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.
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 training– but 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?!”
Jay was a troubled kid. He was eager to please and seemed interested in the work. That’s what got my boss to hire him on to be my new assistant. He’d been a food runner and dishwasher since his teens, but never really had a cooking position. As far as baking went, “Well, sometimes I used to help my folks.”
He’d had some trouble with the law, and his living situation was not the best, but he didn’t like bringing that up at work. Jay was there to work, to learn, and to get the job done. I took him on, taught him as much as I could, and gave him all the support possible.
Within a month, I was looking for another assistant.
So in addition to being an amazing piano teacher and partner, my wife Emily also tends to act as my editor. She doesn’t just proofread my work, but tests it for readability. IS what I’m writing actually coming across? IS the blog post actually meeting it’s purpose?
Sometimes this comes out by her asking follow-up questions. While she was reading through last week’s post on yeast and fermentation, she got to the part about the different sugars and starches present in wheat.
“Why does the yeast have trouble with starches? “Why isn’t there enough alpha amylase in the wheat, and why does malted grain provide it? “Is this why there are different kinds of flour? What’s the difference between bleached/unbleached/enriched/bread flour/pastry/cake/all purpose? Hey, you should write a blog about that!”
So this week, let’s do a deep dive on the science of flour!