Stepping Into The Ring- Leadership, Impostor Syndrome, and Creativity on Demand

“Well this will be interesting…”

I apologize for the lack of a blog post this past week, but last Sunday I left the French bakery behind and started a new job at a pie company. Despite the fact that pie is, some would say, very much my wheelhouse, that’s not the part that will make this job uniquely interesting or what consumed so much of my time and energy. What will make this particular gig a real challenge started right at the interview. As I sat down with the owner, she flipped through my resume and said,

“Listen, I’m hiring a baker, but you’ve got training experience, right? You can train, schedule, and lead a team? Good- because I am stretched way too thin. Here’s the plan: I hire you, make you my kitchen manager, and turn the production, scheduling, and menu of our sweet pies over to you. That will free me up to run the rest of business. Deal?”

For the first time in my career, I’m scheduling production, training up the team, and choosing the menu. In other words, actually functioning as a chef (at least as it’s popularly defined in America.)

For the first week while I learned methods, recipes, and the rhythm of the kitchen, I stuck to some classics on the menu… but next week I’ll really have to come up with some ideas and prove that I can hack it. Not so much to my co-workers or boss- they have an almost unbelievable faith in my ability to deliver and perform.

No, I’ve got to prove it to me that I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.

Continue reading

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."
Continue reading

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
Continue reading

Pulling Weight- Leadership in the Kitchen

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not comfortable using the term “chef” for myself even as a joke, and that I tend to correct others when they address me by it.

It’s not because of modesty or humility- false or otherwise. It’s because, by my own criteria, I have not earned that title.

Roughly every couple of weeks, someone on an online cooking group will pipe up with:

What makes a chef a CHEF?”

or some other navel-gazing, masturbatory variant- and the responses tend to vary from the crude to the judgemental/equally navel-gazy, to my personal reaction:

tumblr_ocmhrz6xx11v9zzyro1_500.gif

“Oh for f***’s sake, here we go…”

You see, the answer is in the name. “Chef” literally means “chief.” “Boss.” “Head of Operations.” 

It means “LEADER.”

How you got about leading is the real discussion that should be going on, rather than faffing about over what’s stitched on your jacket.

Continue reading