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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What Makes Baking So Scary?

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 do shit 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?

Actual footage of a baker attempting to multitask.
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Baking 101: The First Lecture

If you were to teach a semester of classes on something you do for a living, what would Day 1 consist of?

For the last year or so, especially as I’ve started doing Live Bake-along videos on Facebook, I’ve played with the idea that the next step in my culinary career might be teaching- and if the last two years of training and mentoring apprentices at the bakery has shown me anything, it’s that I’m apparently not bad at it.

The other day while chatting on my lunch break, my manager mentioned that she had taught baking at a community college for a semester as adjunct faculty. While she didn’t necessarily enjoy it (my manager confesses that she does not have the patience for teaching,) the $4000/semester paycheck made it quite a lucrative side hustle for one six-hour class a week in addition to a full-time income baking professionally.

After she brought it up, I found myself wondering what I would say on the first day to a class of new, inexperienced students. You can consider this a companion to my open letters to new culinary students and graduates.

Here we go:

An empty college lecture hall
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Finding Your Culinary Voice

Food is a form of communication. If you learn the history of cuisine, a plate can tell you its origin story, how its cooking methods were devised and why. Fried rice can tell you about the need to feed a lot of hungry field workers quickly and making their bland starchy staple taste good. Corned Beef and Cabbage will remind you of the poverty of new Irish and Jewish immigrants, crammed cheek-by-jowl in the slums of American cities, sharing what they had and knew to get by.

Food is communication. It’s a history lesson. It’s storytelling.

So how, exactly, does one become a good storyteller with food? The answer takes a bit more effort than “learn to cook”- as if that wasn’t enough.

Animated GIF of Jake from Adventure Time serenely frying bacon pancakes
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5 Tips For Teaching Kitchen Skills

We’ve been hiring lately in the bakery, and getting skilled workers is surprisingly difficult- but that’s not exactly what we’re looking for. There is a not-so-surprising need for unskilled workers in search of trainingbut the ability to train is rare.

We just hired a brand new “baking assistant” the other day- she has worked front of house for years, but had zero experience professionally cooking. That was fine though- we weren’t looking for another baker per se. We were looking for someone who could handle small tasks competently and was eager enough to learn that we could rely on them being done right.

Yesterday, our morning baker was teaching her to pipe choquettes with pate au choux. Piping itself is a skill set that takes training, and pate au choux can be a frustrating substance to work with- it crusts up quickly, is gloppy when warm, and needs to be piped neatly to make things like eclair or paris brest shells. The morning baker was trying to explain her method of piping, but the assistant’s hands kept shaking- making what should have been smooth little mounds of paste come out like yellow poop emojis. The owner of the bakery stepped in and tried to advise her, gently taking the bag from her hands and demonstrating a row. The assistant managed for a minute, but then got frustrated again. That’s when I stepped in:

“Ok, are you right or left handed? Good, so am I. It looks like you’re gripping the bag too high- don’t fill it so much and put your right hand lower. That’ll make you steadier. Don’t be afraid to mess up- give the bag a firm squeeze each time, stop, and flick your wrist to cut off the flow.”

Two rows later, she looked at me and said “Ok, who are you, and how did you teach me this?!”

An AZ Quote from Jacques Pepin saying "You have no choice as a professional chef: you have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until it becomes part of yourself. I certainly don't cook the same way I did 40 years ago, but the technique remains. And that's what the student needs to learn: technique."
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