Friday, January 30, 2009

The First Two Hours

I remember retail.

I remember for years and years I would walk in to work, punch in, check the schedule, and more often than not, meander over to get a cup of coffee. Sure, there was a chance that I would be on register first thing, but I would still have time to get that beverage, say hello. At various points in my career, thanks to a certain kind of boss, my day could even start with a meeting; arrive at work to be forced to sit down, chat and have a nice drink for 20 minutes? Sybaritic luxury!

Now, if I'm not starting work at least a couple minutes early, I feel like I'm behind.

Cooks work in a cascade. The time one thing can take directly effects when you get to the next thing, and when hell breaks loose? Well, we all understand trickle down theory. One shift can teach you that in just about any cooking environment. For example, if we need pies for Saturday, then on Tuesday I'm prepping dough because Wednesday I mix, Thursday I sheet out and cut, Friday the pies get made, and Saturday we bake. Yes, you could shave a day or maybe (maybe!) two off that time but for the best pies, that's our schedule. Five days. Sure, the actual time involved on Tuesday is minutes, nothing compared to Friday's time - and notice I didn't mention the fillings get made somewhere in there, too. I had just better notice on Tuesday we need pies on Saturday.

I work two cascades, my daily one for the laminated doughs, and the one for multiple day projects. The multiple days work happens between the daily, so I'll do my first turns for the croissant, and while that rests I'll do the pie dough, or cut puff pastry, or pull out the product for tomorrow, then I'll go back and do my next croissant turn, and so on. On a good day, I'll have completed my first turns as well as a few of my multiple day projects and be into my last turn in two hours.

Most days are pretty good. I look at the clock constantly, checking my progress. Each time I look, I have no idea what the time actually means. I know how many minutes a set of turns should take (Six, but if I get it down lower I am doing great!). I follow the patterns, thinking about where I can shave minutes, because that will give me just a little more time in case something comes up, a few more minutes just in case. The idea that a clock can tell me where I am in my workday just doesn't follow. Then, I pause, breathe, look at the clock and think, "Huh. That time already? Two hours? How did that happen?"

I know how it happened, of course. I was watching the clock the whole time.

Monday, January 19, 2009


The people working to put food out in the Washington, DC area right now? (I'm including servers and chefs, dishwashers, linehogs, bakers, baristas, bartenders, purveyors, hell even the delivery truck drivers. Especially delivery truck drivers.) Those are the people who seriously deserve respect and admiration. I mean, imagine you run a bakery, a good one, and on the average Tuesday you go through, say, 88 pounds of butter. Now imagine that your city's population is expected to quintuple almost overnight, stay that way for a few days and then return to normal. How much butter should you buy? How much product do you make? How do you make sure that your retail staff doesn't collapse with exhaustion before 9 am and still can manage a smile at 10? How do you deal with a dairy company that has every single one of its clients dealing with the same problems you have? How do you make sure your staff can even get to work?

I have images of prep cooks all over that city catching catnaps on sacks of flour. Servers who turn the corner and break out in sobs. Chefs standing at the pass reciting the Saint Crispen's Day speech from Henry V.

Ok maybe not, but it would be appropriate, "Then he will strip his sleeves and show his scars and say These wounds I had on Inauguration Day".

Take care out there, ok?

And if you're in the DC area as one of the many witnesses to tomorrow's inauguration? Tip well.
OK, Tip well anyway, but you know what I mean.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Problems with Good Bread

1. It's time intensive.

2. Basic cost of goods is relatively cheap, and everyone knows it, so you can't charge enough to make much of a sustainable living off bread alone.

3. It has a very, very short shelf life. And you had better be able to come up with something to do with the leftovers when you have them.

4. The labor to make 15 loaves and 25 loves is similar, but you need to have something you can do with the other ten loaves, see #3.

5. Once you start feeding the bitch, you can't stop. It needs feeding at regular times, gets finicky about the day, the time, even the weather. And even if you are nice to it, there is no guarantee that your bread will be as nice today as it was yesterday. And if the bitch dies, it takes a while to get a new one going again. (Don't ask me what happened to the employee who threw away all the levain one morning.)

6. It requires special equipment. Not that a spiral mixer or a deck oven can't be used for other things, but for really good bread, that's thousands of extra dollars.

7. Every baker knows these things. They also know that there are wholesalers that they can just buy bread from and with everything else, it would just be so, so easy....

8. Everyone wants it. Why is this a liability? If you make enough to fill the need, it tends to be a dedicate your life to it or let it go choice. In this industry, which do you think works best for most small bakeries?

Scary list for a bread geek like me.

Find a bakery. If they make their own bread - and I said "make" not "bake" - start buying it. This is an affordable luxury even just once a week, and I don't think I need to list all the reasons why good bread is better than the preserved flour sponges that sell at the big chains. It's better than the "artisanal bread" from those same grocery chains because you know who made it, and can ask all the necessary questions, like, "Has this been frozen?". If the baker looks affronted at the thought, buy the bread.

I mean, look at the crust on this. I make good bread, but this? Totally worth $3.50.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Man, when was the last time I plated something?

There is no such thing as a pastry job that covers all the possibilities. Not even an instructor can do that. So with each position, you get some of one kind of pastry work, none of another. Bread bakers don't make much ice cream. Chocolatiers don't do many pies.

Right now, I don't plate anything.

I miss it.

I haven't composed a dessert, I realize, since I moved here. There has been no swirling of sauces, no quenelles. My garnishes have served a savory function only.

I really, really miss it.

I realized I missed it when I found myself composing a plated trio of desserts for an upcoming potluck. Thankfully, the hostess is a friend and coworker, who understood my odd excitement when I started blathering ideas at her. Of course, I know this is only the beginning. There is a small part of my brain that plots imaginary cocktail and dessert parties, sighs wistfully at the photos of blogging line cooks and will only be satisfied when I add a few more recipes to my notebook. So, I'll do all that, at home, because it is the only place I have for plated desserts.

The worst part is knowing that maybe, just maybe, in my career this may be my only plated dessert outlet. And you have no idea how much it hurts to say that.

I love my work. There are very few parts of it that I look at and say "No, I'm not interested in that." (For example, I am so over cupcakes, thanks, and have been since I was, oh, five.) To say that any option that I do like is closed to me? Bittersweet thoughts.

(chocolate cake, salted macadamia caramel sauce, thai coffee ice cream, cocoa nib tuile)

Sunday, January 4, 2009