Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Are you tough enough?

When we're healthy, we tend to take it for granted.  We forget all the moments we were sick or injured or depressed.  We get careless, we stop paying attention, we rush through a critical moment and our health is suddenly in jeopardy.  Our bodies are so complex that it doesn't take much to throw them off balance.  Our health, our livelihoods can change in a heartbeat.

You might not think of a chef or baker's job as being especially dangerous, I never really gave it much thought.  But once you're in a working kitchen, you realize that the smallest misstep could end in a serious injury.  You're surrounded by hot ovens, open flames, scalding hot fry oil, boiling water, sharp knives.  And you don't just have to worry about injuring yourself, you have to worry about your coworkers as well.  You have to respect the space that you work in, the tools that you work with and you have to continually be aware of your surroundings.

When Louie was working at the Farmhouse, he would make fart noises constantly.  Entertaining? Yes.  But the primary reason he did it was to let the other cooks know where he was.  On a small crowded line when you're working with hot pans and food, you have to coordinate your movements and be aware of the others around you. His 'farting' was like the horn of a car, letting his companions know he was behind them or next to them.

Since I had never worked in a professional kitchen before, I wasn't aware of this etiquette at first.  I'm sure I startled the line cooks on more than one occasion when I was attempting to get in and out of the ovens on the line.  Later, a fellow baker would explain to me, 'When you come around a corner or come up behind someone, you have to let everyone know.  The kitchen is loud, they might not hear you coming.  And you never know who will be around that corner with a pot of boiling water.  So you call out 'Corner!' or 'Behind!'  I was really uncomfortable with this practice at first.  I'm somewhat of an introvert, so for me to shout out anything is a bit of a stretch.  But over time, it became habit.  And I realized how much of a necessity it was.  It saved me from more than one close call.

Still, the possibility of injury was high.  I am not the most graceful person, and being clumsy in a kitchen is not ideal.  I also get careless when I move too quickly or get flustered.  This resulted in a number of burns to my hands and arms over time.  Javier started to joke that I needed oven mitts up to my armpits.  After a while, I learned to take pride in my battle scars.  Each one had a story to go along with it - a cautionary tale of sorts.  When I rode the train or bus I started recognizing fellow cooks by the similar scars on their arms.  It was like I was part of an elite club.

Til now, most of my burns had been minimal, healed over time and paled in comparison to other injuries I had seen and heard about.  Once Louie told me about a time he was interviewing for a chef job.  The prospects for hiring him didn't look good - they didn't seem to think he was the right fit. Then, in the middle of the interview, they heard screams coming from the line.  One of the cooks had cut off a finger while doing some prep work.  The executive chef motioned Louie over to the line, "Can you start now?"  And just like that, he had a job.  Another time, a cook at the Farmhouse was sauteeing some food.  He was tossing the food in the pan with the flick of the wrist technique that I've become so envious of, when he jerked his hand a little too hard.  Hot oil and food splashed onto his wrist.  It was one of the worst burns I'd seen up close, but he just wrapped it in a paper towel and went on cooking.

There is definitely a tough guy attitude in the industry.  Staffing is always tight, so when you're scheduled to work, you work.  There is no one to fill in for you and there is usually no paid time off.  Many times, this means working through illness and injury alike.  And if you do take time off for one or the other, it's likely your coworkers will mock you - either to your face, or behind your back.  A professional kitchen is not a place to be if you're feeling sorry for yourself and want others to do the same.  Sympathy runs short.

All the same, I couldn't deny that the kitchen was where I wanted to be.  Dessert baking at the Farmhouse was going well.  I was still baking apple pies on a regular basis and I had gotten used to working alone in the back prep kitchen.  I even grew to like it more than being in the main kitchen.  I wasn't battling for counter space or getting tangled up in the line cooks' feet, worrying they might drop a hot pan on my head as I worked with the ovens.  I learned to master the use of the new convection ovens - noting the temperatures needed to be significantly lower than conventional ones, cooking times were shorter, cheesecakes had to be covered so the tops wouldn't brown and dry out.  It was a process of trial and error, but I was starting to figure out the tricks.

Then one night, Michael approached me.  "Did you hear what happened to Pam?" I had not.  "She apparently burned her whole arm and had to be rushed to the hospital yesterday!"

After asking around for more details, I learned that she was working next to the fryer when it happened.  She had bent over toward the floor to do something and the handle of the fryer basket got caught in her shirt.  The basket, its contents and scalding hot oil flipped up out of the fryer and onto her.  She shielded her face with her hands and arms.  Her head and neck were spared, but her whole arm was severely burned. One cook who witnessed the accident described it as though her skin were melting away.  I shivered at the thought of it.  I could only imagine the shock and the pain she must have felt.  I had never really liked Pam - we had our differences.  But I would never have wished this on her.  And for a chef to lose the use of their arm? That was significant.

The burns were so severe that Pam was out of work for a while.  She would call in to talk things over with Julius, the sous chef or Tim, the owner, but her presence was missing.  All at once, Julius was assuming the chef position in Pam's absence and my position just sort of fell through the cracks.  No one was supervising me.  The possibilities were endless.  The dessert menu was mine to manage (or munge) as I saw fit.  I marveled at the thought.  Here I was, someone that had literally no experience seven months ago and now I was calling the shots.  I would need to remember though, not to take this for granted.  As Pam's accident had reminded me, nothing in a working kitchen is permanent - and moments like these are especially fleeting.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Twists of fate

Every day, life presents us with a multitude of choices, some small and some significant.  Our decisions in these moments send us down particular paths and build upon each other to create our lives as we know them.  Alter one or two of those choices and we might end up completely different individuals in entirely different places.

When I was a senior in high school, confused and frightened about what my future might hold, I had a chat with an army recruitment officer at my school.  He was an excellent salesman and he had an answer to all of my doubts; the army would give me money for a full college education, it would allow me to travel and see the world and explore careers.  It would give me the opportunity to challenge myself physically and provide guidance and discipline.  And as for war?  There was no chance anything like that would come up over the next four years (who knew that the World Trade Center attack would happen two years later?).  So I signed on the dotted line.  I took the oath to serve and protect my country.  It was then that I was told that I couldn't have the career I wanted in journalism.  Those jobs went to people with experience and education.  I also wouldn't get the full amount of money they had promised for college. And as for seeing the world?  My first stop would be Oklahoma.  

It was suddenly very apparent that I had made a mistake.  This path was not going to give me the life I had dreamed of.  I started to panic.  I had several months before my high school graduation and the day I would ship off to bootcamp, so I scrambled to find a way out.  After multiple failed attempts, the same weaselly recruitment officer told me to skip town on the day I was supposed to leave for Oklahoma.  

"Just disappear for a couple days, and things will eventually blow over," he told me.

It seemed too good to be true, but I was desperate.  So the day of my ship date, I drove to Canada and spent the night.  Things got a little scary after that.  Some senior officers contacted my mom, words like AWOL were thrown around.  They demanded I come back to town and explain myself.  I had visions of army helicopters swooping in, armed men seizing me and carrying me away.  Luckily, I never saw the interior of a Black Hawk helicopter.  Things eventually blew over, the blame fell on my recruiter and I went on with my life.  But even so, the damage was done.  By the time I realized I was a free woman, it was too late to enroll in my college of choice, the University of Washington, in the fall.  So instead, I found a private arts school in the Midwest that had open enrollment.  I got accepted, got a dorm room and a few months later was enrolled in classes.

Fast forward through a few more decisions after that including a partial move to Hawaii and back to the Midwest again, a career change from PR woman to web developer, the decision to end a six year relationship, a whim to post an ad for a tennis partner, choosing to marry that tennis partner, and poof!  I find myself baking desserts in the back kitchen of a homey little diner.  Alter any of those decisions, and I might be in Seattle working as a marine biologist or performing in a musical on Broadway.  But maybe, just maybe, this is where I was meant to end up all along. 

All of this history was weighing on my mind as I went in for my second shift in the back prep kitchen.  The first time I baked there had been an awful experience and I was not looking forward to it.  This day was already starting out a little differently since I would be working there during the day.  I had taken the day off of my regular job so I could see a concert later that night.  I decided to go in early to get my shift out of the way.  

When I arrived, I was greeted enthusiastically by one of my favorite daytime line cooks - he was surprised to see me since I usually worked nights and we rarely worked together.  When I stepped into the prep kitchen, Ronaldo and Julius were there.  Pam had brought them over from her previous kitchen job to take on some of the management duties and I had really come to like them.  They greeted me joyfully and cleared a space for me to work.  The kitchen was warm, smelled delicious, and reggae music was playing in the background.  The shelves were already looking more organized.  Four hours breezed by and I was almost sad to leave when everything was done baking.  After my last shift, I had seriously considered quitting.  Now I knew there was no way I was giving this up.  I wondered though, if I had come in to work my shift that night instead of choosing to come in that day, would things be different?

That night I went to see the lead singer for the Decemberists perform.  A fellow Montanan, I marveled that two people from the same place could have such different lives and yet still cross paths.  I never would have expected that I would become a dessert baker back when I was eighteen and the experience of army boot camp loomed ahead of me.  But now I know that I wouldn't change any of the decisions I made to get here - I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The lonely hearts club

When Pam started as the head chef at the Farmhouse, she promised big things; more organized storage, better food, a cleaner kitchen and best of all, a new prep kitchen with new ovens.  When I heard all of this, I couldn't help but think, "Yeah, we'll see about that."  I've seen people start things with the best of intentions, only to be met with the cruel reality of it all.  Change is not easy - especially in an establishment like the Farmhouse. But over the course of several weeks, I watched as the back of the restaurant was gutted and baking as I knew it was thrown into complete disarray.  

First, everything that was in the dry storage area was moved into the corridor between the front of the restaurant and the back offices.  This included freezers, shelving, food, cookware, buckets, old newspapers, toilets and such, until there was a narrow little path between giant piles of precarious stuff.  At night the space was very poorly lit, which made searching for things even more frustrating than it already was.  I feared that the bases of the springform pans were lost and gone forever.

Next, all of the food in the giant walk-in refrigerator was moved into the tiny walk-in at the front of the restaurant.  It was so full, you couldn't even get to the back shelf without moving and stacking boxes, crates or buckets.  It was like a game of Jenga with much less stable blocks.  Once the big walk-in was cleared out, it was leveled, the debris removed (after sitting in a pile on the floor for nearly a week), and finally, a new walk-in freezer and refrigerator were erected.  Progress?

Little by little things changed.  A sink was installed in back, then the new ovens were delivered.  And then one night I walked in to find all of my baking equipment gone from the main kitchen.

Jesse, one of the new line cooks greeted me, "Hey, we just got all of your stuff moved back to the prep kitchen today."

I should have been thrilled.  There would be more space for me to work.  No more fighting for a few inches of counter space.  No more working with the ovens at the feet of the cooks on the line.  No more blazing hot, fire of hell oven.  No more oven that barely heated enough to melt a stick of butter.  No more listening to the terrible open mic performances or the Spanish radio station.  But instead of being overjoyed, I felt like a sad, wet blanket.  It felt like I was being banished.  As insane as it was, I had really loved working in that kitchen.  It was my dysfunctional home and I had made it work.  

Since there were no other prep cooks working that night, I was completely on my own in the new kitchen space.  It was quiet, dimly lit, and still completely disorganized.  The dishwasher didn't know where to take things yet, so most of my baking tools ended up at the front kitchen again.  I had to make numerous trips back and forth.  I was missing an open flame for boiling water for my cheesecake's water bath and I couldn't boil down the syrup for the apple pie unless I wanted to make the trip through the labyrinth of the back of the restaurant (where random people popped out of doors every now and then) with boiling hot liquid in a scalding hot pan.  And I couldn't figure out the ovens.  Since they were convection, they were highly more efficient than what I was used to.  I couldn't get the temperature right - everything was cooking way too fast.  My cheesecake browned in a matter of minutes.  My apple pie crust browned, but the filling didn't bubble.  I had no idea if my final products were going to be cooked through or raw in the middle.

There seemed to be one bright spot in the new space - I could listen to whatever music I wanted to.  I had spent countless nights next to a boombox playing a radio station that repeated the same ten Spanish songs over and over again.  I didn't know what they were singing about, but I sure as heck had the words memorized.  So many nights I went home with a song stuck in my head in a language I didn't comprehend.  Tonight would be different!  I pulled up my Pandora account excited to listen to my choice of tunes.  But every artist I chose gave me a mix of utterly dark and depressing music. 

I languished.  I felt displaced and alone.  I missed being in the warm, brightly lit kitchen with my co-workers. I missed hearing the commotion of the dining room and the sizzle of food on the line.  I missed the chatter of the servers and the jingle of the dishwasher.  All of the things that had felt like sensory overload when I first started at the cafe had become second nature for me.   The silence of this new kitchen was more than I could take.   I also missed getting fed at the end of my shift that night.  I had been forgotten. I couldn't wait to get out of there.

That weekend, I found myself dwelling on my new working space.  Wasn't the whole point of me getting a job in a kitchen to actually spend time in one?  Observing and experiencing and interacting?  In this new prep kitchen, all I could observe and experience was myself, my desserts and my shortcomings.  And that terrified me a little.  I could take Pam's judgement or anyone else's for that matter, but my own?  Four to five hours alone with my fears and doubts and criticisms might be more than I could handle.  It was ironic.  After everything I'd been through in that restaurant; the dysfunctional ovens, the missing and inadequate equipment, the endless renovations and reorganizations, the changes in chefs, the changes in job duties, could this really be the last straw? So I made up my mind.  I would give it one more chance.  If I left feeling lonely and dejected again, I would call it quits. But if I survived this lonely prep kitchen and my inner critic, then there would be no stopping me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

ISO: My happy place

You could say that I'm a little bit of a dreamer.  Like most human beings, I am never satisfied, constantly in search of greener pastures; daydreaming of that happy place where there is no stress, no struggle, just bliss. This search is what eventually led me to the Farmhouse.  And while the job definitely had moments of hair tearing frustration, it was truly a happy place for me.  It was a place where I could wind down from the day, surrounded by my fellow kitchen staff, working with simple ingredients in the hopes that the end result would be something beautiful and delicious. But as more and more shifts passed, inevitably the question of the future began to nibble at the back of my mind. I found myself frequently asking what the purpose of all of this was.  Where was this going? What was it leading up to? Or, worst of all, was it just a dead end?  Simply a hobby and a source for entertaining stories?

Originally, the main purpose of my Farmhouse experiment had been to find out if I did, in fact, enjoy working in the restaurant industry. If my time at the cafe was any indication, my hypothesis had been proven correct. I loved it.  But I was fully aware that I had eons more to learn.  When I had first taken the job, I had hoped to find a mentor in Louie and I think he had truly wanted to be one.  In the beginning, he brought me a collection of cookbooks to leaf through in my spare time and tried to share industry tips and tricks every now and then.  But it turned out that the Farmhouse had other plans for him.  His chefly duties consumed all of his spare time until he finally said enough was enough and got out while he still had some sanity.

When Pam took over she had shown me a few things, but that quickly dwindled.  She was an eight hour shift kind of gal - she put in her time in the morning and got out.  She was rarely around when I was there at night. If our paths did happen to cross, she showed little interest in spending any time working with me.  So I was on my own trying to make the most of it. After more than six months however, I was starting to realize that I couldn't possibly continue learning from my mistakes or research on the internet.  It was taking too much time and wasting too much product.  I needed some guidance.

The thought of culinary classes was increasingly on my mind.  I wanted to learn about ingredients and how they worked together, influenced one another.  I wanted to learn about ratios and techniques, mass production, supply ordering and menu writing.  In terms of schooling, there were plenty of options to choose from in the city, but most were pricey.  I'd also heard that many of them gave a lot of empty promises to their hopeful young chefs - leading them to believe they'd get all of the tools they needed to be successful in the industry, only to graduate without a clue where to begin.  I was wary.  Plus, that nest egg I had been saving up was really meant to go toward a first home or better yet a business - not another education. 

I could also take a leap and get a full-time job baking somewhere if anyone would have me, but the thought of this was more than a little terrifying.  It was a well known fact that you wouldn't get rich baking for someone else.  The money was crap.  Leaving a job where I had good benefits and a nice paycheck for a job with no benefits and a very tiny paycheck seemed more than a little nuts.

But I was getting restless and I needed something to happen.  I felt less and less confident and fulfilled in my work in web development.  The industry was constantly changing and I was struggling to keep up with it. Most days left me feeling empty, dissatisfied and insufficient.  Recently, the company I worked for had taken on a project for a huge pharmaceutical company that required me to spend hours of my life tweaking code to match a design specification that asked for pixel perfection.  I would get vague bug reports from someone in their QA department in China requesting that I move a logo up two pixels and a navigation bar to the left by one pixel, decrease a font size by a point, darken a horizontal rule by one shade.  I couldn't make myself believe that this work mattered.  How did this make the world a better place?  At least with baking I was fulfilling one of the most basic human needs.  The result was tangible, something I could touch and feel and taste, something that I knew other people would get enjoyment from.

As much as I thought things over, I couldn't reach a conclusion. I desperately wanted someone to tell me the answer.  Discussions with my husband only led to frustration.  He works on something we like to call 'Brian' time.  He talks a good game, but when it comes to execution, it takes him a while.  It took him four years to propose.  It takes him a year to make a dentist appointment, days to take out the garbage, you get the point. I work on Ceth time, which usually equals immediate results.  Being stuck in limbo drove me crazy.  Brian was also not much of a risk taker.  I found that when I would dream out loud to him, I'd be confronted by a dear in headlights look. Something that said, 'I didn't sign on for this.'  And it's true, he didn't.  When we met I was just a boring corporate girl that wanted to play tennis.  Now I was an unstable woman that wanted to throw her professional life down the toilet.  This was all my crazy dream, not his. I couldn't expect him to help me find the solution.  I would have to do it on my own.

For now I would just have to be satisfied with dreaming and have faith that eventually something would happen to take me down the right path.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Apple pie up the ying yang

I like a good challenge.  They say nothing worthwhile in life comes easy, and I am a firm believer in that. You have to fight for happiness and success.  And if you don't have to?  It's probably only temporary, or you're just a really freaking lucky person and you should be extremely thankful for it.  For all the rest of us, life is challenging. But I'm not complaining. I don't want anything handed to me.  I want to earn it. Because there is nothing like struggling and falling and getting back up and then finally succeeding.  The pure joy of accomplishing what you've set out to do with your own brains and bodily strength is so incredibly satisfying.

A short while after I had started baking apple pies at the Farmhouse, I got wind of a pie baking contest in one of the city's neighborhoods.  It was a fundraiser for one of the local parks and anyone and everyone was welcome to participate.  I knew I had a long way to go before my pie was award-winning, but I really wanted to give it a shot anyway.  If I could get an honorable mention?  Now that would really be something.  It would be a start to making a name for myself in the baking community, affirm that I was on the right path and get me one step closer to having my own bakery or cafe.

The contest was for apple pies only and had very strict guidelines - no other fruit allowed, double crust only! There were also very specific tasting notes; the pie should have eye appeal, filling consistency, a nice color, definition, spice balance, crust that was flaky, but not too flaky, with uniform thickness completely sealed with no leaking and a flavor that was complimentary to the filling.
Jesus, these people weren't messing around!  I seriously doubted I could meet all the rigorous requirements, but I was damned if I wouldn't try.  I completed my application and set to work developing the perfect pie recipe.

Over the next few weeks, I made pies several times a week with various alterations to the recipe, trying to get the spice, sweetness and consistency of the apples to the right place.  I started by tinkering with different kinds of apples.  Tim, the owner of the Farmhouse had given me lectures regarding the types of apples I was using for pies and how I should taste them to determine the appropriate sugar level, and not overpower it with additional flavors like lemon juice, and what thickeners were best and so on.  He had a secret mix of apples that he always used for pie that consisted of Jonathan, Golden Delicious and a couple other varieties.  I personally hate Golden Delicious, so I stayed far away from those and searched for ones with a nice round flavor and tartness.  I settled on a mix of Jonathan and Empire.  The Empires were tart almost like a Macintosh, but had a firmer texture that would hold up in baking.  The Jonathan had great flavor and would break down a little more, resulting in a pie that was neither crunchy nor mush.

Once the apples were chosen, I played around with crust recipes, working with varying amounts of sugar, butter, shortening and even one that used hard cider instead of water.  I also experimented with chilling times and oven temperatures.  Sometimes my crust drooped in the oven, sometimes the filling was too tart, most times the crust was not flaky enough.  But I kept at it, buying up all the apples I could at local farmer's markets.  I even went apple picking in Michigan one weekend.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, I was working a normal Thursday shift at the cafe when I got a call from Pam.

"Tim's harvest party at the apple orchard is this weekend and he wants you to make the pies for it."

I felt a knot form in my throat and I hesitated to ask the next question, fearing the answer.  "How many pies does he need?"

"As many as you can possibly make."

Awesome.  While I was honored that he thought my pies were good enough for his party guests, I had no idea how many I could possibly bake in the next two days.  I decided to whip up crusts for eight pies that night and let them chill until the next day.  Then I would come in and power through the peeling, coring and slicing.  Up until now, I had been doing all of the apple prep with a small apple corer, a vegetable peeler and a chef's knife.  It was tedious.  Apples for two pies took me 30-45 minutes.  This was not gonna fly if I needed to make more than two pies tomorrow.  As if reading my mind, that night my husband surprised me with a combination apple peeler, corer, slicer.  It was a brilliant device and cut the prep time down significantly.  Not to mention, it saved my hands from hours of pain!

Apparently Pam had been thinking the same thing.  When I walked into the Farmhouse kitchen the next night, there sat the same peeler, slicer, corer my husband had brought me the night before.

"Have you used one of these things before?  It's a life saver!"

Indeed it was.  That night could have been a nightmare, but with that device, it went by without a hitch.  Now if I could just get my pies for the contest to come out right...

The night before the contest, I started my prep for the pies.  I had planned everything out.  The crust had been made earlier in the day and was thoroughly chilled.  I would fill the crust, chill the pie overnight and then bake it off in the morning.  I got the filling ready to go, lined a pie plate with crust, filled it and started to seal it.  But something was wrong.  Juice started oozing all over the place.  A quick check of the bottom crust found a gigantic, gaping hole in it.  Panic set in.  It was already 11 pm.  I was going to get up at 6 am the next morning to bake the pies before the contest.  I needed to make another crust and it would have to chill at least 1 hour before I could roll it.  Looked like it was going to be a long night.  I took a deep breath and worked through it.  Why on earth had I thought this contest was a good idea?

The next morning, I baked the pies, but didn't check on them until they were almost done.  Apparently my oven was not wide enough to bake two pies on one shelf - the edges of one of the pies nearest to the side had almost burned.  It looked like one of the crusts had leaked too.  Disaster.  But I swallowed my pride and delivered the pies anyway.  If nothing else, maybe they could sell them and make some money for the park.

Several days went by with me obsessively checking the contest's website for the results to be posted.  I already knew I hadn't won, but I wasn't giving up hope that maybe I had gotten an honorable mention.  On my way to a shift at the Farmhouse, I checked one more time.  The results were posted, but my name wasn't on the list.  After all of the mishaps I wasn't really surprised, but that didn't mean it didn't hurt anyway.  The number of apples I had gone through, the pounds my husband and I gained doing taste tests, the hours of effort I spent.  It hurt.  With tears in my eyes, I entered the cafe to be greeted by my favorite server, Michael.

"Ceth!" He exclaimed. "I served some of your pie to this older gentleman today and he said it was the best pie he'd ever had!"

I wanted to kiss him.  After feeling like an utter failure, he had managed to turn my world around.  I had lost sight of what was important.  All along I thought it was that stupid contest, but it wasn't. It was the people that were eating my desserts on a regular basis at the cafe. They already approved of my work, they didn't need my name on a list to validate it.  I hadn't needed the contest to win.  I had won months ago when I had accepted the challenge of baking at the Farmhouse.  And that was a prize most amateur bakers couldn't add to their list of awards.