Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Almost Ready

One day while I was in Baking & Pastry class, I scored the job of sitting and watching the bread bake. That might sound a bit like "sitting and watching the paint dry" to some people: me, in front of the ovens, sitting in one chair, my feet propped up on a milk crate, drinking a cold bottle of Diet Coke and staring at the glare of the oven light off the tops of the loaves. Nice work if you can get it, right? It was a real responsibility, though,  some 4 dozen loaves of bread all in the same 2 ovens that represented the 6-hours-effort of the whole class of 20 people, plus the cost of all those ingredients and such, was not a trivial thing if they all burned. It was a class that started in the wee dark hours of the morning, so, needless to say, by lunch time we'd already put in a full day's work, and most of us were dog-tired. We got a whole extra POINT on our final grade, though, for extra credit work like staying late and cooling pots of stocks, or making sure the bread baked, or polishing the copper pipes under the sinks in the kitchens (yes, I really did do that - vinegar, salt and some flour to make a paste, and then plenty of elbow grease to rub it in) and I was totally obsessive about maxing out my GPA - some classes I managed to finish with a final score of over 100,  because on top of working hard in class, and studying obsessively outside of class,  I was always happy to volunteer for extra credit work.

It was a totally Zen moment, sitting and watching the bread bake, that wonderful smell soaking into me like sunshine on a summer day. But it wasn't a lazy time of getting lost in my thoughts or not paying attention - I was still learning the mysteries that the masters were imparting to us, and I was on the edge of my seat not to screw it up and under- or over-cook those precious loaves. I couldn't believe my extreme good luck that nobody else had stepped up to volunteer for the job (the professors tried to alternate volunteers so that the extra credit points were more evenly distributed, so if someone with lower test scores had wanted to do it, I would have lost out) I would have done it for free, just to sit there, breathing in that smell. I seriously considered changing my major from Edible Visual Arts (the catering major) to Baking and Pastry, as it would have meant a Life of Bread...getting up at 3 am every day when the world is peacefully dreaming, the soft ingredients and rhythmic machines and then the smell and the miracle of alchemy that makes the rise. It called to my soul, and promised I would always know grace if I made this my path. My Chef Instructor came in about 45 minutes later, and we pulled it out, and I got a 1-1 instructional lesson on exactly the color of dark brown to look for in the crust of a loaf of white bread, and of course we had to make sure it was good so we cut it and buttered it and ate several big slab slices, for quality control purposes. There is no thing more sacred and divine than fresh bread, hot out of the oven.

But I did not choose the Life of Bread. Not opening that oven door to check it while it baked was sheer torture for me. You tell bread is done by the color of the crust, which is why oven doors have windows, not by an internal temperature like a beef roast or chicken, where you routinely open it up and stick a thermometer in it, and possibly baste or add seasonings or even other foods to keep it company, like potatoes. Other foods are much more quite friendly and outgoing, although of course they each have their own personalities, they are happy to meet you, glad to be invited, and they appreciate the Cook begin sociable and attentive. I am a cook who likes to play with the food, and talk to it, and tell it how much I love it, and collaborate with it about how well it's going to turn out and how good it's going to taste once it's finished. We sing, dance and have a party, and laugh together and insist each other is the Most Fabulous, my foods and I, and the radio is cranked up and my kitchen is rockin'...  Bread demands to be undisturbed during the metamorphosis from dough, to be left to its  mediation in order for it to complete the transformation, or it gets a big giant hole in the middle of the loaf.  Bread calls to us all, but only those who already have attained inner peace can be its true master.

My path was the more creative and exciting one: hors d'oeuvres, pâtés, party foods, platter displays, and banquet designs, and dinner parties of 6 courses, with wine pairings and tasting menus, and those amazing exotic ingredients that are special and expensive and sublime, and the noisy dangerous thrill of ice sculpting (the real kind - done with a chainsaw, blow torch, and chisels, wearing protective goggles, combat boots and a heavy industrial apron, and two wrist braces for the carpal tunnel syndrome - not filling up a plastic swan form with water and sticking it in the freezer). A path that is ever-changing, at the speed of a lighting-flash off a chefs knife, as trends and tastes demand ever more interesting and creative heights. Days when I know I get to cook, I bounce out of bed and there's a spring in my step, and I can't wait to get started. I have never been bored with this path, it is my Art, it is what gives me joy, and energizes me.. and it gets to include bread, but just sometimes, when I can bear to sit on my hands, and keep them from opening the damned oven door.

So why do I say this? Because something I've been cooking up is Almost Ready. And it's just like sitting in front of that oven door, trying to let the bread bake, when I want so much to bring it out, when I am so past ready it's got me bouncing in my seat and my hands itching. And I'm so scared, and so excited, and I have wanted to post about it and show pictures of it, and shout to the whole world from the top of William Penn's Hat at City Hall, "HEY! WORLD! Take a bite outta THIS! I made this!" It's the reason I've been quiet and not posted as much. But soon. Very, very soon. Within the next month.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Landmark Day

You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

~ Wayne Gretzky

The days when I can be in the kitchen are always my favorite days. If I can create something new, something interesting, something delicious, it's even better, because I love being creative. I love thinking in flavors and composing with ingredients to create a single harmonious whole experience for other people. That part of being a cook, that connection to the Creative Force,  is simply pure heaven. I'm dancing with the Angels in those moments. Other days, the days where every single thing I'm making is a recipe I've done a thousand times before, that don't give that thrill of making something new, I still enjoy my craft. I love my craft, and all the tools and elements that go into it, the way a violinist might have a moment of inexplicable joy every time she smells the wood of her own Stradivarius, and feels the weight of it in her hands, and listens to the music of Mozart as she plays - it's not her own music, but it also is, in some way, you know? The days when I just play instead of composing are still wonderful, wonderful days.

Not many days spent at business administration get a gold star from me. Oh, I get a feeling of accomplishment once whatever needs done finally is done - but it's just like doing a physical workout to me, I never get an endorphin rush like real athletes, only the vague relief that I did what I needed to get done once it's finished. Every job has an overhead of  unthrilling parts that you have to do in order to get to the good stuff. I know someone who gets a genuine thrill from labeling, organizing, and checking off lists. For me, the lists are just tools to help me move the workload forward, to get the dull stuff over with as fast as possible so I can get back to the creative part. Actually, no... even calling lists tools is too much of a compliment: my knives are tools. I love my knives. They are how I work my craft. Business to-do lists are just... dead weight to me. A necessary evil. The dreaded peas on my plate, which must be eaten before the beloved Chocolate Cake will appear.

So what do you do when you want to successfully run a business, but financial stuff is your Dreaded Peas? You find that rare, miraculous person for whom all the yucky financial stuff is their chocolate cake.

Today, thanks to picking the brain of a very, very smart expert, it looks like I have found the path to making my business goals a reality. It's going to take a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck in my timing, but this is very, very good news. Very good news indeed! The stress and fear that comes with being an entrepreneur... oy! imagine you are in a swamp, you've been slogging in it for months, and you have no idea if you are already chest-deep in quicksand, or just miles from any signs of civilization, and are wondering if that sunken log over there is really an alligator... and then someone comes along to tell you can tell you the hard, dry path is 3 yards to the right, it leads to a friendly local beach tavern with an outdoor shower, ice-cold beer, and marsh-casual dress is always welcome.

Ten feet tall he was. With biceps the size of kegs.
I think the receptionist may have called him Khal...

This is great news, not just for me, but for everyone who is going to be able to eat my food someday.

Because the thing is, the stuff that I love most is what I'm best at. And if I can get this one thing to move forward, this one thing to become a reality, it means that I will have a LOT more time to create new, beautiful, delicious foods, and make them on a scale that means many, many people will be able to enjoy them, all the time.