Good evening, friends and neighbors! I apologize for my absence last week- this month has been very active for me- one activity of which I'll be talking about here.
First off, I feel like I should mention something personal about me. I do not like titles. They make me feel stuffy and uncomfortable, at least as far a titles directed at me are concerned. I have had a few titles in the past, related to different accomplishments or jobs, and I always specifically asked for people not to use them- "Nurse," "Counselor," etc. The most I ever accepted was "Mister" or "Sir" from complete strangers.
It should come as no surprise then that every time I have ever been referred to as "chef," I took it with a grain of salt. Chef is a title given from having the job OF a chef- running and managing a kitchen and being the boss of a kitchen crew. In my life, the only person I have ever been in charge of in a kitchen is me, so I always referred to myself as either a baker, a pastry cook, or just a cook.
Bearing all of this in mind, flashback to last week.
I recently joined a gastronomy group called the Chaine de Rotisseurs- an international brotherhood of gourmands, chefs, restauranteurs and professionals that like to get together and encourage advancements in the culinary world. Through this brotherhood, I made the acquaintance of a young chef named Joe Muldoon. Joe own and operates a small restaurant in the South Jersey area called Roberta's, and has quite a revolutionary mind when it comes to food. He combines French techniques with Asian-inspired ingredients and vice versa to create an exciting, vibrant menu. If you find yourself in the Northfield area, I highly recommend getting a table and strapping in. You WILL be blown away.
Recently Joe was asked to host a dinner for the local chapter (or "Baillage") of the Chaine, meant to seat something to the tune of 50 people. He has it in his mind to offer a mindblowing 7 course meal- but he needs an intermezzo and a dessert.
He asked me to step in.
At first, I was ecstatic and thrilled- I was being asked to serve a dessert to 50 movers and shakers of the local culinary world!
Then I was terrified- I was being asked to step into a strange kitchen, work with people I have never met before, under a chef I liked but never worked with before, AND serve a dessert and intermezzo to 50 movers and shakers of the culinary world.
The first few meetings with Joe went smoothly and easily- we discussed the menu, and exactly what kind of dessert he was looking for to finish it off. Together, we finalized the intermezzo and dessert- a cucumber- winter melon sorbet with plum sake and sea salt, and the dessert an Earl Grey dacqouise tart with truffle honey buttercream, berries, and Meyer Lemon sugar.
Then came the first night I came in for production. Previously, all of our meetings had been just the two of us talking. This night, I walked in on a full house, and his kitchen staff going balls-to-the walls. He waves me in, ushers me into the kitchen, and quickly says "Everyone, this is Chef Matt- he's helping us out with the Chaine dinner. Matt, ask anyone for anything. My kitchen is your kitchen. Set up wherever. Later!"
Then he's gone, and I'm standing there almost catatonic.
I'd had friends call me "chef" and laughed it off. I do not think of myself as a chef. I DID not think of myself as a chef.
This time, however, it was serious. For the purposes of pastry, this kitchen and these people were at my disposal. A strange kitchen that I was utterly unfamiliar with, and people I had never met before. Initially, I had no idea where to start.
But when in doubt- bake. I dropped my stuff, popped open my gear, and got to work.
I worked feverishly, my mind constantly bouncing back and forth between getting everything done in the best order and taking up as little space as possible in a crowded, busy kitchen than I still felt like I had invaded. The other cooks and wait staff would come by and eye me curiously- and I had assumed suspicion- as I worked.
Until they started coming up and asked what I was doing. Not accusatory, but interested.
INTERESTED. These people had never seen pastry being made before.
They showed honest curiosity and interest in what I was doing, how I was doing it, and what the product would be. As I worked, I answered them- and it helped me calm down and go through the step-by-step of what I needed to do. Everyone I met in that kitchen was friendly and warm (in their way, of course- the dishwashing guy started in with cracking jokes immediately, which is kitchen-speak for "Welcome brother! You are one of us!" If they hate you, NO ONE talks to you in a kitchen.)
This past Friday was the tasting for the dinner- the head guys of the baillage come in, have the dinner, work out the wine pairings, and give critique on the dishes. It went off without a hitch, and the menu was locked in. My intermezzo and dessert got rave reviews.
As I left, Joe shook my hand and said, "Chef, thank you very much."
He said it and meant it.
And for the first time, I didn't mind- I felt like I had earned it.
Good evening, friends and neighbors!
Since I've been working in kitchens- whether professional, my own, or in school- I've slowly been accruing a lot of adages- little nuggets of wisdom that have, frankly, served me well. Tonight, I figured I would share some of these with you. Some are punchy, some are pointed, and some are just plain common sense that we all pretend we don't have sometimes.
Like previous lists, this one is NOT definitive. I'm not done baking yet, and therefore I have plenty more to learn, so please do not assume I am some grand high all-knowing pastry guru.
That would be some dude living in France.
The BHB's Words of Wisdom
I learned this way later in the game than I should have. Instead, I picked it up from the continually excellent YouTube show, Extra Credits. This is the absolute cornerstone of wisdom for anyone who works in any kind of creative field. As soon as you have an idea, start putting it together. Don't wait for the perfect idea- it will not appear. Make test batch after test batch after test batch and take notes on every part of it. This is how you make something great- there is no shortcut.
Products taste better than ideas, but nothing tastes better than memories.
This goes hand in hand with Fail Faster, and folds two important ideas into one. Pitching a new dessert or dish with words is difficult. You can't taste words. The person you are pitching them to knows how THEY taste those things. Fail Faster, and present your idea along with a test batch to put under their nose. If they hate it, work on it. If they love it, marvelous- work on it later. The second part is important for anytime someone asks you to make something they had "long ago" or "like their mom/dad/grandma/etc. used to make." Saying you can is a death sentence and a lie. You cannot. The memory they have is pristine and perfect, and you have NO chance of comparing to it. The best you can do is offer what you have, and ask if that's close.
The big night is not the time to try something new.
Some common sense that I was reminded of the hard way, more than once. I've gotten... less than stellar marks on final exams because I was overeager, overproud, and really wanted to show off how clever I was by doing something I'd never done before, and- predictably- did it miserably. Experiment and have fun when you have the time and lea-way to do so. For a big dinner, a big contract, or a big ANYTHING, stick with something you know inside out, backwards, upside down, and can do in your sleep- and do it perfectly.
Simplicity, with elegance.
I mentioned this in a few other posts- this is my personal mantra for creating desserts. A simple dish, done uncommonly well, can mean more and have greater impact on a dinner that the most extravagant plated work.
Classics are classics for a reason.
Once again, simplicity. Classic combinations and desserts have stood the test of time for a reason. People love them. They work together. Yes, every diner has New York Cheesecake with fruit on top, or apple pie a la mode. Yes, chocolate and mint go well together. Shake them up if you want, or turn them on their head. Deconstruct them, reconstruct them, or de-re-de-re-de-reconstruct them- when when it comes down to what people know and love, these are your standbys. Speaking of which....
If you want the fruit off the tree, take care of the roots.
The old saying goes "You can't know where you are going if you don't know where you've been." Any artist who has bold new ideas and creates the novel and exciting is well-steeped in what has come before. Their mental galleries are vast and well-curated. They have a deep and profound love for everything that came before them- and that is what they build one. You cannot but do the same.
Proper prior planning prevents poor performance. (a.k.a., The 6 P's)
Heard everywhere, in many situations and fields. It's still true. Clean your kitchen. Make sure all your equipment is clean and functional. If you are going to multi-task, know your timeline, and for the love of all that is holy, MISE EN PLACE, MISE EN PLACE, MISE EN PLACE.
Use all 5 senses.
When you bake, this is an absolute must. Pay attention, and your product will talk to you the entire time, so your final result isn't a surprise. Does your batter feel to liquidy? How about that crust- is it not as brown as it should be? Hmmm.. the smell of baking cookies- they must all be done. The hollow thump of a tap on the bottom of a bread load tells you it's done.
Don't assume everyone you work with does their job right/ all the time.
If you work in a professional kitchen, it's a team effort. You will have to work with, around, and alongside others. You will depend on the work of others, and vice versa. Just because something isn't your "job," however, doesn't mean you don't do it. One person slipping up can send the careful choreography of a kitchen into chaos if the rest of the team doesn't catch it. Count on others, but be aware of them as well.
Why kill yourself?
Rhetorical question. Whoever said that doing things the hard way builds character clearly had spare knees and spines at home and a death wish. There ARE somethings where using a more difficult method (hand mixing instead of using a stand-mixer, for example) can lead to better results. In general, though, culinary arts is an extremely physical field, and will put your body through the wringer if you use it wrong. Set up your station with a mind to how your work will "flow"- from materials to end result. Keep everything close, or at least in arms-reach. Look for small ways to make your manual labors faster, easier, and more fluid.
If you're standing in the kitchen doing nothing, you're either forgetting something, just visiting, or trying to get fired.
THE big piece of advice for any professional kitchen. There is ALWAYS something to be doing.
I will likely add more to this list as I think of it- or learn it myself. Have I missed anything? Leave your own words of wisdom in the comments!
Good evening, friends and neighbors!
There are places we all go to that seem to defy nostalgia. As much as we want to remember them fondly, it seems like the rose-tinted glasses just keep falling off when we really look back. We remember the good things, we miss them, but there's just too many memories that make us sad or angry wrapped up in the place that keep us from ever really feeling a part of there again.
I spent the past week in such a place- my hometown on the South Jersey Shore.
The first morning I woke up in my family's house- the house I lived in from ages 4 to almost 24- I looked out of the window and just tried to process it before breakfast.
I quickly realized this was a mistake, and that I needed to eat first.
Down in the kitchen, as I was whipping up the simple breakfast of scrambled eggs, cheese, sausage, and tea, I got back to thinking.
I don't believe I ever truly belonged in this community. School days around here were not the happiest- I had few to no friends, I was picked on regularly, and our neighborhood had no kids my age anyway. We lived close to a beach block, so most of the houses around us were vacation homes, standing like hollow shells for most of the year.
The town is small enough that you could bike or walk virtually anywhere in about 30 minutes, but I don't really remember it having the "small town" vibe, where everyone knows everyone else. Part of that might be the aforementioned vacation homes (half the city's residence not being present most of the year), and partly the demographic- if you were to imagine a gated community without fences or gates, and the size of a city, that would be a pretty good idea of the people.
That night, when I came home to the big, empty house after work, I had an urge to go for a beer and write. I asked local friends where a good walking distance bar was (alas, another sad fact- this is my hometown, but I didn't start drinking here, so I had no "local.") Many of them suggested places a ways outside the city, insisting there were no really decent bars in the town itself.
All the same, I needed a walk, followed by beer, followed by a quietish place to write. So I picked a bar at random and walked to it.
Here I got my first slight hint that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something homey left for me in my hometown.
I walked into the small bar by the bay, clearly full of a history I had no part in, and much of which is likely no longer talked about. I sat down, ordered a beer, and was just about to start writing when I heard my name called out and a hand on my shoulder. They belonged to Peggy, an old friend of mine from grade school whom I hadn't seen in nearly 5 years. This bar was apparently her favorite hangout when she was home. The evening lasted several hours longer than I had expected as we chatted, caught up, and had a good time. I won't say the years seemed to melt away- we are both very different people than we were when we were kids, but it was good to know that the two people we had become could enjoy each other's friendship and company.
The next day, I remembered something else I had missed about living in this town- the presence of the beach. Before work one morning, I woke up early, ate breakfast, and took a long walk- first along the street, but for the way back, I pulled off my socks and shoes and walked home along the beach.
God, I had missed the feel of sand and saltwater on my skin. The sea was frigid cold (as it IS still early April), but the sand was cold, wet, and firm. I didn't mind that I knew no faces on the walk, or that few people even acknowledged each other, or said "good morning." For that morning, the sea, sand, and the smell of the beach was all I required.
In an hour or so, I'll have my car loaded and I'll be returning back to my current home in the Pine Barrens- where I've made new friends, have a "spot" at the local bar I love where I sit and write, and where people are increasingly learning my name and face.
For one week, though, I was here- the home before I was home. Where all the formative years happened that I've bounced between trying to forget, and trying to cling to.
There are many places and stages in our lives that we enjoy that strange, complicated dance with. You know what? That's alright. No one needs to have "glory days", or fond remembrances of their "old stomping grounds." They weren't always good, but they are roots, and like it or not, we left footprints there- no matter how many layers of dust sit in them.
Perhaps you can go home again, but bear in mind places change too.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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