebuilding and Refocusing

After another misadventure in another kitchen, I landed at my current spot. After a year and change, I’ve earned a promotion and a small team to lead.

Even though I’m writing a book on mentoring and leadership in the kitchen, it’s hard to put into words (convincingly, anyway) how I train and motivate even a small team and get them excited about their (admittedly boring and repetitive) work.

I encourage my team. I give them guidance, critique, and advice. Best by far, though, I try to give them interest and love. I try to help them make the kitchen their sanctuary too. Most of the time, it’s already there. They wouldn’t have tried making a job out of this work if they didn’t love it on some level- or at least been the kind to cook at Super Bowl parties and poke their head out of the kitchen door for commercials.

Love of the craft will carry a team when practicalities will not- but only so far. I’ll teach them to tell when a tart crust is ready. I’ll demonstrate the fastest way to fill an almond croissant. I’ll show them how, when a quiche is finished, it jiggles like my old chef Victoria would say “a nicely toned ass.It’s up to them to find the rest of that love in themselves.

Much like I’ve had to do these last few weeks.

“Chop Wood, Carry Water.”

Very recently, in my quest to read more, I finished an excellent adventure novel titled “Cinnamon and Gunpowder.”

I won’t go into deep detail (I’d rather you read the book and got what YOU needed out of it), but the book can be summarized thus. In the early 1800s, a British chef is kidnapped by pirates after they murder his boss, and he is forced to prepare an elegant meal for the captain of the ship once a week, or else he gets killed/thrown overboard. The book is told through his journal entries, and he documents the crew, their voyages and adventures across the globe, and his numerous attempts to escape.

What he ALSO documents, however, is what (and HOW) he manages to cook for the captain in the barely-equipped ships galley and using the unusual provisions (notoriously lacking in things like fresh vegetables and meat, butter, eggs, etc.) It includes:

  • Bribing a sailor to provide him with fresh fish.
  • Using coconut water and a dried fig to make a yeast starter (kept warm by his body heat)
  • Sealing lard and shortening in a waterproof jar and towing it behind the ship on a long rope to chill it in the depths of the sea… so he can make tart crust, rolled out with a cannonball.

Along the way, the chef is forced to “return to basics,” learn about new ingredients he finds, get creative with methods, and- most importantly- find comfort in (and refine his philosophy of) the work he had done his entire life.

I am not kidnapped, or on board a ship skittering across the globe. No one is threatening to cut my throat if those quiche aren’t PERFECT, but I do still suffer from the same problem that strikes almost every other creative that tries to make a living out of what they love- staying in love with it.

Yeah, this again.

More often than not, the answer comes from forcing myself to bake on my off-days.

“Forcing myself” is an odd way to put it. You don’t really think of “forcing” yourself to do something you supposedly love. At the same time, work is work. It’s tiring. “I bake every day. I don’t want to spend my few days off each week in the kitchen too!”

I need to remind myself though that when I bake at home, it’s for me. It’s my opportunity to “chop wood and carry water-“ get back to the roots of this craft, and remind myself just why I love it so much. It’s my opportunity to, much like the protagonist in Cinnamon and Gunpowder, focus less on the “job” aspect and more on the craft.

“Food and cheer and song…”

I don’t entertain at my apartment nearly as much as I’d like to. My wife and I are both busy people, and the apartment is usually in some state of disarray.

So when I met a friend who was apartment hunting and invited them in to relax before heading home, it felt good on a number of levels. Not just because I knew they wouldn’t care so much if my apartment was a wreck, but because I got to look after someone for a bit. I got to offer them snacks and tea. They sat under my roof, played with my cat, and enjoyed my company.

That is why I do what I do. I love looking after others.

As I speak, there is rugelach dough warming on my counter, waiting for me to roll and fill it to bake tomorrow morning. It’s a cookie I used to make at my old job- the one I left. My boss was of two minds about me making rugelach every week. It did pull sales away from simpler, more profitable fare… but there was also a group of people who showed up every week looking for it.

I’m gonna make it for my friends this week. Just because I can, and because even though it’s literally my job to bake every day, this is still how I show my friends I love them.

No job, no string of jobs, no career can take that from me. They can only make me forget for a while- but I always remember eventually.

Stay Classy,

New Creations, Old Ideas, and Older Demons- 2019 Wrap-up

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

It’s a good night for a scotch.

I’m in the “office” corner of my house- a corner that has gotten messier in recent memory. I’ll do some tidying after I finish writing this, I promise- right now, its staring me in the face, wondering how long I’m going to let those piles of books and random CDs just sit there, and if I’ll ever get rid of those old boxes of business cards and just buy new, correct ones that don’t have expired business names or abandoned web addresses on them.

In the other room, my wife and cat are watching a review video on YouTube. The single lamp in the room- besides our holiday decor- paints everything a pale gold as Em listens the review. It’s almost white noise as she boops at an iPhone game.

I’ve spent the evening relaxing, knitting, reading library books, and buying up Chanukah socks for my friends. Now it’s time to sip some scotch, and write my last blog post of 2019.

Just about a year ago…
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A Flour By Any Other Name- Why Not Just Any Flour Will Do (all the time)

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

So in addition to being an amazing piano teacher and partner, my wife Emily also tends to act as my editor. She doesn’t just proofread my work, but tests it for readability. IS what I’m writing actually coming across? IS the blog post actually meeting it’s purpose?

Sometimes this comes out by her asking follow-up questions. While she was reading through last week’s post on yeast and fermentation, she got to the part about the different sugars and starches present in wheat.

“Why does the yeast have trouble with starches?
“Why isn’t there enough alpha amylase in the wheat, and why does malted grain provide it?
“Is this why there are different kinds of flour? What’s the difference between bleached/unbleached/enriched/bread flour/pastry/cake/all purpose? Hey, you should write a blog about that!”

“Yes, dear.”

So this week, let’s do a deep dive on the science of flour!

… Ok guys, but I ain’t sweeping it up.
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Five Books For When You REALLY Need A Break From Life

Good evenings, friends and neighbors.

You may have noticed, but reality can suck. Quite often, really.
It feels like the world wants something from you every moment. Things go wrong, or they go right in the wrong way, and sometimes you don’t even know what the hell the point of everything IS.

I read somewhere that humans are the only intelligent creatures for whom our own existence poses a problem. Other creatures live in the moment, learning as the go, with the sole aim of “survive another day.” For us, at the pinnacle of the food chain as we are, existential threats to our lives aren’t nearly so frequent. We still have all those frustrating survival mechanisms- transformed into stress, anxiety, depression and all that- but mostly we have the time and leisure to say “Why am I here?”

Reality can be heavy… and fortunately, our intelligence has given us a whole bunch of ways to lighten the load, even for a moment. We came up with movies, video games, all sorts of activities- but it all started with stories.

brown book page

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

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Dunning-Kruger, Imposter Syndrome, and When You Can’t Believe Yourself

Good morning, friends and neighbors! Today’s topic is one that I’ve been thinking about for a while because not only does it come up in creative life and professional life… it’s also an excuse to flex a bit of my dusty BA in Psychology.

With the increasing diagnoses of anxiety and depression among the American population, “imposter syndrome” is a term that gets used to express frustration and self-criticism of one’s accomplishments. Slightly less well-known (but increasingly used in recent years) is “the Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which is oversimplified in order to be used as a criticism of others.

The truth is they are two sides of the same coin- we experience both in our lives, and the impact of them change how we handle our work, our creative projects, our relationships, and ourselves.

So if you came looking for Freddy Kruger, you’ll have wait about a month. Sorry- just a bunch of fascinating psychology today.

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Where Did All The Chef Hats Go?- Portland’s Impact on American Cuisine

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

This morning, I had the great fortune of getting contacted by an old teacher of mine from culinary school. Chef Joe Sheridan was appearing on WOND, a local New Jersey radio station, discussing culinary education, the industry, and seeking the voices of alumni. I was having a slow morning and agreed to call in.

After catching up a bit on the show and brief introductions (including plugging this blog and my book. #shamelessselfpromoter) Chef Joe asked me an interesting question.

 

“Matt, I’ve recently been reading this book “Burn The Ice” by Kevin Alexander and- well, to stereotype your entire city, we came from an era of white table cloths and pressed napkins. Now we have chefs with tattoo sleeves, in black T-shirt’s with hats on backward, serving in dining rooms with bare tables and distressed walls. It’s all different!”

Now, I gotta own that since coming to Portland, I’ve gotten a couple food tattoos. I haven’t worn a proper white chef’s toque since I graduate culinary school (I hated them anyway. The paper ones tore and had a habit of knocking things off overhead racks, directly onto my neck.) There’s no denying that the Pacific Northwest spawned a reckoning in how fine dining was treated in America.

 

While I have yet to read Kevin Alexander’s “Burn the Ice” on the subject (I just bought it on Kindle a few minutes ago. It’s officially on The Pile,) the sharp cultural difference between living on the West Coast and training on the East is something I’ve mulled over plenty.

 

Why PORTLAND of all places? I have some thoughts…

 

 

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It isn’t called “Bridge City” for nothing.

 

 

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