The Craft of Living As a Baker

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?”

The author is wearing an apron over a black suit vest and white button-front shirt with the collar open and sleeve rolled up. He's smiling at the camera and leaning against white cabinets.
Following your calling isn’t always easy or profitable, but it’s always worth it.
Looking stylish while you do so is just a plus.
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Food Philosophy in the Moment

The walk up Mount Tabor has become a familiar old friend, and like an old friend it has its own moods. Normally, when I go walking through the park, it’s with an audiobook in my ears. The walk is for the fresh air and exercise, the book for entertainment and distraction- especially if I’m in a foul mood and need to clear my mind.

That was the case this afternoon as I decided I needed to get out of the house and write this blog, but not go to a bar or cafe. Money has been tight lately, so I need to find other spaces to be creative in. The weather is perfect if a bit chilly, and the park is free. Walking up to the top of a little hill near the summit, I have an Earthsea book in my ears. The breeze was blowing, kindly cooling me under the heat of the sun.

In my meditation lately, I’ve been trying to build on focus and mindfulness- being in each moment and appreciating where I am and what I’m doing. As I walked, I pulled the headphones from my ears.

A deep breath. A quiet moment between heartbeats. The smell of warm cedar, and someone practicing a bamboo flute nearby. Distant traffic. Bird song.

I kick aside a few fir cones, lay down my blanket, and start to feel everything.

“Life is a dance between making it happen and letting it happen.”
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You Might Be Doing Better Than You Think

There are more measures of success than the ones that show up on paper.

This job is my first time running a kitchen crew, and it’s my first time leading one through a massive holiday push. The fact that supply chains are screwy, getting ingredients are unreliable, and the country is still winding its way through a pandemic is just icing on the cake, so to speak. The “cake” in that metaphor, however, is “this year more people have ordered pies from us than ever before.”

No pressure, of course. I know how to plan. Bakers are practically born for logistics and time management. I had plenty of warning that the holidays would be “busy,” and I got lots of preparation done. Yet there’s still that nagging, deceitful feeling each and every day. It’s the one that sees me pulling my hair out over the schedule. It sees me racking my brains as supply lines fail and suddenly we can no longer get the apples and hazelnuts we need through the usual avenues. It sees me wince at every employee call-out, every frustration, every complication that isn’t going according to plan. It looks at the total predicted number of pies like Sisyphus at a holiday gift of muscle rub and soccer cleats.

It’s the feeling that goes, “Why is this so hard for you? Why are you sucking at this? You should have more control! This should be easy. Maybe you’re just not up to leading. Maybe you’ve been running a scam on these people and yourself the whole time.”

It’s the feeling that doesn’t let you look up and see the full picture.

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Winding Down

The rain is dripping off my coat as I fumble finding the right key in the dim early-morning light outside the bakery. House key, house key, bike lock key, multi-tool, office key… got it. A little finagling and I’m in out of the rain. At least there’s that. Autumn in Portland heralds the rainy season.
Isn’t every month in Portland the ‘rainy season’ though?”
Yes. Haha, you’re very funny.

Quickly locking the door behind me and switching off the alarm, I put the water kettle on to boil then turn on the lights in the kitchen. There’s some slight detritus from the last shift, but overall my team keeps things clean and tidy. I see the small pile of recipes at my station that apparently don’t scale correctly or need to be re-written, along with the daily production checklist I made for my team. I’ll deal with those later- there’s a bigger fish to dry waiting in the office.

Opening the office door, I drop my bag on the desk and switch on the light. Sitting in front of me in my boss’s spreadsheet outlining our Thanksgiving orders and their due dates. We have over 2000 pies due between now and Christmas, and private orders are still coming in. This was always going to be the biggest challenge of the year, and of this job. I knew it. I figured I’d be prepared. I’d done some banquet organizing and logistics work before, after all. How much more different could this be?

Staring down at the spreadsheet, I can already feel the television static fuzzing my vision. I’ve got a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time to do it.

Tea first, though.

Close-up picture of blooming tea in a glass mug on a wooden table. Chinese tea paraphernalia is in the background.
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Creating An Eye in the Storm- Meditation for the Culinary Professional

The more busy and chaotic daily life is, the more we crave moments of stillness and quiet. However brief they are, in whatever way they come, and no matter how adrenaline-addicted you think you are, everyone needs space to breathe. In the last few posts, I’ve often explained how I craved those moments. With the combination of a toxic workplace and my own anxiety, not feeling like I ever had space to stop and get my bearings took a serious toll on my mental health and made a bad situation worse.

Fortunately, it’s possible to create those moments for ourselves and it’s worth the effort to try. After all, the more stillness and composure you can create for yourself, the more you exude it for other people. Even with my anxiety, learning to meditate has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. If other people I work with ever told me they appreciate my competence, patience, and ability to keep my cool in a crisis, it’s because I learned to slow myself down. You can too.

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