You Can’t Teach Character- But You Can Teach Love.

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

My most recent trainee was… very new. He’d been in the industry as a food runner and barback for years, but he rarely every worked in an actual kitchen. His experience with baking amounted to “making some stuff with his stepmom,” but he was ready to learn and to take on a position as my assistant- an entry level position- because “it would be fun.”

After about two months, a few outbursts about how difficult the work was and “we should get paid more for this,” he is leaving for health and family reasons.

I don’t blame him. This is a hard field to just “start” in, it IS a lot of work, and it is absolutely not a good field to work in if you have distracting/debilitating health issues. The outbursts got on my nerves a few times, if I’m being honest (and those of our boss.) No one becomes a cook or baker to make a lot of money. If he felt he could make more money elsewhere, the response was “there’s the door. Do yourself a favor and go- but stop insulting us.”

As it turned out, in the last few weeks of his working with us, his attitude and production greatly improved. He started asking more questions, and working more quickly. The other night, I pointed this out and he shrugged:

“I don’t know, man… It sucks. It’s work, but I’m really starting to enjoy it. You taught me a lot, and I like it… it sucks I gotta leave now.”

I can’t teach someone character, or work ethic, or discipline. That needs to come from within them- but I do believe it’s possible to teach something that will encourage them: The love of the work, and the craft.

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The Heart of Life- 5 Lessons from the Kitchen to Take Anywhere

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The bakery was going through a spat of high turnover. New hires were either leaving, vanishing, or simply showing themselves not up to handling the work. It was becoming disheartening, frustrating… and more than a little exhausting. “Many hands make light work” kinda relies on there being “many hands.”

In the seven months I had been working for the bakery, I’ve had to train six people in my station as the morning baker and “ovenlord.” The work is not especially difficult- the specifics of it can be written down or memorized quickly, and the skills involved can be mastered with practice.

When our production manager started wondering aloud how they could train employees to make them better, and more quickly- I suggested they all learn my position first. While the specific knowledge and skills of the morning bake are easy to learn (I actually wrote a teaching aide/cheat sheet to help people who got lost), the most challenging thing for a new person on the shift to learn is something they can take anywhere in the kitchen- or in life: time management.

clear glass with red sand grainer

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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The Ten Steps of Baking (Totally Not a Listicle)

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

After last weeks post about the basic science of bread, I figured it might be a good idea to keep going on this rudimentary road trip through the land of yeasted loaves and carbs. For this post, and most of the posts coming up, I pulled out one of my old culinary school textbooks as a reference, and the memories came flooding back.

Namely, “Holy f*** this stupid thing is heavy.” 

41YOWNAPFuL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIt’s still an excellent resource, though. The book is “Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach by Michael Suas, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to do a deeper dive on the science and craft of baking bread.

 

 

 

As for today, we’re gonna keep it light and- literally- go by the numbers as we cover The 10 Steps of Baking!

Stand by for tasty science!

Yzma and Kronk from The Emperors New Groove screaming "It's dinner time." in lab coats.

from The Emperors New Groove

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4 Ways To Face Cringy Memories

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

In case you haven’t guessed, I love telling a good story. It’s the way we tend to look at our lives and experiences.

The good guys win (most of the time.) We love stories of redemption, of overcoming adversity, and underdogs. From our earliest mythmakers, we have seen the “plot lines” in our lives.

Of course, those include plots where we aren’t exactly as perfect and noble as we dream of being.

“Do you ever feel like you’re on Season 5 of your life and the writers are just doing outrageous shit to keep it interesting?”

I felt called out here.

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The Role of Discomfort in Development

 

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I get to work these days before dawn. As I walk in, the first order of business is checking the oven to make sure the settings are right.

Next, the days first load of croissants- waiting patiently in the proof box since the night before. They need to be in the oven in 30 minutes.

They aren’t ready. Small and sticky still. Crap… that’s not right.

A quick look at the control panel on the box confirms my fears. They’re gonna be late.

Right- time for Plan B. The cookies have time to go in.

Wait… that doesn’t look right. Why is the oven temperature tanking? Ugh… ok. Back on track, make up the time later.

The new wholesale management system is messed up. No one to call to check numbers for retail. Dammit… ok, just fudge the numbers. Wholesale is accounted for, I can bake more for the store later if needed.

The piping tip I need is missing. Use a similar one and change technique to compensate.

Not enough sheet pans- the other stores haven’t been sending them back. Rummage around and condense. There’s gotta be stuff to layer.

It’s cool. I’ll figure it out. It’s fine.

Animated GIF of the cartoon

“Totally fine… I’ve got this. I’ve got this…”

At least I’m learning some interesting tricks…”

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Memories and Legacies- Looking Back, Looking Forward, and Who Tells Your Story

Good evening, friends and neighbors. I hope everyone had/is having a splendid holiday season, and are getting everything out of this time of year that you hope to.

Since I’ve grown up, Chanukah has always been just a sort of… thing that was celebrated. Eight days long, and the special stuff really only happens at night. Otherwise, everyone just goes to work or school and life continues.

There aren’t any hilarious or tragicomic movies about trying to get home to light the menorah- that’s what I’m trying to say here. We got some awesome stories about religious freedom, tasty fried foods, and one of my favorite Herschel of Ostropol stories– we’re good with that.

(The less said about “Eight Crazy Nights” the better.)

I suppose that’s something that DOES make Christmas kind of an enjoyable time for me- it’s only one or two days.

This year, Christmas was fantastic.

Emily and I went out for Chinese, then stayed home and did absolutely NOTHING.

The author at Palio Dessert and Coffee in Portland, Oregon Continue reading

Killing Norman Rockwell

Hello, friends and neighbors.

There’s a lot to be said for (and against) going to culinary school if you want to become a cook or chef.

Most of the arguments in favor of it include a basis of skills, the amount of knowledge acquired in a short amount of time, dedicated teachers, and the connections that come with being part of a community.

The arguments against include going into debt, that school won’t teach the life skills that come with the kitchen (some of which are as necessary as technical skills), and wasted time and money for a piece of paper that, while impressive, doesn’t match up to hands-on experience in the eyes of employers.
To get a loan from a bank to start your own business, that’s arguable.

Both of these camps come from a point of emotionality and pride, and I can see the honest merit in both. I went to a local, excellent, less-expensive culinary school before I had my first cooking job, and I can tell you right now the first thing I learned there:

Norman Rockwell had to die.

Rockwell's

“And The Symbol of Welcome is Light” (1920)

Idealism Breaks Like Bad Custard

Don’t get excited. I love Norman Rockwell’s work, and I’m certain it will live forever. The man depicted the America we wish we could see out our window. The unofficial-official artist of the Boy Scouts of America, I grew up looking at his work with honest love and respect. His depictions of small-town America- the Mayberrys and Main Street, USA’s we all imagined of a “happier,” “simpler” time- are part of the national consciousness.

Even his darker, more evocative paintings had an idyllic serenity to them:
“Yes, THIS is what life should be like. THIS is how things need to be.”

My first visions of being a baker- handing over pies and cookies to mothers and their kids in my own little shop, swept clean and full of clean glass and wood shining brown like a pie crust- had that dream like quality. Like someone who wants to own a restaurant, and dreams of tasting the food, wandering through the dining room and greeting patrons- it’s the end product.
The “good bits.” Getting to that point is rarely pretty.

We got dragged into reality after the first year.

“You are in for it now. You’re not going to be Emeril. You’re not going to be Nigella. You’re not even gonna be Jamie Oliver. When you graduate, you will be someone’s b****. You will be someone’s b**** for years, and if you’re good at being their b**** you might have some little b****es of your own one day.
You may even become the biggest, best, and baddest b**** that the world ever saw- and you’ll still be someone’s b****.”

Understand, no teacher ever said ALL  these words verbatim… but it was understood.
“When and IF you graduate… you are at the BOTTOM. You will STAY there until you demonstrate the ability to crawl up.”

Rockwell's

“Daydreaming Bookkeeper (Adventure)”, 1924

The Pit

We were taught to cook and bake, of course. That was the job. Some teachers were easier than others- to varying degrees of success. We were also told some of the horror stories of the job.
We were taught to write our own.
We were given the “jail, hospital, or the morgue” mantra.

“You want to own your own bakery one day? Strap in, kid- here comes recipe costing, labor costing, suppliers, food safety, OSHA, tax law, local and state certifications…
What, you thought you’d just be baking pies all day? Hah, maybe if you’re working for someone else, and never want to do anything more.”

We got fed the reality. Convenience products. Suppliers. Cost management.
We read Down and Out in Paris and London, Kitchen Confidential, and ​The Apprentice. We mucked out trash cans,. We scrubbed dishes and cookware. The stronger guys had to carry out the stockpots heaped with 100 lbs of bones.

Because of my school’s proximity to the casinos and resorts of Atlantic City, the majority of us figured one of them would be our first gig out of school. For the most part, they didn’t need creative thinkers and dreamers. They needed warm bodies that could crank the recipes out and not mess it up.

Years later, I’d lament to a friend of mine here in Oregon that I did as well as I had at that- that I had pushed to get into some other creativity-based courses, and maybe not simply tried to gather “all the skills I could.”

My friend, who didn’t go to culinary school, disagreed. “Too many kids who graduate from schools leave trying to be artists first in everything, and craftsmen second. They wind up having issues with the menial stuff, and getting repetition and replication down. It’s AWESOME you got used to that first.”

We didn’t work ALL the time though. And some of us still dreamt. Maybe not the Norman Rockwell ideals we had… but something similar. Something NOT what we were led to accept.

Rockwell's

“The problem we all live with” (1963-64)

Rockwell Invictus

Most of us did go to the casinos, and some stayed for a while. Others built our names working for small restaurants and cafes.

Some of us started our own businesses, repainting Rockwell in our own image.

Some of us packed up our knives and began a wandering career, chasing the tides and where life might lead. We had skills, after all. Give us a kitchen and an oven, we could find work.

As I write this, I’m crashed on my couch with an absurdly snuggly black kitten. My wife is sleeping in the next room. We’re two thousand miles from anywhere we FIGURED we’d wind up. I found work in a restaurant, and when I’m not baking, I’m telling stories.

There isn’t any Rockwell hanging on my walls. Instead, I have my awards from culinary school.
A Ralph Steadman print of a man on a bicycle with baguette, wine, and a cold.
A poster from the podcast Emily and I binged on the drive from New Jersey.
Drawings by my friend Lillian, inspired by kimchi.
and an old tourism poster of Atlantic City.

I don’t think Norman Rockwell ever put any of his paintings IN his paintings either.
He painted a reality he wanted. WE made them dreams.

Rockwell's

“Relaxing in Chair”, 1923

How close to reality we can get them… that’s on us too.
That’s the tough bit.

​Stay Classy,