Friday December 2, 2011

A Year in the Dungeon

A few weeks ago, I celebrated one year of life in the Pastry Dungeon. Some might call it the restaurant’s one year birthday. While I’ve certainly changed my share of proverbial diapers these last twelve months, 310’s not my baby. I love the restaurant with my whole heart, but T310 belongs to someone else.

Krim Boughalem and Andrea Sims

That analogy would make Krim and Andrea the proud parents. Clearly: the cool parents. Although, considering they just sold Wine + Market, I suppose it seems a rather affectless parenting style. And me? My relationship to the restaurant feels more like…well, a relationship. Table 310 could dump me for a younger, hotter pastry chef. Or I could break up with 310 to just, you know, “focus on me.” But we’ve made it through a year and I think we’re still in love.

I still enjoy spending time there, on or off duty (holy crap, I love going to 310 for dinner and/or drinks). And mostly I’d characterize that time as calm, happy, and monotonous. The recipes may change but the rhythms stay the same. Occasionally things happen, for good or for bad, that leave an impression. They by no means characterize the relationship on the whole, but none the less shape the memories I have.

I will never forget:

Having to run a pastry kitchen with one burner and one oven. That I shared with the savory kitchen. When we opened, the electrician hadn’t yet wired our hood. For those unfamiliar with fire code, this meant we couldn’t use our enormous gas range/oven. Given the primary reason people go to restaurants in the first place has a little something to do with having a hot meal cooked for them, this lack of fire constituted what we industry professionals call “a major problem.” We rustled up an induction burner and a convection oven, fireless heat to circumvent the issue. But still. Cooking and baking one thing at a time got old fast. We worked like that for six long, cruel months.

Table 310 dessert menu

Having only one pot. Yup. In the beginning, we had only one pot (lovingly known as “the one pot”). Johnny and I had to schedule time with the one pot like some bitterly divorced couple fighting over visitation rights. I’d tearfully beg to stay with the one pot, “another hour, please?” Peevish at loosing it too soon, I once shamefully turned it over encrusted with hard caramel, “here, you give it a bath.” Other times, though I’d been promised time with it, I’d get word that Johnny needed to keep it overnight, or for a weekend of stock making. Menus collapsed for want of custard, lack of profiteroles. I made ganache in the oven. I found a way.

Having one of my desserts appear in Food & Wine. Sure, my name doesn’t come up. They didn’t even mention me by a generic title. But I don’t care. I stood in my favorite bookstore, flipping through the magazines and found a photo of something I made. I smiled for days.

Having to give up baking at home. To function in our equipmentless kitchen, I brought my own Kitchen Aid, Robot Coupe and gelato maker from home, along with my sheet pans, spatulas (metal and silicon), whisks, knives, peelers, cutters, measuring spoons and ring molds. At home, I had nothing. Not even a damned whisk to make my darling pancakes on Sunday mornings.

Having absolutely no climate control. In winter, the Pastry Dungeon gets so cold ganache freezes in the pastry tip before I can pipe it. My fingers become so numb I don’t feel safe using a knife. Forget tempering. Forget sugar work. In the summer, the heat climbs so high I can tear a five kilo block of white chocolate in half with my hands. Unattended butter pools on the counter. The chunks in chocolate cookies never stop glistening. Forget tempering. Forget sugar work.

happy bartender

Having a series of fabulous bartenders. In the last year, I’ve learned more about cocktails, obscure liquors, and drink pairings than I have in my entire life. Mostly thanks to this guy, Brad. I now have a deep love for the French 75, Fernet Branca to cure my topsy turvey tummy, and bitters.

Having my picture taken. I never knew working in a restaurant meant having people take your picture. For Business Lexington. For Sophisticated Living. For Bluegrass Magazine. For Southsider. Even for a local blogger who recognized me at the restaurant in my civvies. I could go a lifetime without the awkward hell of smiling for the camera. Don’t get me wrong; having someone publicly praise my work is the absolute highlight of my job. I just wish they’d take a picture of the dessert instead…

Having two weeks of work destroyed in a night. Two days before I would leave for my first ever vacation, I came to work and found I’d lost everything. I worked overtime for the previous two weeks, stocking up an array of super-rad frozen desserts to serve in my absence. I opened the freezer. Didn’t feel the familiar puff of cold air. Two hundred hand cut sweet potato ice cream sandwiches, individually wrapped and stickered shut, melted in a sodden mess. Twelve quarts of apple calvados mascarpone ice cream. Five pounds of ready-to-bake puff pastry squares for napoleons. Hundreds of individually portioned balls of cookie dough. All gone. I paced the empty restaurant, sobbing uncontrollably for ten minutes before pulling it together and calling Krim.

Having him tell me, “I’m so sorry” and “it’s okay if desserts run out.”

Having my oven explode and spending three months without one. Folks in Lexington saw a lot of ice cream, panna cotta and homemade candies on the menus as we waited for an oven part to ship in from Germany. I didn’t bake for the longest time since I’d lived in Japan.

Having the restaurant where I work named Best Desserts in Lexington. Totally didn’t suck. I may not face the kind of competition for that honor that I might in a bigger city (see following paragraph), but this job demands energy, mental and physical, and that kind of affirmation can keep you afloat for a long time. Thanks, Ace.

lemon tart brulee

Having a job. In a down economy, when so many wonderful, talented, hard working people find themselves out of work or living off credit cards, I have a job. I get a check, every week, for doing what I love to do. For baking cookies. For making Butterfingers. For setting sugar on fire. I’ve spent time unemployed. I’ve had resumes handed back with the manager saying, “we can’t afford to pay you to make desserts when our customers like Sysco just fine” and “nobody cares about dessert.” (Both actual quotes from two local restaurants that wouldn’t hire me.)

I count myself lucky. I love my job. Table 310 and I, we’ve had our moments of panic, of anger, of genuine love. I’m in it for the long haul. I’m ready for another year.

123 Tart Dough
Lemon curd tart filling

posted byStellaand filed under:  Sideshow Photos  Tarts

31 comments and counting

Dec 02, 2011 ·  2:55 AM

amazing. You’ve done so much in a year, you should be so proud. You are totally bad ass Stella, weather you want to admit it or not!

I’m so glad you put this in your blog it’s such a great way to share your journey. Keep baking and candy stick making till your hearts content. I can feel the love and I haven’t even eaten your cookies. I love that about you and your blog.

I know what you mean about your restaurant being like a relationship. That’s exactly how I saw my place, and to tell you the truth, I’ve still got a lot of getting over it to do. lol We’ll see where it goes one day.

I saw so many connections in the things you wrote, thanks for reminding me!

Cheers! happy anniversary!

 · Kimberly (unrivaledkitch) ·

Dec 02, 2011 ·  3:24 AM

Hey Stella. I loved reading your story. Your employers are lucky to have you as their pastry chef! I was wondering, is something wrong with my internet connection or don’t the links to the tart dough and lemon curd tart filling work?

 · Sumaiyyah ·

Dec 02, 2011 ·  7:44 AM

You Stella are an inspiration. Wow.

 · Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite ·

Dec 02, 2011 ·  9:51 AM

@Kimberly, you totally rock, thanks so much. Yeah, it’s weird balancing your emotions toward a restaurant. Sometimes I’m way too invested and Mr. BraveTart gets a little put out and would like me to stop thinking about it or talking about it all the time. And sometimes I overcompensate and try to be too chill about it. It’s a roller coaster for sure. Hang in there.

@Sumaiyyah, thanks for the heads up!! All fixed. I made a typo in the links.

@Mardi, thanks dearie.


Dec 02, 2011 · 10:49 AM

You make me want to drive to Kentucky and eat at this resaturant so badly.

Your blog and your job are setting you up for a really exciting (hopefully long-lasting) career doing what you love, and that’s such an inspiration to the rest of us. Also, I depend on your super laid-back approach to complicated pastries to talk me back from the ledge when I’m contemplating doing stuff the hard way. Thanks, Stella!

 · emily ·

Dec 02, 2011 · 11:55 AM

Wow, this is a great insight providing tale. Congratulations on your successes, how awesome to see your dish in Food and Wine! I bet I’d die for your pastries

 · Kiri W. ·

Dec 02, 2011 ·  1:35 PM

hey stella! thank you so much for sharing your story… i loved reading it! even though your year was definitely filled with ups & downs, your hardwork obviously paid off! i wish i could come try your desserts!!

i love seeing & reading about all of your amazing creations on the blog, twitter & instagram. i’m always in awe of your skills, love & dedication!

so, congratulations on your one year & cheers to this next year! thanks for always inspiring me

 · nicole {sweet peony} ·

Dec 02, 2011 ·  2:14 PM

Is that some kind of creme brulee tart up there? Looks amazing. Congrats on your 1 year, and thanks for sharing your adventures. I do not envy some of the cooking conditions you described, but they sure make for good stories.

 · Karen @ The Tamale Girl ·

Dec 02, 2011 ·  5:27 PM

Many happy returns! And one of these days I’m gonna make it to Lexington in the evening. (Seems I’m always there at lunchtime only.) Am dying to try your desserts !

 · Michelle ·

Dec 02, 2011 ·  8:08 PM

@emily, thanks so much for such a sweet comment. I really appreciate it! And I’m so glad to know I can talk you off that virtual ledge and get your butt in the kitchen. That’s the best compliment in the world.

@Kiri, I’m glad you enjoyed, thanks so much for stopping by!

@nicole, awww, I wish you could too! Thanks for following my exploits in the kitchen, I’m so glad for people to share stories with.

@Karen, it’s a simple lemon curd tart with a sugar sprinkle that’s then bruleed! Best of all worlds.

@Michelle, well, hey, hit me up on twitter sometime and I can give you the daytime tour.


Dec 02, 2011 · 10:34 PM

Pretty badass year. Sounds exciting, fun, frustrating, infuriating, romantic and humbling all at the same time Great post. Buzzed

 · Parsley Sage ·

Dec 03, 2011 · 11:47 AM

Great post. My heart sank when you described losing the freezer, and related to the “customers prefer sysco” remark. I’ve worked in some kitchens with little space and sharing equipment, but one pot… your experience is awe inspiring, and you tell the story beautifully.

 · Megan. ·

Dec 03, 2011 · 10:45 PM

Wonderful post as always and congratulations!

ps, dying to know what your Butterfinger recipe is! I hope it shows up on SE:Sweets sometime in the future!

 · kazb0t · 

Dec 03, 2011 · 11:07 PM

Congratulations Stella! As someone who has worked in the field, I can say that the one year mark is really like the 5 year mark in other careers. I once worked for a chef who said, “we break’em faster than we make’em.” Unfortunate but true. I love hearing stories that refute this type of lore. Sounds like Table 310 is insanely lucky to have you, and you are insanely lucky to have them!

 · Terris @ Free Eats ·

Dec 04, 2011 ·  8:47 AM

I’m so happy for you! To do what you love and STILL love it throughout all the challenges is impressive and quite inspiring.

 · Jessica ·

Dec 04, 2011 · 12:32 PM

@Parsley Sage, thanks so much girlie!

@Megan, oh man. My heart still sinks when I think about making that discovery. I was just heartbroken. Ugh. Thanks for the sympathy.

@kazb0t, I’ll keep you posted! It will be some time in January, I have a bunch of Christmas related posts to fill up December, but once 2012 rolls around Butterfingers will be fair game!

@Terris, “we break’em faster than we make’ em” needs to be some sort of official restaurant motto. So true!!

@Jessica, thanks so much. I appreciate it.


Dec 05, 2011 ·  2:47 PM

The world’s greatest Pastry Girl. And humble too. T310 is lucky to have you and so, might I add, are we. xxx

 · Chocolate Chilli Mango (Viviane Buzzi) ·

Dec 07, 2011 ·  8:33 PM

Stella, as the “local blogger” in question I sure did not mean to torture you. You are a lovely lady! People love to know who made their food, who grew their food, how did it make the journey from farm to table. YOU are an important part of that story, and an inspiration to all of us who aspire to make a difference in the way we think about our food.

 · Joyce Pinson ·

Dec 09, 2011 ·  4:44 AM

Well, I finally went to dine at Table 310 recently. I had a friend visiting and took her straight from the airport to Short St.
There were three desserts on offer and we ordered all three. Thank you. Now, I want to do it again.

 · Mark ·

Dec 09, 2011 · 12:24 PM

@Viviane, oh I heart you dear! Someday, we will meet up for real!

@Joyce, haha, oh this lady doth protest too much. It was so wonderful to meet you that night! It just never ceases to surprise me that people want a picture of ME; I’m boring, let’s look at the food!! Thanks again for spotlighting Table 310 in your post!

@Mark, so glad you came in and brought your friend! Would have been really nice to see you. (PS, I’m having some of your coffee now.)


Dec 10, 2011 ·  1:49 PM

Fabulous post! I loved all these inside bits and have to admit that I was curious about the sudden focus on ice cream earlier this year. Sad, but funny. It’s great that you’ve managed to make it through all the low points and that you still love it

Also, that dress you’re wearing in the blogger’s photo looks super cute! I love that color

 · Kaitlin ·

Dec 11, 2011 ·  1:39 PM

@Kaitlin, haha, yeah, I put everyone through a lot of ice cream floats, sandwiches, and sundaes over the summer! So glad to have my oven back. OMG, I love that dress. The Mr. bought it for me.


Dec 14, 2011 ·  4:49 PM

This was such a great post! I can only imagine the type of relationship you can have with a restaurant after a year of working there. It sounds like you definitely had your ups and downs, but the passion you are able to put into words about your job says it all. I want to drive 5 hours down there just to have dessert and a drink. Congrats on all your accomplishments, I hope things get bigger and better in 2012!

 · BigFatBaker ·

Dec 17, 2011 ·  7:48 PM

What a year, and what a great story. I love reading your posts because I feel like I’m in the dungeon with you!

 · Nic ·

Dec 18, 2011 ·  2:09 PM

@Nic, thanks so much! I should try and get Sarah to venture into the dungeon with me to take some actual pictures of the workspace. It’s pretty Dungeon-tastic.


Dec 31, 2011 ·  4:44 AM

First time reader and I’m in LOVE with your blog and your story. What a great life. Keep rockin’!

 · Jill W ·

Dec 31, 2011 ·  3:23 PM

@Jill W, thanks so much for dropping by! I’m glad you enjoyed a bit of vicarious living; sometimes I wish I could take a few steps back to better appreciate where I am.


Jan 30, 2012 ·  3:49 PM

Stella, I had a chance to try your Butterfinger dessert and also a sampling of your delicious cookies this weekend! I’m a girl that never orders desserts and that still holds, EXCEPT at Table 310. Thanks!!!! Yum!

 · Elise · 

Jan 31, 2012 ·  5:12 PM

@Elise, oh, I’m so glad you got to make it in for the Butterfingers! They’re one of my favorites. Thanks for always counting on my desserts. Cheers!


Mar 09, 2017 ·  7:30 PM

This is a topic that is close to my heart… Take care! Exactly where are your contact details though?

 · ig ·

Mar 15, 2017 ·  1:21 PM

I was able to find good information from your blog posts.

 · Augusto de Arruda Botelho ·


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