Monday April 11, 2011
Pour Some Sugar on Me
Most people assume because I work at a restaurant, I work at night. I get a lot of texts from friends/tweets from acquaintances who’ve just walked in to Table 310, wanting me to pop out of the kitchen to say hello. I would love to, I really would. Except that…
…I’m at home, in my jammies, watching Planet Earth with Mr. BraveTart and eating misshapen macarons not fit for sale.
The inevitable reaction on hearing this explanation? Abject confusion What?! that deepens to betrayal, “I thought you made the desserts!” and generally ends in disappointment, “Oh, so you don’t really make them.”
Please, tell me all about this magical world where the people in the kitchen can whip up a panna cotta à la minute and bake off individual cheesecakes, then miraculously cool them down to order. My hands may not be the ones plating the desserts at the restaurant each night, but don’t tell me I didn’t really make them.
Granted, a lot of pastry chefs work at night and plate their own desserts, and I did too in previous jobs. But due to the extreme smallness of the Table 310 kitchen, we have to work it a little differently.
The set up: One restaurant, two kitchens. Upstairs, Team Savory. Downstairs, Team Pastry. Savory consists of, at most, six players. Only two of them full time. Pastry has, well, me. We have four power outlets, two induction burners, one oven, the world’s smallest walk-in, and a flight of stairs between us.
Given those logistics, the problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen” begins the moment a second person shows up to work. So with everyone’s best interest in mind, I get in early, get my job done, and get out with all possible expediency. When I don’t, bad things happen. Macarons forced to share oven space with roasting garlic take on a funky taste, meanwhile fights break out over our one pot.
Every day looks different, but Mondays set the tone for the week.
I arrive at the restaurant, fix a coffee, grab my
clipboard ipad and set up dessert triage, taking stock of what “damage” our patrons inflicted over the weekend. I call over to Wine + Market, our sister shop, and assess their cookie/cupcake/pastry needs too. I poke around the walk-in downstairs and the dessert station upstairs, taking stock of the situation, determining what work I need to do now and what can wait until later.
I chart all this info with a column of everything that I must make on the left and a row with each day of the week on top; my six day game plan. Under “Monday” I put a check box next to every item I must make before dinner service. Then I try to forecast on which days I’ll need to accomplish everything else.
Given my oven, burner, and equipment limitations (no microwave, no dishwasher), I can’t overstate the importance of taking a few minutes to make a well thought-out, efficient schedule
From Monday’s point of view, Saturday’s schedule seems vague. But as the week progresses, the chart takes better shape. By Thursday, Saturday’s prep looks quite clear. Here’s what things look like on a Monday morning.
Once I establish my mental mise en place, I head down to the kitchen and do my Mr. Rodgers routine. I trade tennis shoes for clogs, a zippered hoodie for a double breasted chef’s coat, and set off for the land of make believe. A world populated by slabs of chocolate, jars of honeycomb, fistfuls of vanilla beans, and special deliveries too.
At first, my thought process doesn’t have room for anything but the task at hand. As the day wears on, my brain starts skipping out one chore ahead of wherever I stand.
If you could listen in, my stream of consciousness would go something like this, “Set some butter on top of the oven to soften. Make pot de creme, get it in the oven ASAP. Knock out the macarons as soon as the custards go in, bake one on the free oven rack, piggy back the other on top of the custards. Someone’s at the door. Run upstairs. Sign the invoice. Check the order. No, I don’t want this rain soaked bag of sugar. Hang on, timer’s going off. Run downstairs, pull a tray of macs out throw another one in. Run back upstairs, write a check, tell the driver to put the sugar back on the truck. Back downstairs. Pull the other macs. Wash the pot de creme pot for use as a baine marie, start a batch of Swiss meringue. Call the vendor, complain about the sugar. Scavenge the bar for half empty bottles of grenache. Crap! Another delivery. OMG, baby lettuces in a wicker basket!!! Hug the farmer, write a check, lock the door, run downstairs. Custards coming out, prep the cookies and cupcakes. Pull the custards, crank the heat, throw cookies and cupcakes in! WHY IS SOMEONE AT THE DOOR. Run upstairs. Sign the invoice, take the baguette, don’t write a check. Try not to feel guilty. Lock the door, run down stairs. Meringue’s hot, set it on to whip, reclaim the pot for red wine syrup. Pull out cookies. Whip meringue. Babysit the wine. Mustn’t drink the wine. Pull out the cupcakes. Someone’s at the door. Run up stairs, sign the invoice, write the check, ice the oysters, run downstairs. Rescue butter from top of oven, finish buttercream. Finish the syrup. Wash the pot, get Florentines started and in the oven. Someone’s at the door. Run up stairs. Does it look like we’re open for lunch? Yes I know I have chocolate on my face. Run down stairs. Time’s running out, wash the pot, make up a batch of caramel, dip the Florentines and set them up to dry. Rewarm the caramel, candy the hazelnuts. Oh, look, it’s 1:30.”
By 2 o’clock, the savory guys start to come in and set up their stations. This means I must relinquish the oven and burner to their nefarious savory purposes. It also means I’m off the hook for the rest of the deliveries and checks. Now it’s time for loud music, smack talk, “restaurant words” I don’t use here, and the type of general chaos, filth, humor and camaraderie you see on Food Network shows. (Or, so I hear. For reasons I hope you’ll understand, I never watch kitchen based reality shows.)
With the oven and burner lost to me now, I move onto my “cold” chores. My mind calms down, I focus instead on witty rejoinders and culinary ideas to toss around with my coworkers. If it’s the weekend, Wyatt shares the pastry dungeon with me to work on charcuterie, cure bacon, and otherwise tempt me with my only food allergen: pork. Curse you, Wyatt! But he also encourages my savory macaron experiments (salty coconut macs + green curry filling! pine nut macs + pesto! wasabi macs + smoked salmon! Simon + Garfunkel! ), so he’s alright.
I stock the dessert station upstairs with everything needed for service, clearly labeled and organized in a lowboy dedicated to pastry. I start to think about what I want to make when one dessert runs out.
If I intend to start a new menu item that day, I’ll wash the dessert chalkboard in the dining room and write up the new dessert before the front of house staff arrives. After that, I post the menu changes to our Facebook Group.
(We have a rabidly social clientele and I get constant feedback on FB and Twitter. If I don’t post what I’m making for the week, they will hunt me down to find out. I love our clients. They love good food, care about what they eat, and want to learn more. They make me ♥ my job!)
With a new dessert on the menu, I’ll make a detailed list of its elements, how I’d like it plated and how I’d like the various components stored each night. If time allows, I plate one and then head upstairs to talk with whoever works garde manger that night. We’ll go over the elements together and discuss anything he needs to know for service.
Then I take the dessert to the bar, with a handful of spoons, for the servers to try. I explain the dessert, the definitions of any culinary terms involved, the ingredients, allergy information, and flavor profile. They act as my little focus group. I watch their reactions as they taste, listen to their feedback, and try and gauge how the dessert will go over in real life.
I return to the pastry dungeon to finish up for the day, making a list of everything I need to order for tomorrow. Obvious things like milk, eggs, and sugar, but also things I don’t need, but rather want to play with later.
During slower parts of the work week, I can crank out a few experimental desserts as part of recipe development. If they turn out nicely, I’ll run them on the menu for one night as a special and put that dessert idea in the rotation. If they turn out nice enough but not particularly inspired, I’ll send them to W+M where they’ll make a perfectly excellent lunch-time snack.
I fortunately don’t have many all out failures. Not because of anything particularly awesome about me, but because, frankly, that’s the whole point of culinary school. With as much training as I have, the outright failure of a recipe can only be chalked up to laziness or inattention on my part. I’m not treading new ground in molecular gastronomy, at any rate, not too much can mysteriously go awry in my kitchen.
On some days, Rosco and I schedule a late afternoon photo shoot. A volley of texts lets us determine the perfect time, usually when he can cut out of work early. He’ll drop by 310 on his way home, sometime before I leave and dinner service begins.
Everyone at the restaurant knows Rosco by now. No one asks why some guy is wandering around with a camera, chasing a patch of sunlight and a Mont Blanc across the dining room floor.
BraveTart isn’t a part of my job in any way, but my job has definitely become a huge part of BraveTart. Mostly because the everyday sights I take for granted are, to Rosco, something worth shooting.
Recipes that I’d otherwise never even bother to write down suddenly have a home.
At the end of every day, I load up my car with items marked for W+M, and deliver them on my way home. I help set up the antique cake stands with macarons, cupcakes, and cookies and pitch any leftovers past their prime. I explain the flavor combos and price points of everything to whichever ridiculously attractive girlie works the register that night. I feel insecure about my chocolate and sugar crusted chef pants next to their extreme stylishness (you know who you are). Before I leave, I snap some pix of the whatever I just delivered and send them to twitter, so W+M fans can keep track of new arrivals.
At last, I head home. Back in another kitchen, I get dinner started, (probably over-salting it due to all the sugar in my system) and sit down at the kitchen table to type up the recipes that will co-ordinate with whatever photos Rosco took.
In this case:
Then I set out a few blocks of cheese, slice a fresh baguette, open a bottle of wine and wait for Mr. BraveTart to come home to me.
Sometime between dinner and bedtime, when we’re snuggled on the couch and ready to forget the day, I’ll get a text or tweet like this:
@310. where r u? sitting at the bar, come say hi if u have time. want to try ur dessert!
36 comments and counting
Apr 11, 2011 · 10:55 AM
Great read! I aspire to have a job like this one day. Very inspiring stuff.
· amansterdam · http://cupcakesbynomzilla.com
Apr 11, 2011 · 12:47 PM
Your job sounds like so. much. fun! I love that kind of go-go-go work
Thanks for typing this all up – it’s wonderfully done! I had a hard time focusing in class today because I saw you had a new post just before my prof started talking. I couldn’t wait for him to shut up so I could read!
· Kaitlin · http://whisk-kid.blogspot.com
Apr 11, 2011 · 1:13 PM
I can’t believe you can create such magnificent ( and I bet delicious) works of art at such a frenetic pace. I just cook at home and yet find myself so stressed sometimes.
· Adora's Box · http://www.adorasbox.net
Apr 11, 2011 · 1:21 PM
You know I haven’t really missed being in restaurant kitchen very much until I just read your post and a huge flood of nostalgia came over me.
All that running all those things all at the same time. People in big kitchens really are the unsung superheros of the multitasking universe.
Maybe its time to go back. we’ll see.
I love this, and your pastry is gorgeous.
· Kimberly(unrivaledkitch) · http://unrivaledkitch.livejournal.com
Apr 11, 2011 · 3:32 PM
I love any stories about how people do real work, and especially work they love. I triple love when those stories are about cooking and food. This is a wonderful, wonderful piece, Stella, one that clearly took the same kind of time, patience, and attention to detail that produces your ravishing desserts. Thank you for making such a grand effort to share your life. And thank you, Rosco, for illuminating it beyond all expectations.
· Rona Roberts · http://www.savoringkentucky.com
Apr 11, 2011 · 6:12 PM
@amansterdam, from what I gather, you’re well on your way!
@Sally, I think so too. I am so grateful to have a job I love.
@Kaitlin, OMG, you’re such a slacker, checking your reader in class! haha. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I feel weird and self conscious to talk about what I do, because I take it for granted and it’s not so exciting to me. Glad to hear otherwise.
@Adora’s Box, cooking at home stresses me to no end. Seriously. Restaurant cooking/baking is a lot less stressful, in my opinion, because it’s a devoted space and everyone there is intent on doing their job. At home, there may or may not be pets/kids/spouses underfoot, personal projects taking up counter space, etc.
@Kimberly, thank you for your kind words! I have spent many years not in the restaurant kitchen; living abroad, working in a bakery, and a year I took off after I got married. It’s funny how you start to miss it, though, when you least expect it. I thought I’d never be back in a restaurant kitchen (or want to) because of how much it can steals from home life. But having a position where I can make my own schedule makes all the difference.
@Rona, you always leave the best comments! Thank you ma’am. I for one am hoping to hear a detailed write-up of your weekend in The City!! Did you have so much fun?
Apr 12, 2011 · 1:10 AM
You’re making me reconsider my initial choice to work dinner service at my new job. I’ve liked getting out while it was still technically light out this past week (still pre-opening). I can’t wait until I’m busybusy, but I’m savoring the relative quiet punctuated by yells and power tools as I test lots o’ recipes.
· anna · http://verysmallanna.com
Apr 12, 2011 · 3:33 AM
Exhilarating. Admirable. I was thrilled reading this and I love the photos. It made me glad I’m not in the restaurant biz.
· Mr. Crabby · http://caffemarco.com
Apr 12, 2011 · 5:12 AM
Loved reading about a day in the life of a pastry chef (and blogger)! I’m always curious about what exactly happens pre-dinner service and this was the perfect explanation and fun to read too!
· Linds · http://americangirlsare.weebly.com
Apr 12, 2011 · 8:15 PM
A fascinating peek into your life Stella. Green with envy here
· Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite · http://www.eatlivetravelwrite.com
Apr 12, 2011 · 8:34 PM
@Mousey, homesick is just the perfect word. I know that feeling.
@Mardi, well, I got a second degree caramel burn yesterday, so don’t be too envious!
Apr 13, 2011 · 12:26 PM
Stella, what a fabulous post and a gorgeous blog! Your work is nothing short of amazing and I dearly appreciated your descriptive of tight kitchens and their logistics – especially the shared oven space! Your words make me miss the stainless steel world of a professional kitchen.
· Brooks · http://cakewalker.blogspot.com
Apr 14, 2011 · 12:24 AM
Love your blog and quote frequently from it when I teach professional baking at Los Angeles Trade Technical college; I have written four books, hopefully you have the latest, The Dessert Architect.
Write me at email@example.com ; Im facebook and twitter too.
· chef bob · http://www.robertwemischner.com
Apr 14, 2011 · 9:16 AM
What a fantastic post! Informative and interesting to read. Thanks for giving us the “behind-the-scenes” of your day!
Apr 14, 2011 · 8:09 PM
@Brooks, thank you so much! I’ve spent time in and out of pro kitchens, and struggle with the “grass is always greener” aspect in either situation. Right now, after a 10 hour day, I would kill for a desk job. Ha ha.
@Chef, hi!! I’m thrilled I’ve met your approval. I will send you an e-mail on Sunday, when I’ve got some time to devote to it. Thanks for contacting me. I visit Los Angeles every September, I’ll have to pick your brain as to where I should eat this year!
@KP, you are so welcome. I have trouble imagining that my day is interesting, because I take everything about it for granted, but several sweet people on twitter have bugged me to write a post like this, so I finally took the plunge. I’m glad to show everyone a glimpse of my day. For greater accuracy, imagine more swear words.
Apr 15, 2011 · 7:19 PM
Fabulous post, I routinely wish I had the guts to quit my job and go to culinary school but I can live vicariously through talented folks like you who write about the world you inhabit…ps great pictures!
· Lauren · http://www.bytes-from-texas.blogspot.com
Apr 16, 2011 · 7:50 PM
@Lauren, I envy people who get to wear cute shoes and jewelry to work and dream ora office job. To actually have a manicure? To wear my hair down? It would be so lovely! gladi could provide some vicarious living.
@deadly, I would kill for some Alfredo right now. I had a weee bit too much drinky drink last might and still feel queasy, that sounds awesome!
Apr 18, 2011 · 7:25 PM
Love this post! It’s inspiring; and hey, running up and down those stairs helps burn off calories… so you can eat more! yay!
· cathy · http://www.savorynotes.com
Apr 21, 2011 · 12:02 AM
Cathy, even with running up and down the stairs and walking several blocks to and from work, I’m still finding ways to gain weight. Yikes!
May 05, 2011 · 4:43 PM
A few minutes ago I felt like I never wanted to step into my kitchen again. Whole body aching and mind in a fuzz after a hectic week in the kitchen. Bleh.
While reading about the in’s and out’s of your day I found myself envying your day. But then I realised… wait… that’s my day too. The small things that draw me in about your day are actually the same things I take for granted, even get annoyed with in mine! I guess it helps to step back and get some perspective sometimes. You lifted the weight off my shoulders Love your blog, you’re so down to earth and casual about it all. And you have wicked skills. Can’t wait to read more!
· Robyn · http://www.chocswirl.wordpress.com
May 06, 2011 · 10:54 AM
Robyn, thanks so much for your kind words. I’m really glad I could give you a pinch of inspiration for the day, wow. I take all of those same things for granted too. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly ragged I have to remind myself I’m not in a cubicle, I’m playing with chocolate, and hey, if I ruin a batch of macarons well, at least I didn’t ruin someone’s investment portfolio. haha. I just book marked your blog, I can’t wait for some free time to check it out.
Jan 13, 2012 · 6:57 PM
@Jade, I’m lucky to have a job where it’s possible. Many restaurants (especially smaller ones in less urban areas) just don’t have adequate staff to handle plating, so the pastry dept ends up being a night position. But our charcuterie station is really on top of it, so I know my desserts are always in good hands. Thanks for stopping by, cheers!
Mar 06, 2012 · 5:21 PM
@Savvydale, you are so welcome, I’m glad I could share a little bit of what life in the kitchen is like. It’s definitely filled with a lot of long hours and hard work, but can be really rewarding too. Good luck in your studies!
Jul 16, 2012 · 7:21 PM
@ceca, haha, seriously! But I’ve really bonded with TOP, I’d feel like I were cheating if I had two.
Apr 30, 2013 · 9:24 AM
Aw, thanks, Barunram!
Jul 05, 2013 · 4:55 PM
This post is very inspiring. I wish I read it earlier this week. But today’s not too late either. I’m just impressed at what you’re doing. Although I haven’t had formal training on pastry, chef bloggers who post stuff like this inspires me all the more to be excellent at what I’m doing regardless of the lack of training. Good luck to you and I hope you do get to have at least one more pot and a larger kitchen space.
Jul 07, 2013 · 1:29 PM
Hi April! Uh, oh, that sounds a little ominous that this post found you a little too late! Thank you so much for the kind words, though I hate to say my kitchen space and pot allocations have remained unchanged. I’ve been making it work for so long at this point I almost never even think about having “more.” Haha. Happy baking!