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.
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.”
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…
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.
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.