Sanctuary- Reclaiming What You Love by Remembering What Matters

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

In retrospect, my therapist wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. That’s really the role of a therapist or psychologist- unpacking and untangling what’s in you, and organizing it so you can figure your own mind out.

About two years ago, I had a mental breakdown after leaving a job I had loved, but no longer felt happy working. At the time, I thought it was just me reacting to doing something out of character– leaving a job without having another right away was, to my mind, colossally irresponsible.

As I spoke, though, my therapist cast it in a new light:

“Yeah, that WOULD be really irresponsible, but you did that before- when you moved out to Oregon. You got a new job way sooner this time too… why the drastic reaction?”

”I think it’s because you enjoyed this job so much. You loved the kitchen and felt at home. The kitchen has always been your safe space, and losing it regressed you- to the scared, overweight kid bullied on the schoolyard. All your work and self-improvement felt like nothing.”

It’s been a while, but I feel like I’m finally reclaiming the kitchen in my life. Here’s how.

Missing What Was Lost

As far back as I can remember, the kitchen was where I was always happiest.

As a kid, my parents cooked, and family dinners were mandatory. Holidays meant gathering around my grandmother’s big knobbly-legged dinner table, and a regular visit involved sitting in the kitchen over matzah ball soup.

Living on my own, visiting friends meant puttering around the kitchen fixing drinks and food. I always loved the idea of the kitchen being visible to the dining/sitting area simply because- while I wouldn’t always want help- company and conversation while I worked was always welcome. That’s the way my apartment is set up now.

When visiting friends, I always gravitate toward the kitchen. It’s where the beer is coldest, where I can feel useful, and where the best conversation is- normally because it involves food.

And as a professional baker, my kitchen- draining, exhausting, and work though it is- is where I feel in control. Everything makes sense. I know where I need to be and what I need to do, and I have an answer to everything. Whatever’s going on beyond the door can get bent- there has always been a feeling of “this is my domain.”

Even when something takes forever to mix.

That’s really it, I suppose. That feeling of control. Cooking is “the art of control” after all, and I love knowing where everyone and everything is in my kitchen, where I can make things work to my will.

The job I left had robbed me of that- turning a place and activity I loved, already under stress due to being how I make a living, into a place I dreaded, and activity that exhausted me with no reward.

So I left. I left the environment I called “home”, with no prospects, because the potential pain of leaving was welcome compared to the pain of staying.

Rebuilding and Refocusing

After another misadventure in another kitchen, I landed at my current spot. After a year and change, I’ve earned a promotion and a small team to lead.

Even though I’m writing a book on mentoring and leadership in the kitchen, it’s hard to put into words (convincingly, anyway) how I train and motivate even a small team and get them excited about their (admittedly boring and repetitive) work.

I encourage my team. I give them guidance, critique, and advice. Best by far, though, I try to give them interest and love. I try to help them make the kitchen their sanctuary too. Most of the time, it’s already there. They wouldn’t have tried making a job out of this work if they didn’t love it on some level- or at least been the kind to cook at Super Bowl parties and poke their head out of the kitchen door for commercials.

Love of the craft will carry a team when practicalities will not- but only so far. I’ll teach them to tell when a tart crust is ready. I’ll demonstrate the fastest way to fill an almond croissant. I’ll show them how, when a quiche is finished, it jiggles like my old chef Victoria would say “a nicely toned ass.It’s up to them to find the rest of that love in themselves.

Much like I’ve had to do these last few weeks.

“Chop Wood, Carry Water.”

Very recently, in my quest to read more, I finished an excellent adventure novel titled “Cinnamon and Gunpowder.”

I won’t go into deep detail (I’d rather you read the book and got what YOU needed out of it), but the book can be summarized thus. In the early 1800s, a British chef is kidnapped by pirates after they murder his boss, and he is forced to prepare an elegant meal for the captain of the ship once a week, or else he gets killed/thrown overboard. The book is told through his journal entries, and he documents the crew, their voyages and adventures across the globe, and his numerous attempts to escape.

What he ALSO documents, however, is what (and HOW) he manages to cook for the captain in the barely-equipped ships galley and using the unusual provisions (notoriously lacking in things like fresh vegetables and meat, butter, eggs, etc.) It includes:

  • Bribing a sailor to provide him with fresh fish.
  • Using coconut water and a dried fig to make a yeast starter (kept warm by his body heat)
  • Sealing lard and shortening in a waterproof jar and towing it behind the ship on a long rope to chill it in the depths of the sea… so he can make tart crust, rolled out with a cannonball.

Along the way, the chef is forced to “return to basics,” learn about new ingredients he finds, get creative with methods, and- most importantly- find comfort in (and refine his philosophy of) the work he had done his entire life.

I am not kidnapped, or on board a ship skittering across the globe. No one is threatening to cut my throat if those quiche aren’t PERFECT, but I do still suffer from the same problem that strikes almost every other creative that tries to make a living out of what they love- staying in love with it.

Yeah, this again.

More often than not, the answer comes from forcing myself to bake on my off-days.

“Forcing myself” is an odd way to put it. You don’t really think of “forcing” yourself to do something you supposedly love. At the same time, work is work. It’s tiring. “I bake every day. I don’t want to spend my few days off each week in the kitchen too!”

I need to remind myself though that when I bake at home, it’s for me. It’s my opportunity to “chop wood and carry water-“ get back to the roots of this craft, and remind myself just why I love it so much. It’s my opportunity to, much like the protagonist in Cinnamon and Gunpowder, focus less on the “job” aspect and more on the craft.

“Food and cheer and song…”

I don’t entertain at my apartment nearly as much as I’d like to. My wife and I are both busy people, and the apartment is usually in some state of disarray.

So when I met a friend who was apartment hunting and invited them in to relax before heading home, it felt good on a number of levels. Not just because I knew they wouldn’t care so much if my apartment was a wreck, but because I got to look after someone for a bit. I got to offer them snacks and tea. They sat under my roof, played with my cat, and enjoyed my company.

That is why I do what I do. I love looking after others.

As I speak, there is rugelach dough warming on my counter, waiting for me to roll and fill it to bake tomorrow morning. It’s a cookie I used to make at my old job- the one I left. My boss was of two minds about me making rugelach every week. It did pull sales away from simpler, more profitable fare… but there was also a group of people who showed up every week looking for it.

I’m gonna make it for my friends this week. Just because I can, and because even though it’s literally my job to bake every day, this is still how I show my friends I love them.

No job, no string of jobs, no career can take that from me. They can only make me forget for a while- but I always remember eventually.

Stay Classy,

Things Fall Apart- What to Do When Your Student Quits

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

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.

It just doesn’t always work out.

Photo by David McEachan from Pexels
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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 Way of the Warrior

Good morning, friends and neighbors.

Not long ago, I decided I was going to go on a bit of an Eastern Philosophy bender and read all the texts I could get my hands on.

It may have been my state of mind at the time, or just a desire to spend more time reading interesting stuff and less time trawling social media.

In the past, I’d read and re-read several Buddhist texts- a couple sutras, the Dhammapada, and the Buddhacarita. I’ve also previously read (and love referring back to) the Tao Te Ching and Dogen’s “Tenzo Kyokun.”

In this latest push, however, I decided I was going to tackle some of the more well-known works: Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure.”

It was… a lot, and it got me thinking-
“Why do we look to books on war for lessons on life?”

hagakure quote one becomes two

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Mentorship: What The Apprentice Actually Learned

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

Mentoring has become a bit of a catchphrase recently, hasn’t it?
A buzzword, thrown around by people in suits at “networking” events where attendance and business cards are expensive and the beer is cheap.

What do you think of when you hear that word? Most people probably think of someone they met who’s a bit farther along in their field and gives them their number for when they get in a tight spot.

In the kitchen, “mentor” means something fundamentally different. It’s the difference between learning a business and learning a craft.

It’s one huge reason the culinary industry is still around- and it’s not straightforward or easy.

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