Portland is enjoying a smoky Indian Summer, and it’s a situation in which I truly wouldn’t mind being caught in the rain on my way home.
I’ve ducked out of the heat in the Side Street Bar- not-quite-dive off of Belmont. I’d intended to drop copies of my books off with a local secondhand bookstore. Apparently my knack for salesmanship doesn’t extended farther than pastry, so I figured by handing a few autographed copies over bookstores I could at least get a little marketing done for the cost of the books. This is Portland, after all- we love “local” everything, including authors.
Hiding from the sun isn’t my thing, even on a sweaty Sunday. As busy as the bake shop has been, I find myself “working for the weekend” and trying to get as much low-pressure living into 48 hours as possible. Sometimes that means going afield and exploring a new part of the city- sometimes it means going down the street to a pub where no one knows me, having a couple beers, and putting down a couple words.
Sometimes peace of mind looks like mountain-top retreats and hammocks on beaches, and sometimes it a couple cold pints in a bar playing classic blues on a hot day. It’s a matter of personality and perspective really.
I used to say that I got truly restless when I lost weight and suddenly had a lot more energy. I couldn’t just crash out on the couch all day- I HAD to go out. I had to see, to do, to walk, move and find. I also used to blame it on being a fan of Anthony Bourdain, but the time line doesn’t quite jive. Tony made me want to try, talk, travel, and tell stories- but I can’t blame him for my inability to just sit at home on a dull day anymore.
Where does the urge to go out and wander around come from? From the need to feel free, and the knowledge you can.
Some people pick new projects to work on with care. They weigh their existing time and energy, the effectiveness of their efforts at any given moment, and choose their next task efficiently.
I, on the other hand, seem to pick my projects by going “Fuck it,” buying a new 1-subject notebook and a green pen, and burying myself in the internet.
Just because I start researching projects like that though doesn’t mean I jump in haphazardly. I’ve already learned the consequences of that. I know to try and cover all my bases, get the best insight and information I can, and of course get the guidance of pros.
The best thing about being in the food business is that when you decide you’re gonna try something out, there’s tons of people who’ve done it before you and not all of them sucked at it.
Guides and Teachers, NOT Cheerleaders
No mistake, everyone needs a cheer squad- folks who love you, support you, and will remind you of everything you have going for you that will help you succeed- but it’s even better when you have people that you know support you but will grab you by the collar to smack some sense into you.
The ones that will call you out on cutting corners, letting things slide, and acting outside your values. They’ll point out how you are messing up, not mince words, and help you find new ways forward.
As an interesting fact, did you know that the Japanese word for teacher- 先生 (sensei) literally translates as “one who as gone before?” In other words, someone who’s done this before and knows the way.
It’s easy to imagine the best mentors as being like the favorite Wise Old Teachers of our stories and media- Gandalf, Uncle Iroh, Obi Wan Kenobi. Folks like that might exist, but most of us aren’t lucky (or plot-armored) enough for them to find us. We need to seek them out.
That alone is a challenge because there are plenty of people who might have gone before you, but not all of them were successful, or successful the same way you want to be. Part of being a student is being able to learn from everyone, but not FOLLOW everyone.
Everyone Has Something To Teach
My bakery is currently hiring for bakers and servers. After a friend of one of our employees (who left restaurants because of mistreatment, shitty conditions, and general abuse) hemmed and hawed about sending in her application, the employee asked me “Hey, do you mind if I just grab her and bring her over here to meet you? She’s stressing about her resume, her experience… everything!”
I told her she could- that it wasn’t even a real interview, she didn’t have to bring anything, and that she could tour the space, see our work and meet me. Then she could make a better decision.
The friend came by and she seemed nervous at first, but after seeing the chef just standing next to an oven quietly peeling potatoes for Shepards pie and getting a tour of the space, she sent in her application. My assistant later said “Finally! I mean, yeah, we ALL came from shit restaurant jobs- but you’re really cool to work with, I’m okay I think, and her friend is here and having a good time! This is a good place- she doesn’t need to worry so much.”
Regardless of how long I stay with my current kitchen, that fact and statement are what I’m proudest of. More than recipes, more than sales and figures, more than prestige- the fact that I ran a kitchen where my staff felt appreciated, respected, safe, and happy will stay on my resume until the day I die.
I learned to make it that way by paying attention to what I needed in their position, learning from the people who provided it- and learning from the people who didn’t. After all, “if you can’t be a glowing example, be a terrible warning.”
I’ve had bosses and been in business that made me miserable. I wanted to quit the industry all together. At one point, I wanted to end my life. I learned as much from them as I did from the better ones. Instead of “classically” learning to bring up cooks “the way I did,” I learned to do it different.
As a result, my cooks WANT to push themselves. They WANT to learn more, and feel encouraged to do so rather than threatened into perfection. I wouldn’t have realized quite how to communicate and offer that if I hadn’t learned from people who didn’t, or couldn’t.
We can learn from others without choosing to emulate them. For some of our teachers, their best lessons can be “don’t be like me.”
We can learn from everyone, but remember to be picky about who’s in your corner.
I started making mead 9 years ago with a single jug, a beer fridge, and a jar of honey. It looked like a simple, fun, low-effort way to do science and get “free” booze out of it. It was a single gallon batch that I got ratio for from The Art of Fermentation. After about two weeks, I took a sip of my first mead- wildflower honey infused with some cinnamon sticks and a single split vanilla bean. It was cloyingly sweet but obviously had fermented slightly, so it was a win in my book.
The success of making a fizzy, slightly-alcoholic-but-drinkable beverage led to a years-long hobby. I’ve shared with friends, experimented, collected more books and (slightly) better equipment, and even won an award at the Oregon State Fair.
(To be clear, that award was a silver medal in a single subcategory. I came in second out of two entries in the “experimental” mead subgroup.)
A few weeks ago, I bottled my latest mead.
It was a version of one of my first metheglins (a.k.a. Mead with spices), but this time I wanted to Do It Properly. It wasn’t a “shake and pray” wild ferment. I’d made a 4 gallon batch using locally sourced honeys. I wrote down my sources, my water temperatures, the sources and amounts of the spices I used, and I used campden tablets and real cultured mead yeast to Make It Right. I didn’t know what “gravity” was for that first jug way back when. For this one, I factored time and temperature into recording the changes in gravity over five months.
The result was a spicy, warming mead that drank like a dry white wine. By any measure, it is my best mead yet- and I will never sell it to anyone. That’s because unlike baking and now writing, home brewing is something I want to keep mine.
The drive to Capitalize and Monetize everything we enjoy or may do well is thee double-edged sword of Damocles hanging over everyone’s head today. As soon as we realize we enjoy or have a knack for something, one of the first questions we are asked (or ask ourselves) is “how can I make money off of this?”
Why? Why is simply enjoying ourselves from the start not reason enough?
I remember the first time I realized I enjoyed making origami paper figures and that they made others happy. Within a day, I had set up a little table and chair on my nearly-empty sidewalk with a stack of square paper, trying to sell origami figures.
It wasn’t enough to just make me happy. Something told me I had to make it worthwhile- and that meant it had to make money. I dare anyone to tell me that my goofy 10 year old ass could have made a career out of selling origami figures on the sidewalk in Margate. At least the hobos selling wire-wrapped stones and pendants in Portland buy their own materials.
Baking and writing also make me happy, but I long ago decided I was willing to try making careers out of them. It’s either the best or worst thing you can do with a hobby you love. Often it’s both. I still love baking and creating in the kitchen, but when shit hits the fan and I need to stare down the barrel of a 60 hour week because all these pies need to be made, baking stops being a fun activity really damned quick.
It’s the same thing with writing. As much as I love writing, telling stories, and introducing people to worlds and ideas they may never have considered otherwise, when I’m not feeling it it is 1000% work.
Meadmaking, though, is one hobby I insist on keeping a hobby. I may barter a bottle or two, but I will never sell it. I will never start a meadery (except as a joke. I’m on Untappd as “Le Chapeau Noir Meadery”) or go into the brewing business. No matter how good I might be or awards I might get.
Why? Because it’s mine.
We all need things at only have meaning to us that no one else cares about. The little things, activities, and moments that make us happy. We are absolutely inextricably connected and intertwined with each other, but we also need opportunities to explore and be ourselves. To understand ourselves a s a community of one.
For me, that means connecting with local beekeepers and honey vendors, finding new varieties, and bringing them mead made from their honey. It means giving bottles to friends as a gift, or just chilling down a bottle for my wife and I to enjoy on a summer night.
Mead is a thing I make that’s just for me to enjoy with those I love. No one and nothing else need interfere. There is no sin or failing in this- no “loss of potential” or waste simply because I’m not attaching a price tag to the result. The world has enough of us for so much of our waking lives- we can have some of ourselves TO ourselves.
What’s something you do that you refuse to monetize or share beyond yourself and choice others? Tell us about it in the comments!
I spend way too much time on social media. If it wasn’t the best engine for reaching out to my readers and sharing what I do with a global audience, I would have wiped my accounts ages ago for the sheer amount of half-assed “hot takes” people are encouraged to belch out about everything from Sudanese economics to Dr. Seuss. It really is the dark side of the democratization of knowledge that anyone with a keyboard thinks “I have an opinion and a way to express it, therefore it is just as valid and important as any expert.”
Yes, so says the pastry chef and food writer with a blog who is about to expound on the psychology and philosophy of labor, but stick with me for a minute.
As a guy who works for a living, is trying to create a work environment that his employees can thrive in, and is having difficulty finding qualified help, I think I have some insight into the whole “no one wants to work anymore,” “quiet-quitting/working to contract” kerfufflefiasco mass whining “discussion” that has been making the rounds lately.
“You cannot change how your story started, you can always change how your story ends.”
For plenty of people, those are wonderful and hopeful words of wisdom. It is hard, and we often need help to do it, but it is possible to rise above our pasts towards a future we want. That is an empowering, terrifying, and beautiful thing. A hallmark of our intelligence as sentiment creatures is the ability to internalize what we’ve experienced and use it to make decisions in the future.
This can be both a blessing and curse. We learn from traumatic experiences as well, and healing from that is as much a (re)learning process as a spiritual/emotional practice. When things happen that really and truly shake you to your core, you can’t always just dust yourself off and go again. If you think you can, I congratulate you on your compartmentalization and/or sociopathy.
The truth is that, even if you think you’ve recovered from a difficult experience, there is no returning to the person you were before. It’s a “what is known cannot be unknown” sort of thing. Before, you didn’t know you could be hurt like that. You didn’t know you could fail that hard. You didn’t know whatever it was could hurt so much. It’s the price we pay for being thinking, feeling, loving creatures- but it’s a price we never consciously think we must pay until it happens.
When it does, we learn. We learn to wake up the next morning and keep trying. We recover, we hope, and we carry on. We also need to mourn the people that we were- because that is never coming back, and it’s something I’ve been wrestling with a lot recently.