I've always struggled with authority. It's not so much that I don't like being told what to do, I'm perfectly fine with taking orders and following directions. I think it might have something to do with my desire to control certain situations. And I'll admit, I have a bit of a stubborn streak. I'm pretty easy going and not overly opinionated most of the time, but when I do have an opinion, it's tough to convince me otherwise. If there isn't a logical reason for doing something a certain way, I don't like being forced to do it.
For instance, when I was the dishwasher and kitchen assistant at a cafeteria in high school, I was told I couldn't wear jeans, I had to wear dressier pants. I balked at the idea of it. First of all, I was tucked away in the kitchen where I was rarely seen by the public. Second of all, it wasn't like my jeans were ragged or indecent. They didn't have holes, weren't sagging below my butt and weren't so tight they left nothing to the imagination. Lastly, I was a dishwasher. I was working with dirty dishes, and sloppy water. I was going to get dirty and wet. Why would I want to wear nice pants that would probably get stained and ruined? I defied the dress code on multiple occasions. And every single time I was reprimanded.
In Pam's kitchen, my bullheadedness was going to be a problem. She was new to the kitchen and she wanted everyone to know she was there and she was calling the shots. She was making this cafe her own and every aspect of it would be controlled by her.
On busy nights, she would stand at the head of the line and bark commands. Every time an order came in, she would call out the dishes. She would yell for the status of things, holler when something was running out, send fries back when they were overdone or under-fried, reprimand the cooks when something looked sloppy. I wasn't working the line and it stressed me out. I could only imagine how the cooks felt. But I had to give her some credit. Being the female head chef in a kitchen of men was no easy task. She had to assert herself, or risk not being taken seriously. If she ruled with fear, no one would question her authority. Except maybe me.
After my unsuccessful attempt to become a French pastry assistant, I had settled into my role as the dessert baker at the Farmhouse. I still wasn't completely sold on the idea, but I couldn't deny that I was comfortable there. I loved my coworkers and I really enjoyed being in that kitchen, even as dysfunctional as it was. It was a place I could go to recharge after a day at the office. Some girls went for spa treatments and pedicures. Me, I baked. The idea that Pam might change all that made me bristle.
Her first order of business was to get some new things on the dessert menu. The carrot cake wasn't selling as well as it used to, so she had me start making key lime pies. Then she moved on to the cheesecake. Here I immediately took personal insult. I had been making the cheesecakes for a couple months now without any complaints. In fact, quite a few compliments were passed back to me from the servers and there never seemed to be a problem selling it. But Pam wanted to experiment with recipes and find the cheesecake she liked best.
First she complained that my crusts were too thick and the servers couldn't get it out of the pan. I wanted to suggest that maybe the servers shouldn't be responsible for plating desserts, and that maybe we should get some new nonstick springforms (to replace the rusted misshapen ones I had been using), but I held my tongue and decreased the crust recipe. Then she gave me some completely new recipes to try. Begrudgingly, I tested one out that had a weird pastry-like crust, and wasn't baked in a water bath. It came out cracked, heavy and misshapen. She moved on to Martha Stewart. Now, I have no problems with Ms. Stewart. She's made a name for herself in the culinary and homemaker world and she definitely has some good ideas. But I was damned if I thought her cheesecake was better than mine. I faked the recipe and made my own instead. When I came into the cafe for my next shift, Pam was full of compliments.
"That cheesecake recipe has always been a favorite of mine," she gloated.
I chuckled inwardly with the knowledge that it had been my recipe that made her gush. Satisfied with this victory, I accepted her authority and dutifully followed her orders for everything else.
My next challenge was hot fudge sauce.
"It's so easy and the taste is to die for," Pam explained to me. "You just add all of the ingredients except the butter and you don't even have to stir it. Then after 18 minutes, when it gets to softball stage, you remove it from the heat and add the butter and you're done!"
She explained that when it was at softball stage, if you took a glob of it and dropped it into a glass of water, it would form a ball before it hit the bottom of the glass. Sounded easy enough. I saved the recipe for the end of the night, thinking it would only take me 20 minutes to complete and I'd be out of there and headed home early.
My first concern came when I realized there was milk in the recipe and she had told me not to stir it. Wouldn't it scald the milk if it was just left to boil without stirring? I decided to trust her and give it a shot. Since the recipe was multiplied by 10, it took the full 18 minutes just to bring it to a boil. Then once it was finally boiling it became quickly apparent that it needed to be stirred. It was thickening on the edges and not incorporating into the middle.
After over 45 minutes of stirring, and not noticing a change to the consistency, a frightening thought occurred to me. If the recipe was multiplied by 10, did that mean the cooking time should be multiplied by 10 too? If that was the case, it would take 180 minutes to finish. Three hours! Horrified, I racked my brain for ideas and decided to move a smaller portion of the sauce to a smaller pot. Even with this method, every time I attempted to put a dollop of the sauce in a glass of water, it dispersed, looking like watery chocolate milk, and in no way formed a ball. I decided it was impossible. So I worked through several smaller batches, thickening it to the best of my ability and called it a night. From start to finish, I had spent over an hour and a half working on the sauce. With much guilt, I delivered the pan to the dishwasher with half an inch of scalded chocolate sauce caked to it.
"Just let it soak for ages Manuel. I'm so sorry," I hung my head and slunk away.
When I came in for my next shift, to no surprise, Pam informed me that the sauce hadn't been quite thick enough and that it definitely needed to be stirred the next time I made it to get it to a better consistency. A ball of frustration formed in my throat, but I swallowed, nodded and told her I looked forward to trying it again.
As the weeks went on, Pam became less and less involved in the details of my dessert baking. Most nights she was gone by the time I got to the kitchen and she stopped leaving things for me to do. At first it was a little terrifying, not having any direct orders. I didn't want to let her down and make too much of something or not enough of another. Then it hit me. She must have seen that I was perfectly capable and had faith that I could work things out. I had proven that there was no need for her to exert her control over me. And so, with a newly discovered confidence I seized the challenge of becoming the owner of the dessert menu at the Farmhouse, answering to no one's authority but my own.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
I've always been a big fan of comfort food. Maybe I'm old fashioned, or maybe it's just nostalgia for my childhood. Growing up in small town Montana, comfort food was the main attraction in the kitchens of my mom and grandmother. There were dishes like pan fried pork chops, or Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes, homemade turkey soup or stuffed peppers. Nice Sunday dinners were pot roasts or roast Cornish game hens, weeknight meals were casseroles, or meatloaf or mac and cheese. These were meals that weren't pretentious or overly inventive. They were meals that made you feel warm and happy inside. When you sat down to eat them, you knew you were home and that someone cared about you.
I think this love of comfort has found its way into my baking. I love a thick slice of creamy cheesecake, or a gooey piece of chocolate cake, warm pie out of the oven or smooth silky custard. I have never been one for dainty desserts with more frill than substance. I want something that feeds my body as well as my soul. Yes, presentation is a necessary part of any type of cooking, but if there is more decoration on my plate than actual food, I'm going to feel seriously misled. Dessert is about indulging. It's about giving in to that craving and satisfying a need that goes beyond hunger. This is not something that can be fulfilled with presentation alone.
Since Louie had left, I had decided to tough it out at the Farmhouse and give dessert baking a shot. But that didn't mean I wasn't keeping my options open. I wasn't completely sold on the idea of working for Pam just yet as I was still feeling pangs of betrayal after she had nixed my bread baking. I had started sending my resume out for various bakery positions and amazingly enough, I was actually getting some responses. There were apparently more people out there that were willing to take chances on amateur cooks with dreams.
One response was particularly exciting. The position was for a full-time pastry assistant at a French bakery. When I visited their website to learn more, I was greeted by glorious photos of artisan bread, croissants and other beautiful pastries. Here was my chance to really immerse myself in the baking world!
Before I knew it, I had scheduled a stage with one of the pastry chefs. Then the reality of it all started to sink in. I had done something like this only once before when I had gone to the Farmhouse to audition for the role of the bread baker position. Then it had been simple enough; come armed with a recipe and execute it. This time around, I had no idea what they were going to ask me to do. And I had very little experience with pastries. I had never made a croissant before in my life. What would I do if they asked me to make some? I reassured myself that this was an 'assistant' position and they couldn't possibly expect me to be an expert. With the interview less than a week away, there wasn't any way for me to really prepare after all. I couldn't possibly learn to make every pastry under the sun in a few days. So, armed with my hapless enthusiasm, I arrived at my stage, ready for whatever challenges they might throw at me. The worst thing that could happen was that I would fail miserably. Embarrassing as that was to think about, I would still have a job at the Farmhouse to fall back on.
I was welcomed to the kitchen by two pastry cooks that were at least five to ten years younger than me. They were friendly enough, but it was obvious right away that they had formed a close sisterly bond working together. I felt out of place almost immediately. For my first task, they had me work on some trays of macaroons. The cookies had already been shaped, they just needed to be removed from their sheets and paired up prior to being filled. This task sounded simple enough, but if you've ever eaten a macaroon, you know they are light and delicate as air. It requires a very gentle touch. And these freaking things were sticking to their sheets like nobody's business. I broke a few. Finally one of the girls gave me a dough scraper that helped immensely. I was quietly grateful for her generosity. By the time I got through all the sheets of macaroons, they were too warm to be filled, so we carried them back to the cooler for a brief chill.
On to the next task. Pastry cream. I definitely had some confidence here. I had made it only once before, but I was pretty familiar with the process. And there was a recipe with basic instructions to follow. There was just one problem. The recipe had been multiplied by at least 10 which meant there were about 50 egg yolks in it. Cracking that many eggs and separating the yolk from the white was going to take me some time. Not to mention, the whites could not be contaminated with yolk since they used these to make the meringue for the macaroons and other desserts. It was delicate, tedious work. I set about separating the eggs the only way I knew how; tossing the yolk back and forth between two halves of shell. After a few of these, one of the chefs stepped in to assist.
"There's actually an easier and faster way to do that." Demonstrating, she cracked an egg, dumped its contents into her hand and let the whites stream out through her fingers. Brilliant!
"That's awesome. I appreciate any tips you can give me," I thanked her and went on with my separating.
A short while later a yolk broke on my hand and some of it got into the whites below. Again the chef was at my side.
"Here, we can't have any yolk in the whites or it won't whip to stiff peaks for the meringue. Go wash your hands," she guided me to the hand wash station while she dumped out the egg whites. She seemed understanding enough about everything, but I couldn't help feeling like I was failing on all fronts.
Finally all the yolks had been separated and it was time to move on to the next step of heating the milk, vanilla and sugar. Once that was brought to a simmer, the next step was to temper the eggs. I fumbled for a moment with the bowl of yolks in my hand. I couldn't remember how tempering worked. Did I add some of the yolks to the milk?
"You know that you have to add some of the milk mixture to the egg to temper it, right?" The chef interjected.
"Oh yeah, of course," I lied unconvincingly, feeling heat rush into my face.
"Ok, good. You'd be surprised how many people come in for stages and don't know that."
Ugh. This was really not going well. But, she had saved me from ruining the entire effort. And in the end the cream actually turned out beautifully. You couldn't say this was a complete disaster.
As I had been diligently separating eggs, some other employees had made their way through the space to get supplies or stop and chat. I was dismayed to learn that there were different departments for the different types of food the cafe offered. There was a sweet pastry department and a savory pastry department. And somewhere in the depths of the building, there was a separate bread department. My dreams of getting my hands back into bread dough were quickly fading.
When the pastry cream was finished, the chef that had been guiding me thus far asked if I had ever made some kind of French sounding something-er-other. I had to ask her to repeat herself. But it turned out that all the pans were dirty or in use anyway so I was assigned to make some banana muffins instead. I was relieved. Muffins sounded much easier than whatever it was she had wanted me to make.
As I was working my way through a giant bundle of brown bananas, an order came in for some kind of special event and the head chef decided she would make a cake for it.
"God, it's been ages since I made a cake. This is kind of nice," she commented.
I suddenly found myself pitying her. Here was a young and talented pastry chef who never got to bake cake. Instead she was surrounded by peaks of egg white and pastry creams. It was immediately clear that this was not where I was meant to be. Besides, I hated macaroons.
As I wrapped things up and prepared to leave, they told me they were interviewing a few others and that they would have a final decision soon since they wanted the new person to start within a week.
"I guess we should first ask you if this is somewhere you would want to work."
I forced an affirmative answer, but my gut was telling a different story. These were not the desserts I wanted to make. I had nothing against French pastry. They were absolutely beautiful and brilliant. But they weren't for me. They simply wouldn't bring me the satisfaction that baking a good old fashioned cake would. There was no comfort in French pastries for me, only presentation. Even though I knew I hadn't passed the stage with flying colors and I doubted they would offer me the job, I really hoped I would never hear from them again.
I headed home smelling of vanilla pastry cream and bananas. I couldn't wait to get back to the kitchen at the Farmhouse where instead I would smell of second hand fry grease. I chuckled to myself, a little surprised at the thought. If someone had told me I would feel this way a week ago, I would never have believed them.