My eyes pop open into the dark of our pre-dawn bedroom. No haziness yet, no sleep fog, just a quiet “oh goddammit” as I roll over and check the time. Tapping the bedside table is enough motion for my Apple Watch to wake itself up and inform me that I’m half an hour ahead of my 4:30 am alarm. I groan, grab my phone, and resolve to keep myself up by catching up on the latest news.
Tiptoeing around the apartment trying not to wake my wife, and enduring the loud pesterings of a bratty cat who has taken VERY quickly to being fed in the early morning.
Gotta eat breakfast, meditate, and get cleaned up. Gonna need all the goodwill I can gather, because God forbid people go without their croissants in a pandemic.
Since quarantine and stay-home orders have started, more folks have started getting interested in their kitchens. This is great news, especially as I can see how regularly my educational posts get visited.
For example, a friend of mine has been messaging me recently and asking for advice. Not so much on technique, but on equipment. A messy breakup has left him re-stocking his kitchen:
“Matt,what kind of rolling pin do you use? What material?” ”What do you suggest for bakeware? Any specific brands?” ”If I want to make cheesecake, do I REALLY need a springform pan?”
At first, I answered the questions and referenced my blog here. “I’m pretty sure I had a series called ‘Tools of the Trade’ or something.”
”Well, yeah, but you only got as far as knives, and that was five years ago.”
Staying home for an extended period has gotten a pretty wide assortment of interests out of people. Some folks are getting VERY into home exercise, home improvement projects, shaving their heads, or falling down conspiracy theory rabbit holes that Junji Ito would pass on as too twisted.
Most beautiful of all of them, I think, is “I’ve gotall this time at home now, I’m gonna learn to cook and bake better!”
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.
The bakery was going through a spat of high turnover. New hires were either leaving, vanishing, or simply showing themselves not up to handling the work. It was becoming disheartening, frustrating… and more than a little exhausting. “Many hands make light work” kinda relies on there being “many hands.”
In the seven months I had been working for the bakery, I’ve had to train six people in my station as the morning baker and “ovenlord.” The work is not especially difficult- the specifics of it can be written down or memorized quickly, and the skills involved can be mastered with practice.
When our production manager started wondering aloud how they could train employees to make them better, and more quickly- I suggested they all learn my position first. While the specific knowledge and skills of the morning bake are easy to learn (I actually wrote a teaching aide/cheat sheet to help people who got lost), the most challenging thing for a new person on the shift to learn is something they can take anywhere in the kitchen- or in life: time management.
After last weeks post about the basic science of bread, I figured it might be a good idea to keep going on this rudimentary road trip through the land of yeasted loaves and carbs. For this post, and most of the posts coming up, I pulled out one of my old culinary school textbooks as a reference, and the memories came flooding back.
A few years back, Emily and I were checking out a candle shop in Collingswood, NJ. The place (predicatably) smelled almost overpowering. Besides candles there was a lot of incense, Wicca, natural- healing, and- what I have been told is an accepted term- “woo-woo stuff.”
The proprietress was behind the counter, and she asked what we did as she rang up our purchases. I told her I was a baker, and the following exchange happened:
“Oh good! I’ve always wanted to ask a baker this! Okay, so what’s the difference between wheat, yeast, and gluten? Like I’m trying to go gluten free because it’ll help my chakras align, but I’m also vegan and I REALLY like nutritional yeast, so like, is there gluten free yeast? Isn’t yeast alive, so isn’t it actually not vegan? And I was also wondering bzzzzzzzzzzz…..”
To avoid anyone from having to deal with this shenanigans again, and to answer a couple questions that have been pitched to me by other non-baking pros, here’s a Crash Course on Bread.