I am going to be 34 in July. I have been baking for about nine years after being a Nurse’s Aide, an EMT, and various positions at a Boy Scout summer camp (Health Officer, Trading Post Clerk, and counselor for seven merit badges.)
I also used to be very overweight. I lost 110 lbs about 6 years ago, and I have more or less maintained it (I gained back 15 over the last year. Depression is a hell of a drug.)
The folks I work with are about my age. This post is about us- the folks that make the pastries you love, and what this industry does to you. If you’re a student, take this as a warning. Start an exercise regimen now, invest in some good shoes, and eat your veggies.
The worlds of food and classical music don’t always intersect- beyond the artistry and passion of their respective devotees, that is. When my wife (a piano teacher) and I discuss our work with each other, one of us is usually on “home turf.” I’m a professional baker and she loves to cook, or she’s expounding on an obscure piece of music and I know a couple big names. That’s marriage for you, though- we don’t “complete” each other, but we do find ways to be complete together.
In that sense, we often discuss ideas like discipline, teaching methods, leadership (in the context of our workplaces,) and the artistic aspects of what we’ve built our lives around.
And one thing that we agree on wholeheartedly is that talent doesn’t mean a damn thing.
Honestly, so much of this week as felt like people trying to find the slowest possible way to rip off a Band-Aid.
As I write this, work at the bakery is slowly becoming more dire. Our staff AND wholesale contracts are dwindling, and it won’t be long before I receive a call that- arguably- should have been weeks ago. A call saying I should stay home for the time being, and perhaps find other work.
I wouldn’t be alone, to be sure. An enormous chunk of the current record unemployment claims are culinary and service staff, trying to figure out where to go next.
Fortunately, whether we all realize it or not, our experience in the kitchen has drilled an assortment of hard and soft skills into our minds- and those who used to look down on “burger flippers” would be wise to hire us while they can.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
I have long since accepted that the only folks who can really appreciate the difference between kitchen work and other careers (or even other service industry careers) is people who have worked them.
There are a number of factors at work in a professional kitchen setting that “traditional” career advice simply does not apply easily to.
“If this job isn’t working out, why don’t you just quit?”
“Why can’t you move to another part of the kitchen?”
“[Staffing problem] isn’t your concern- don’t worry about it.”
In addition, the rate of turnover in service industry jobs is historically higher. Whereas an ordinary white-collar position can expect a shelf-life of about two years on a given employee, kitchens regularly see a given position get filled again after anywhere between 6 and 18 months.
Depending on your goals in the industry, a series of short stints can either be seen as expected or career suicide- no one wants to hire someone with an admitted track-record of being a short-timer. In the kitchen, a series of two-year stints is nearly “Unicorn” level of rare and desirable.
This being said, if someone quits a position in the kitchen, they aren’t doing it randomly.ESPECIALLY if only after a few months.
Jay was a troubled kid. He was eager to please and seemed interested in the work. That’s what got my boss to hire him on to be my new assistant. He’d been a food runner and dishwasher since his teens, but never really had a cooking position. As far as baking went, “Well, sometimes I used to help my folks.”
He’d had some trouble with the law, and his living situation was not the best, but he didn’t like bringing that up at work. Jay was there to work, to learn, and to get the job done. I took him on, taught him as much as I could, and gave him all the support possible.
Within a month, I was looking for another assistant.
My most recent trainee was… very new. He’d been in the industry as a food runner and barback for years, but he rarely every worked in an actual kitchen. His experience with baking amounted to “making some stuff with his stepmom,” but he was ready to learn and to take on a position as my assistant- an entry level position- because “it would be fun.”
After about two months, a few outbursts about how difficult the work was and “we should get paid more for this,” he is leaving for health and family reasons.
I don’t blame him. This is a hard field to just “start” in, it IS a lot of work, and it is absolutely not a good field to work in if you have distracting/debilitating health issues. The outbursts got on my nerves a few times, if I’m being honest (and those of our boss.) No one becomes a cook or baker to make a lot of money. If he felt he could make more money elsewhere, the response was “there’s the door. Do yourself a favor and go- but stop insulting us.”
As it turned out, in the last few weeks of his working with us, his attitude and production greatly improved. He started asking more questions, and working more quickly. The other night, I pointed this out and he shrugged:
“I don’t know, man… It sucks. It’s work, but I’m really starting to enjoy it. You taught me a lot, and I like it… it sucks I gotta leave now.”
I can’t teach someone character, or work ethic, or discipline. That needs to come from within them- but I do believe it’s possible to teach something that will encourage them: The love of the work, and the craft.