Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Baking Limbo

It probably goes without stating that I'm a little bit of a control freak. My husband will be happy to vouch for that statement.  I just generally like to be in control of my life and the situations I take part in.  Before I go out to dinner at a new restaurant, I like to look up the menu online.  When the weekend or a vacation is approaching, I put together a very careful plan about all of the activities that need to take place over that period of time.  I have two sponges for washing the dishes, one for the first round of scrubbing and another for the actual cleaning part.  There is also a very specific way that dishes should be placed in the dishwasher to maximize the space and resulting cleanliness of them.

While this annoying habit of mine drives many people crazy, I believe that the desire to control goes hand in hand with being a good baker.  Let's test this theory by making a comparison between baking and cooking.  In cooking, you can take a dollop of that, a pinch of this, a splash of that, never follow a recipe and come up with an amazing dish.  It's all about going with what you're feeling.  However, if you do that with baking, more often than not, you're going to have a flop on your hands.  Baking is a science.  It's all about leaveners and how they react with acids and starches and fats.  I wish I could be the carefree person that just throws some stuff in a pot and ends up with a miracle.  But I am not one of those people.  I like to measure and weigh things and follow instructions.  I like to have control over the end result.

This is all great and grand, but at some point, you have to realize that you cannot control everything.  If you live life assuming you can alter the outcome of every situation to your liking, sooner or later, you're going to end up with some pretty major disappointments.  This is why, when Pam transitioned to head cook at the Farmhouse and I lost my bread baking duties, I had to tell myself to let go a little.  This was not my decision to make and nothing I could do would change it.  This was not an easy realization for me.

The day before I left for my vacation, I went back to the Farmhouse to finish the carrot cake I had started on my previous shift.  Luckily there was a bag of flour there to greet me.  Three hours later, I had made a cheesecake and a couple carrot cakes, hoping that would be sufficient while I was away.  I headed home wondering if that had been my last shift.

I tried my best not to think about the Farmhouse for the next six days while I was on vacation, but it couldn't be helped.  When I baked bread and cheesecake for my mom, I was reminded of all of the times I had gone through the same motions at the cafe.  When we went out for burgers one night, I couldn't help but think of all the times Javier had made me a burger and been sure to add avocado to it. I couldn't help but think about the staff in the kitchen and wonder if they had the same faulty ovens that I had to work with.

There was also the question about what to tell my father.  I had been working at the cafe for five months and had managed not to speak a word about it to him yet.  My parents had been divorced since I was very young, and though we spoke at regular intervals, the conversations between he and I only scratched the surface of deeper topics.  Like many dads, he had very high expectations of me.  I knew he just wanted the best for me, but I always felt that I let him down somehow.

When I got my job in web development, we actually had something we could talk and relate about - he had done programming work in the past.  It was a good stable job with decent pay and I worked on some projects for clients with national and international reach.  There was nothing disappointing about it.  But how would my job at the cafe look to him?  Would he think I was running away from responsibility?  Giving up on a good opportunity?  Throwing a good life away?  All of these thoughts had built up over time and made it feel impossible to bring up in conversation.  But I had resolved to tell him about it on this trip.  He deserved to know about my life and the things that I had found to make it worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the opportunity never presented itself, or maybe it did and I was just a coward.  Because I couldn't control the outcome of the conversation, I was reluctant to start it.  I took the easy way out and sent him an email when I was safely on my way back to Chicago.

A couple weeks later, a cookbook arrived at my doorstep without a recognizable return address and no note.  It was written by a chef in San Francisco that had started out in the industry with only a love for good food and no culinary education.  She landed a job as a lunch chef when someone took a chance on her.  Our stories were so similar!  Where had this book come from?

A call with my dad later revealed that he had sent it.  "Her story reminded me of you," he told me.  I was touched, humbled and ashamed.  All this time I had kept my baking adventures a secret from him, and here he was being so thoughtful and accepting of it!

Armed with the support of my family and the idea that you shouldn't assume the outcome of any situation, I endured the changes at the Farmhouse; inspired to make the best of the situation, regardless of my lack of control over it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A bread baker no more

You could say that I had a love-hate relationship with baking bread at the Farmhouse.  There were days that were completely frustrating - when the bread wouldn't rise or it rose too quickly, when it browned too much or had holes in it.  There were summer days when the air conditioning didn't work and the sweat beaded on my forehead and the blasts of heat from the ovens almost knocked me over.  There were many days that I was so exhausted I could barely make the trip home from the cafe at the end of the night.  And there were days when I just wanted to give it all up and quit.  But on the other hand, there were moments when I couldn't imagine doing anything else.  Feeling the dough in my hands, smelling the loaves when they came hot out of the oven, eating sandwiches made with it, joking around with the line cooks and feeling like part of the team, hearing compliments from the other cafe staff and customers.  These were the things that made it all worthwhile and helped me to forget all of the times I had almost given it up.

The week after Pam took over the head chef job at the Farmhouse, I had planned to take a week-long vacation back home.  It was horrible timing, but I had been planning this trip for months - way before I knew Louie would no longer be my boss.  I hadn't been home in two years and I was incredibly homesick.  There was no way I was calling it off.  So I had to suck it up, be brave and tell Pam about it.

I approached her at the end of my shift one night and filled her in on the situation.

"I'll be more than happy to work some extra shifts.  If there's room in the freezers, I can make a couple big batches and you could store it."

"Let me think about it," she said brusquely.  "I'm cleaning out the freezers right now and I don't know what we have room for.  Come in on your next regular shift this week and we'll talk then."

My next regular shift was a Friday, three days before I was supposed to leave.  I didn't see how that could possibly be enough time (unless I worked all weekend), but I had no other choice.  I had to trust that she'd have a plan and I'd get through it.

When I showed up for my next shift, the kitchen was in its usual disarray as they prepped for the dinner theater that night.

Pam greeted me when I walked in, "Ceth, I need to talk to you.  We're not going to bake bread here any more."

It was funny how easily she said it, how simply it rolled off her tongue without pause - it clearly meant nothing to her.  I tried to hide my dismay, for it meant everything to me. 

"The ovens here are complete shit," she continued.  "I don't know how you worked with them at all.  If we ever get a prep kitchen built in the back with decent ovens, maybe we'll think about baking our own bread again.  But for now, we're just going to order the bread from somewhere else."

I wanted to disagree with her.  Tell her that I had been baking decent bread for months in those shit ovens.  Tell her she was making the wrong decision.  Tell her that store-bought, mass-produced bread was just not the same as homemade.  But I held my tongue.  She could have fired me on the spot, but she hadn't. She apparently had other things in mind for me.

"So for today, can you make three or four cheesecakes, a bunch of carrot cake and then there is a puff pastry dessert I want to show you.  Sound good?"  She dismissed me with a quick nod of her head and went back to her prep work.  I was going to have to adjust quickly to her style.  Louie had never been around much for guidance, but I always felt like I could lean on him if I needed to and he always treated me like a human being.  Pam made me feel like I was just a tool at her disposal.

I stood there dumbly for a moment, still in shock, taking things in.  There was a repair guy on the main prep station working on the meat slicer.  My typical work station was in disarray and there was another girl working there making chocolate cake.  What the hell?  Pam had literally just taken over a few days ago and already she had found someone else to make desserts?  I looked around for the small mixing bowls that I used for making the cheesecake batter and found none.

"Hey Pam, have you seen the mixing bowls for the mixer?"

"You mean that one?"  She pointed behind me with a condescending smirk.  It was the industrial sized one I had used for bread baking- currently splattered with chocolate cake batter.  Yes, I knew where that one was, thank you.  Geez.

"No, I'm talking about the small ones."

"Oh, I think they're over at the dinner theater filled with ganache."

I may have rolled my eyes.  Not only was there another girl there baking desserts in my ovens, but all of my equipment was gone or in use too?  What exactly did she expect me to accomplish here?

I gave up the thought of cheesecake for the moment and  decided to start on the carrot cake. There were no grated carrots in stock, so I set about grating them by hand on a flimsy box grater.  As I begrudgingly grated, I watched the other girl as she helped Pam.  She pulled some roasted potatoes out of the middle oven, found that they were not roasting fast enough and plopped them into the raging hot oven on the end.  A short while later, she pulled them out overdone.

"You have GOT to get these ovens calibrated." she protested.  I chuckled inwardly, selfishly enjoying her struggles.  It was like I had time traveled backwards and was watching my failed attempts with the first batches of bread I had made.

After the potato fiasco, she pulled some of my bread pans out and looked at them disgustedly.  To be honest, they weren't the most attractive things to look at.  Louie didn't believe in washing them after the bread baking - it was kind of like seasoning a cast iron pan.  You never used soap and water on one so that the flavors were preserved and then added to the next dish you made in it.  She flung a pan into the sink, doused it with hot water, scrubbed furiously to get some of the grease off and failed.  I hid behind my box grater diligently grating, trying to be as unassuming as possible.

A sore arm and some orange fingers later, the carrots were grated and I was ready to get the batter going.  But when I searched around there was no all purpose flour to be found.  I also noted an empty spot on the shelf where my poolish used to live.  The smelly, wild apple yeast that had been the pride of Louie and the added flavor for the bread was gone.

I felt utterly defeated.  I was running into dead ends everywhere I went.  The joy of bread baking had been taken away from me.  The remnants of Louie had been purged.  My replacement was apparently already in training.

Disheartened, I threw together some lumpy cheesecake in the giant Hobart mixer and tossed the cake batter into the cooler.  It would have to wait until some flour was delivered.  There was nothing left for me to do and there was no way for me to tell Pam since she was in the midst of the dinner theater rush.  I couldn't finish the carrot cake, there were no puff pastry instructions, and we needed to order flour.  What exactly was I supposed to do?  On my way out, I asked Javier to have her call me and left the cafe feeling like a sad dog with its tail between its legs.

I awaited her call which never came.  Maybe she would fire me.  Or maybe I would just quit.  At this point, I honestly felt like I didn't care anymore.  If there was no bread baking and no Louie, there just didn't seem to be any point to working at the Farmhouse any longer.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

So long Louie

Goodbyes are never easy. They're also never very convenient.  They never come at times when you're ready for them.  You can prepare all you want for it, but inevitably there will be some heartache, some inconvenience and probably some tears involved.  I had prepared myself as much as possible for Louie's departure from the Farmhouse, but of course I was not ready to say goodbye.  And unfortunately for Louie, his last week at the Farmhouse was not a smooth one.

During the summer months, the Farmhouse ran food booths at many of the festivals throughout the city.  This meant that a TON of food had to be prepped for these weekend events.  Many Fridays I would arrive at the kitchen to find all of the counter space consumed by prep for these events.  One weekend it was vegetable lasagna made with eggplant instead of noodles.  Another weekend it was fajitas, another it was tamales. During Louie's last week, it happened to be doughnuts.

Now, the making of doughnuts is simple enough if you have the right equipment and a good chunk of time.  Unfortunately for Louie, he had neither.  Consumed with the daily tasks at the Farmhouse, he had little extra time.  He also had little support from the existing staff - we were shorthanded.  He had been trying to hire additional line cooks for the Farmhouse for several months with no luck.  And since the fryers were under steady use for the cafe, the doughnuts had to be fried after hours.  That meant a late night with some dough, hot oil and Louie's vitality.

When I saw him the next day, a frazzled Louie informed me that he had spent most of the night in the kitchen, finally worked out a system of shaping, cutting, frying, repeat and then gone to sleep for a couple hours on one of the cold, dirty cement floors in the back office before starting his shift the next morning.  I knew doctors pulled those kind of shifts, but chefs?

Then there were the food deliveries.  I had experienced on several occasions, a shortage of something-er-other.  Butter, eggs, molasses, carrots...  I had learned to make substitutions and work around these things.  But unfortunately for the cooks, if we were out of buffalo burger, there was really no substitute for that.

The last Friday shift I worked with Louie, an important food delivery didn't happen.  They were supposed to come before five but their other deliveries ran long.  And because of union rules, they would not deliver after 5 o'clock.  That meant no food delivery until sometime the next day.  No food delivery for the Friday dinner rush and no food delivery for the Saturday brunch rush.  We were out of everything from burger, to cucumbers, to tuna.  The '86' board was filled with items on the menu that we didn't have.  Servers would come in with an order, only to be told, 'We don't have that'.  It was chaos.

And there was Louie, furiously working the line through all of this.  I had never seen him so angry.  I can only imagine how frustrating it was.  He had been the chef there for over a year.  And no matter how fed up with everything he was, how ready he was to leave, I know there was still a part of him that was attached to the place.  He had been there through the renovation, through the improvements to the space and to the food.  It was his baby.  In every chef there is a strong desire to excel and make good food.  It is fundamentally why we choose this line of work.  We want to make people happy through their full bellies.  Unfortunately, without the ingredients, that is nearly impossible to achieve.

Fortunately for Louie, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  In a few days, he was on to a job at a high-class restaurant with better pay, better support, more time off and health insurance.  He just had to jump this one last hurdle to get there.

At the end of the night we said our goodbyes and I thanked him for this incredible opportunity he had given me.  Despite my doubts, he assured me that Pam would keep me on board.

"I told her you're like a sponge and you'll take on anything.  She told me she figured she'd keep you on and see how things go.  But if anything happens, let me know.  I know people in the industry and I'll do what I can to help you find something else.  And if an opening ever comes up where I am, I will let you know."

I wasn't exactly comforted by Pam's idea of 'seeing how things go'.  But I was honored that Louie had my back.  This may have been goodbye, but a small part of me believed that it wasn't permanent.  Maybe our paths would cross again somewhere down the line.  One thing was for sure though.  I would never forget that he had taken a chance on me and forever changed my life.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A hot, muggy kitchen equals funky bread

One should never get too confident about things.  Inevitably it will bite you in the ass.  For instance, if you're in the playoffs for the World Series, it's game six and you're up 3-0.  Don't get cocky!  Some poor fan may just reach out of the stands and grab a fly ball that an outfielder could have caught, one mistake will lead to another and you'll end up kissing the chances of a trip to the World Series goodbye.

Ok, so maybe baseball is not the best analogy here.  I certainly wasn't baking bread for any sort of world championship of dough.  But things had gotten comfortable for me at the Farmhouse.  I had fallen into a groove.  I was working two to three shifts a week and my bread was coming out fairly consistent.  I hadn't had any complaints of holes in it in quite a while.  Once, a customer even asked one of the servers where we bought our bread because they liked it so much.  There were regular customers that would come in every week to buy one or two loaves to take home with them.  Louie said the bread was the best it had been since he started working at the Farmhouse.  Things were going along swimmingly. Then summer hit.

Summers in the Midwest can be muggy and very warm.  We're talking days of 90 degree temperatures with humidity levels at 70% or higher.  These conditions wreak havoc on bread making. I've always heard about adjusting recipes based on climate and altitude, but had never really experienced it first-hand.  I had changed almost nothing in my tactics and suddenly my bread was rupturing while it proofed and baked.  I was getting loaves that were split down the top and others with a rough craggy look.

First I assumed it was the rolling pin I was using.  The wooden French roller I'd been using had mysteriously disappeared from the kitchen so I was stuck using a huge metal pin that clanged every time I applied pressure to the dough.  It sounded like I was a body builder lifting weights. The pin also had rough abrupt edges instead of the smooth tapered ones on the French pin.  I had an inkling that this was tearing the dough in places and causing weakened areas that later ruptured.

Being the over-achiever that I was, I went out and bought my own French rolling pin and began carrying it to and from the cafe on the days that I worked.  It stuck out of the canvas tote I used, at the ready to either defend me against a mugger or roll some rogue dough.  But alas, my dear rolling pin did not do the trick. The bread was still rupturing.

My next assumption was that the kitchen was too hot and too muggy for bread baking.  There were days when the a/c didn't even work. I had to admit to myself that the recipe would need to be adjusted.  But there were so many variables.  Less sugar?  Less water?  Less yeast and/or poolish? More flour?

As I was struggling through these modifications one night, I noticed a letter to the employees posted on the menu board.  I scanned the first paragraph quickly out of curiosity.  Suddenly it was hard to swallow.  This casually posted letter was to inform us that Louie was leaving!  They were hiring someone for his replacement.  I stopped reading feeling a panic rush through me.  Louie was the whole reason I was here. He had been brave enough to take a chance on me and then let me figure things out on my own through trial and error.  A new chef could come in, take one look at me and my (lack of) qualifications and send me on my way.  Now was the worst possible time with my bread looking like craters of the moon!

Earlier that week, I had met with a former colleague of mine from the web development agency where I worked full-time.  He was one of the few people from that part of my life that knew about my baking.  We got to talking about my experiences at the cafe and he said to me, "It's funny, I don't even know that Ceth. You have this whole other part of your life that I don't know."

As I thought about what he said, I realized that I loved the idea.  It was almost like I was leading a secret life. There was the boring Ceth that sat in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day staring at lines of code. Then there was the Ceth that baked bread and desserts at night in a crazy dysfunctional kitchen.  The Ceth that carried a rolling pin around with her, drawing curious looks from passersby.  The Ceth that went home smelling of French fries, a grease stain on her right knee. When a coworker asked if she did anything interesting the night before, she would have visions of loaves upon loaves of bread and cheesecake and cream cheese frosting and then she would casually shake her head, smiling inwardly and say, "no, not really."

I didn't want to give up that secret life and go back to being just plain old programmer Ceth.  I tried to reassure myself.  Change could be good.  Maybe a new chef would come in that would take me under their wing and teach me some things - be a mentor of sorts.

As my bread was in the last stage of baking, curiosity got the best of me and I went back to read the rest of the letter.  The lump in my throat started to return.  The new head chef was going to be... Pam.  She had been the FOH manager until now and I'd only really worked with her peripherally. From what I had seen, she was a perfectionist and a control freak. I didn't see how this could end well. I needed to step up my game.

Over the next few weeks, I worked diligently to get my bread back in shape.  What I found was that I was rolling the dough too much and too tightly.  With minor adjustments to the recipe and a different loaf forming technique, it started to look normal again.  I also started baking muffins and scones for the weekends. I was trying to justify my existence and prove that I was capable of more that just bread and cheesecake.  I held onto those last few shifts with Louie, knowing that the end might be in sight and I started browsing help wanted ads again just in case Pam decided I was no longer necessary.

No matter what happened, I knew I couldn't return to the old status quo of a 9-5 desk job and give up on this passion.  I had thrown my life a curve ball when I had taken the job at the Farmhouse and there was no turning back.  The secret identity of Ceth Jordan would go on one way or another.