Having Talent is No Excuse

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

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.

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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,

The Curse of the Blank Page- How to be Creative on Demand

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

In the last few months, I’ve developed a new tradition. After my therapy appointments, I wander down the street to my old cafe. There, my friend Madeline is usually on the espresso machine. She makes me my favorite coffee drink (a cafe con miel, essentially a latte with honey and cinnamon syrup,) then I sit down to write… something.

Usually it’s the start of that weeks blog entry, as now, or continuing work on the next book. Recently I’ve also started posting more casual, narrative foodwriting through Medium.

Regardless, it’s a block of time each week that I have set aside to be creative. Routine and Practice are vital if you want to make anything worth making.

“What I’m gonna write about today” though… that’s always a bit dodgy. As you can see, sometimes I just start with “whatever is right in front of me.”

The artist at work. That blog title looks familiar… >_>;;
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When “Fake It Till You Make It” Feels Too… Fake

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The idea of “faking it till you make it” is that, by somehow pretending and acting that a situation is different, you can make it become different and thereby make your fantasy real.

As you can guess, I don’t exactly buy into that. The reason?
I’m a shitty liar, and I know when I’m trying to lie.

A young woman partially covering her face with a demi-mask in her right hand.
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Things Fall Apart- What to Do When Your Student Quits

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

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.

It just doesn’t always work out.

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“Heavy is the Head that Wears a Crown”- Thoughts on Teaching and Leadership

Good evening, friends and neighbors! Only a short blog post this week because I spent much of the afternoon doing this months Live Bakealong, and, for reasons I’ll soon make clear, this week at the shop has been a bit more demanding than usual.

Long story made short, the bakery is hiring on more people- and I will be training and directing them. There are a couple large contracts coming down the line, and I will be leading the Pastry Prep team.

I am getting a team that I will need to train and organize.
It’s exciting, and I’m thrilled. Now I just need to stop being terrified.

*Imposter Syndrome intensifies*

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