Two Stories About Skill and the Plight of the Self-Taught

One of the best compliments I have ever received in my life is that I am a good teacher. Between that and being told I have a comforting presence and an “old soul,” I hope I’m well on my way to transforming into Uncle Iroh (Combination teahouse/pie shop/stout-heavy Shire-inspired taproom, anyone? Get at me investors.)

In all seriousness, I do take those kinds of compliments seriously and earnestly. Teaching is not easy- I’ve had both great and terrible teachers in my life, and I know how stressful it can be to make sure you are doing the job well (I’m married to one, after all.)

This applies even more to crafts and professions like cooking and baking, where mentorship is the lifeblood of passing on knowledge. Translating the skills, finesse, mentality, and spirituality of a craft is more than can be contained in a mess of cookbooks and videos. At some point, everyone will need someone to stand beside them, hold their hands and say “This is what it needs to feel like. This is how you tell it’s ready. This is what ‘done’ looks like.”

You can get pretty far teaching yourself if you have the will, love, and knack for it- but not nearly as far as you can by learning from those who went before you.

Quote picture of a statue of the Buddha with the Zen Proverb "To follow the path, look to the master. Follow the master. Walk with the master. See through the master. Become the master."

There’s No Getting Out of Experience

Let me tell you a story about two bakery owners who want to have profitable, flourishing businesses but see the same obstacle in the way- the people doing the baking.

Both are recognizing that it’s a job seekers market right now. In the wake of the pandemic, restaurant workers are feeling their power and demanding more from their management than ever in history. Better pay, benefits, better hours, better working conditions- the things whose very absence made the restaurant world even remotely profitable for generations. Cooks, servers, and chefs are sick of loving an industry that historically has survived by wringing the blood from them, and they are in a position to demand change.

Both bakery owners have decided that this is untenable for them. They either cannot or will not pay what the market now demands for experienced labor and do not feel that investing in people is the best way forward. They both come to the same conclusion- “If I can’t afford to get experienced and capable people, I will get inexperienced people and remove the need for experience.

Animated GIF from Saturday Night Live of a man in a suit saying "What could possibly go wrong?"

Rise(?) of the Machines

One bakery owner decides to get rid of the need for skills with automation. They throw a bunch of money into getting machines to do as many production tasks as possible and giant freezers to store everything. That way big batches can be made all at once and kept instead of making fresh pastries each morning. Yes, they know the quality goes down a bit, but the customers won’t.

The machines are expensive though. They also need to be assembled, programmed, and tested. The existing recipes (the ones the bakery had been making by hand for years) don’t come out right from the machines. Test after test, trial after trial, ingredients and time going in the trash until- finally- the machine makes something that will “work.”

The quality is paltry compared to the originals. The curd is gummy and filled with gelatin and the pastry is tasteless- but the customers probably won’t notice, and now they don’t have to pay someone who knows how to make those things well.

Even simple tasks like filling pastries with almond cream! Who knows how much money they were losing when employees might overfill by a couple grams? Now they have an extruder and hopper so that, instead of having someone who can handle a piping bag, all they need is someone who can pull a trigger on a gun to release the exact amount they want. That is, it will– once they get it to work. They’ve had to remodel their restaurant and get rid of half their dining room to make space for all the new tech they’ve bought. It’s not all working yet, but eventually…

Animated Gif from the Tv Show "The Prisoner" with white text reading "I am not a number. I am a person."


The other owner has a different idea. They think people are still necessary, but that the work itself isn’t so hard that the right person can’t teach themselves to do it well with the right systems.

The owner had a capable pastry chef in the kitchen, and that chef had a team of people they had personally trained to do their jobs well. Together they understood the flow of the kitchen- the chef taught anyone on the team anything they needed to know and went over it patiently until they got it right. The chef invested in the team- time, effort, faith- and was generally rewarded for it by a team with the knowledge and confidence to operate without them.

One by one, though, the team left. They loved the job, the work, and everything they were learning on the way… but they needed better pay and benefits. It was getting to the point that even the chef’s assistant had to quit because they simply couldn’t afford to keep working at the bakery anymore. Finally, the chef went to the owner and said the same thing.

For the owner, the answer was simple- have the chef make videos and document everything. Write down all of the changes they’d made and the processes they’d created, and make instructional videos so that future staff could watch and learn. The owner believed in systems and data- they didn’t like that the chef was taking time to teach the staff personally and wanted to make videos so that the chef could do other things instead and let new staff learn on their own. “Ideally,” the owner said, “anyone off the street should be able to come in, watch these videos, and be able to do your job capably if not proficiently.”

The chef shrugged and agreed. They liked teaching others and didn’t want to burn bridges with their soon-to-be-former boss. It was fun making the videos too. They thought it was a little galling that the owner seemed to think years of experience in a craft could be handed down in a manual and a couple video clips, but that wasn’t going to be their problem much longer. They’d do their best regardless, but quietly hoped that the owner would find a replacement for them quickly. This is a craft after all, and some things don’t translate well to video.

A quote meme of Red Adiar saying "If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur."
To quote a friend of mine, “A professionals job is to make something difficult look easy.”

No One Does It All By Themselves

There is something to be said about being an autodidact (self-taught person.) In a lot of ways, autodidacts are the very best kind of amateur you could hope to find. They (hopefully) have the love, attention, motivation, and self-direction to dive into a craft of their own will and (hopefully again) have the capacity to seek resources when they don’t know something and learn from their mistakes.

At the same time, there is no substitute for actual experience. I have taken several cracks at teaching through this blog, writing down recipes, and making videos, but I know there is no substitute for the training and insight that comes from directed practice and mentorship. I may be thrilled that a new baker loves baking at home, baked with their mom growing up, has a library of cookbooks, and binged every cooking video on YouTube and TikTok- that kind of passion is laudable. If they come in and say that that makes them ready to be a pastry chef though, I would have to disappoint them.

I’m glad all those videos and resources and services exist. I honestly am. It’s getting people excited about cooking at home again. It’s exposing them to new worlds and cuisines they might not have tried otherwise, and even the videos of people reacting to god-awful recipes can be hilarious and act as a horrible warning. Hell, I’ve even picked up a couple new techniques and ideas from those videos.

It’s not experience, though. It’s not training. It’s not mentorship– and it will only take you so far.

Stay Classy,

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My Quiet And Crusty Ministry

Thanksgiving in an American pie shop can best be described as the World Cup and the Super Bowl rolled up together- then stretched out over 21 days. Christmas, remarkably, tends to be less busy, but only slightly. I had to let my writing work slide for a couple weeks there because all my energy was being spent in the shop- physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The experience is always a trying one- I’m not complaining about that. My team and I handled it well, pulling off over 2000 pies in about a week. What it can mean, however, is exhaustion leading to strained nerves and losing sight of why the work we do is important. Not just to the world at large, but to ourselves personally.

You can’t blame a guy for not seeing the glory in the 500th pumpkin pie he’s made in a week, after all.

It’s almost providential then that, just before Thanksgiving, I rediscovered an important insight: “I chose this. I chose baking. I chose love. This is my calling.” Not many of us can say we work at our calling… but how many can also say their day job is their spiritual practice?

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Who’s In Your Corner?

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.

Less “magic sword,” more “how to not crash another business.”

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.

You know, mentors.

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.

To teach, not scream.
Support, not belittle.
Offer dignity and grace, not derision.
Express my love of the craft more than my exhaustion.

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.”

I will forever love and miss Tony, but one of the best lessons he taught me is to not wind up in his shoes.

We can learn from everyone, but remember to be picky about who’s in your corner.

Stay Classy,

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Don’t Save Rest For a Rainy Day

“I’m not a mapmaker. I’m a traveller, making this trip just like and alongside you.”

– Brene Brown

The last few weeks have been more than a little frustrating and chaotic at the pie shop, and I’m having a little trouble “getting comfortable being uncomfortable.” Over the past two weeks and the one coming, just because of timing, I will simultaneously be:
1. Preparing the kitchen for me to not be there for a week while Emily and I finally enjoy a honeymoon in Ireland.
2. Filling wholesale orders- including brand new contracts- for the coming weeks,
3. Making sure catering orders are in a state that my team can manage them in my absence,
4. Retooling our entire production system to be geared toward retail and catering and away from large wholesale contracts as we look toward warmer weather and possibly returning to farmers markets.

It’s all more than a little overwhelming, and as someone who starts to get static in front of their eyes when they stare too long at a crowded spreadsheet, one of my more toxic coping mechanisms starts creeping out: “DO ALL THE THINGS.” As late as last week, my boss essentially had to collar me and drag me out of the kitchen saying “No, Matt- you CAN’T do all the things. We are going to sit down and plan and work this all out.”

All the same, old thought patterns are hard to break. Intellectually, I know that I am just one person. I am not a machine, I am a squishy human that has limitations and gets tired. Regardless, my thought patterns start to run in circles like this:

“Ok, I can do this. I always figure it out. I always get the job done. I’m the only one who can do it. I need to do it. If I don’t, everything is ruined. If I don’t, people will think I’m unreliable and a flake. I won’t belong in the kitchen anymore. I’ll be worthless. I need to be the strong one. I need to get the job done. I need to show I can handle it. I need to show I can hack it- that I still belong here.”

I am so tired, but I can’t rest yet. I need to get this all done. I’ll rest when I’m done. ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’ Hahahahaha…”

Did any of that sound relatable? If so, I am so sorry… and we both need to admit when we need breaks and that not everything is going to, or NEEDS to, get done.

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Don’t Work Toward What You Don’t Want

I try not to miss weeks in writing this blog. If I am an Actual Professional Writer©, then that means showing up when I agree I will, putting out the words I’ve decided I will, and not making excuses about it. I think it was Ursula K. LeGuin who said she knew was a professional writer the first time she sat down to write something without really feeling like it and having no ideas.

In my case, I missed last week because I literally had no energy to do anything after a 60-hour week in the bakery. I wanted to write, I had ideas of what to write about… but the tank was on “E” and I was running on fumes for the downtime I had.

It’s a fairly common situation for folks in my industry right now- the Covid Culinary Brain/Talent Drain has hit everyone, and people are flocking to jobs where the pay is better, benefits more secure, and pockets are deep enough to possibly take care of them through the next crisis. That means that applicants for small Portland pie shops are few and far between, and it’s up to the folks who are there to keep the wheels turning.

I don’t blame anyone for wanting to get out of a field that is effectively lying in the bed of intransigence it made and now dealing with its legendary well of desperate labor suddenly running dry. A lot of my older friends and colleagues are staring down this situation and realizing that “the free market,” capitalism, and truthfully any economic structure looks great until you find yourself on the underside of it.

So why am I not part of this grand exodus? With my skills and experience, I could march into nearly any job fair run by one of those hospitality giants, lay down my resume, and conduct a bidding war for my services. More money, more benefits, fewer responsibilities (at least to start), and a clear career trajectory for rising in their company. Sounds like a no-brainer, so why not go for it?

Because I refuse to waste time working toward what I don’t want.

Photo by James Wheeler on
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