"So you're here to do a stage?"
At the time, I didn't know what she meant by stage (pronounced stahj), which is essentially like a job shadow in the kitchen. After making her repeat herself several times, she finally said irritably, “You’re here to make some bread!”
“Oh, yeah.” I managed to confirm, shaking my head inwardly. Jesus. I had a lot to learn. I decided to pull up the science of bread making on Wikipedia and start my education while I waited for Louie.
After a short time that felt much longer, Louie arrived and spirited me away to the kitchen where he introduced me to the two line cooks for the night, Brian and Alonso. He pointed out a few things to me, bowls, flour, yeast, a beat up mixer that apparently only sort of worked.
“I’ve been making all of my bread by hand anyway,” I assured him.
“Oh, thank God.”
He pulled out a container of poolish that he’d made the previous fall with organic apples from the restaurant owner’s orchard. “Take a whiff.” He watched for my reaction.
I inhaled the sour smell of fermenting flour and yeast.
“Smells like paint thinner, eh?” He seemed thrilled. “Most people think it smells disgusting.”
“I kind of like it – it makes me want to drink a beer actually.”
He nodded approvingly. Major points scored.
I started on the autolyse for my Limpa and let him know that it would have to sit there for a bit. In the meantime, he had hauled out a large tub of bread dough and was working on forming loaves and filling a set of heavy cast iron bread pans. He’d take a hunk of dough, knead it thoroughly and then briefly shape and set in the bread pan. I’d never seen someone knead bread so much before shaping it. He informed me that without this step, the bread would have holes in it.
As I was waiting for the autolyse, Louie got called back to the other venue. He put me in charge of shaping the loaves. My first test! I finished up a set of four loaves and then went back to my Limpa. I think the autolyse had sat for almost an hour already. I shook off my doubts and went in search of measuring spoons and vegetable oil. I found neither. Venturing cautiously over by the line like a frightened puppy, I asked Brian if he knew where I could find measuring spoons.
“What size do you need?”
“A tablespoon or teaspoon.”
“I don’t think we use anything that small here.” He shrugged.
Crap. I decided to eyeball the amount of yeast by measuring it out into my palm, hoping with all my might that it would be enough. Then Brian helped me out with the vegetable oil. He took a ladle and scooped some out of a container near the stove, studying it with narrowed eyes.
“How much do you need?”
“About a third of a cup.”
“How many ounces is that?”
I stared blankly, trying to visualize the side of the measuring cup where ounces sat across from cup measurements. I couldn’t remember. Less than eight, more than two?
Realizing he wasn’t going to get ounce measurements from me, he ladled a couple spoonfuls of oil into my bowl. I felt like a complete idiot.
I focused my energy back on making the dough, mustn’t let this throw me off my game. I’d made this bread 5 times in the last week. A few mis-measurements shouldn’t hurt… maybe? I finished adding ingredients and kneaded until I was satisfied with the texture. Now for the hard part, waiting.
Louie made me feel right at home though. After Brian left for the night, the chef took over his part of the line and helped Alonso with a variety of dishes like stir fries, pasta and fajitas. He motioned for me to come join him near the line and as he cooked, he told me stories about the staff, how he'd ended up at the Farmhouse, and shared some of his industry secrets – like how to make sweet potato fries extra crispy and how you can partially cook pasta and then finish it off quickly before serving. Mind blown. He’d spoon tastes of things onto a small platter and make me test the fries for seasoning. He whipped up a vegan special with ingredients I never would have thought to combine. He decorated plates with a beautiful green basil oil. I was having a blast.
After 40 minutes or so, I checked my bread. It didn’t seem to be rising. My heart started to sink a little.
“What do you think?” Louie gave me an honest look of curiosity.
“It’s not rising very fast.”
“Here – throw it over above the ovens – that’s my trick for speeding up the process.”
After 10 or 15 minutes of that, it was definitely risen – maybe even too much. The metal bowl was hot to the touch – I needed a dish rag to get it down. I shaped the loaves and started wait number two. This was the longest interview of my life!
But Louie didn’t seem to care. He was perfectly at home behind the line, whipping up tasty dishes and joking with Alonso. Finally I decided to get the loaves in the oven.
After scoring the loaves, they were plopped in the oven and the last bit of waiting crawled by. I’m not an especially religious person, but I’m pretty sure I said a few prayers.
After a while, Louie opened the oven to take a look. The smell of warm bread and anise escaped out into the kitchen.
“Alonso, come smell this!” He opened the oven again and wafted the air over toward the seasoned line cook. He nodded - I think he approved. He was a hard one to read.
After tapping the bread a few times in search of the perfect hollow sound and then waiting some more, I decided to call it. The suspense was killing me, I really couldn't stand waiting any longer. I briefly rubbed the loaves with butter to give them a nice shine. Then a brief rest out of the oven and the moment of judgment was upon me.
Louie sliced into a hot, steaming loaf, raised a piece to his mouth and breathed in the smell deeply before taking a bite. He groaned with approval and quickly sliced a piece for Alonso. He ate it and said something in Spanish.
“He just said he loved you.”
Glory! That was all I ever hoped for. Even if I didn’t have the job, I had made them something that they truly enjoyed. Mission accomplished.
More slices were passed around to staff and Louie promised to be in touch by mid-week.
"The interview process should be over now, but I have to give everyone a fair shot," He said as he shook my hand.
Whatever happened in the coming days, I'd found a home in that kitchen and I knew it was just the beginning of a new chapter in my life.