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?
You might think it’s odd for a baker to go out and find other bakeries on their day off. I bake all the time, and surely I can make anything I want at home for a fraction of the price. Why should I go check out other bakeries in the city?
You might as well wonder why musicians go to other peoples concerts. Baking is my skillset and profession, and I definitely make a commodity, but it’s also acraft- and I like seeing how others practice it.
The same as there are different genres of music or literature, there are different cuisines. Within those genres, everyone has their own style. A way they practice their art that’s all their own, or a kind of art that they just vibe with and respond to.
There’s lots of ways to do this cooking thing, after all.
Fall is without a doubt my favorite season. Flip flops and shorts give way to jeans and boots, t-shirts becomes hoodie and scarves, and the world makes it clear that it’s getting close to time to wind down.
For everyone who’s not running a pie shop, that is.
As soon as summer ends, it’s the signal for my pie shop to shift into high gear. We’ve pulled out of farmer’s markets for the remainder of the year to focus everything on production. A frustrating and confusing decision for sure- fall is prime farmer’s market business- but in the context of a tight team, it makes more sense. The time between Halloween and New Years Eve is our Super Bowl. I have been trying to train my team and stock us up on supplies for the entire year, because we are about to make fully 30% of our income for the year in 8 weeks.
It’s “go time.” We’ll be ready, though. It’s what I’ve trained for, in the career I was born for. As pie after pie flies out the door into waiting hands, though, it’s easy to forget why I love being a baker. I’m no longer the adrenaline junkie I was when I started in this field, despite what my caffeine addiction might say about it.
Pie after pie after pie into one set of hands after another, it’s easy to forget that these customers are people- that our pie is going to be enjoyed by their families, and that it will make their various holiday dinners that much more enjoyable.
It’s important to do business well, but you can never forget why you chose to go into business or join an industy like this. For me, no matter how many pies I sell or books I write, I have one small and simple dream.
There’s lots of ways to be a “baker” or “pastry chef,” and the job itself can vary wildly. More time in the kitchen or less? Small operation, or a cog in a corporate machine? Fine dining or simple cafe? Year-round or seasonal? It takes a while to figure out what you like to do, and you can waste a lot of time chasing what you think you’re “supposed” to want or like doing.
So who would I be as “Matt the Baker,” and what would I do?
I would be Matt the Baker, and Matt the Baker would be me. I’d be a part of my community- The Baker. I’d make pies, cookies and pastries all day, everyday. I’d sell them and know each and everyone of my customers by name and face. I want to remember their birthdays and anniversaries, and make sure I have their favorite flavors on hand.
I want to have regulars. I want people who make my pie part of their routine, and I want to see their kids grow up eating my pie. I want to hire the ones that are curious, teach them to bake, and send them off to culinary school to learn to do more and better.
I have no interest in wholesale or catering. I want to pick and change my menu based on what is available near me and what my customers love. I don’t want any middleman between me that the people who eat my work. I know that will make my work more seasonal and give me less wiggle room- wholesale and events do offer a certain amount of financial security for all the effort that goes into making a retailer or organization happy- but it will never be worth the frustration and irritation to me.
My business will start. It will grow as far as I care for it to, and when- if- I’m ready to move on and not be Matt the Baker anymore, I will sell or leave it others and move on knowing I spent my life and time building something simple and beautiful, and needed for its time.
Plenty of people in this world will make a lot more money and be more “successful” without being able to say that.
I want to leave behind happy people, a lot of stories, and plenty of good memories. It may not happen as “Chef Matt”- but it will happen the closer I get and stay to just being “Matt the Baker.”
There are two common responses I get from career cooks when I start talking about baking. It’s either “Bakers are fucking useless and can’t doshit without a recipe book in front of them” or “Bakers are mad scientists and just the idea of baking terrifies me. It’s so precise that anything could fuck anything up.”
They are both right and both wrong because cooking and baking require different mindsets. Being able to do both is not just a matter of skill, it’s a matter of being able to switch between two different sets of priorities and relationships with time. As for “always needing a recipe book…” I humbly suggest that baking recipes can be done on the fly if you know which rules to follow and which to break. Once you know the right ratios, you can whip up a dough, bread, or filling from memory, but I’ll thank you not to disrespect our sacred grimoires, thank you.
Talk of wizardry and alchemy aside, though, what makes baking so scary?
Last week I brought up the ins and outs of “secret” recipes- why we have them, why we might not, and how to keep recipes safe behind the law.
In writing it, I said that I am generally happy to share my recipes for a number of reasons- but that I won’t share some recipes for sentimental reasons. When I said that, I was thinking of one of my recipes in particular.
It’s a recipe that very few people outside my family know, one that I have been tweaking and trying to perfect for several years, and this is the story of why I decided I was gonna hold it close to my chest from now on.