Wednesday February 12, 2014
Your Princess is in Another Castle
A few months ago I stepped down from my position at Table 310, just shy of what would have been my third anniversary in the dungeon. I’d never worked so long in one place.
Some days that fact seemed like reason enough to move on, pastry chefs tend to bounce around, but other times it inspired the sort of irrational loyalty that had me at work even with family in the hospital, even with friends getting married, even when it was my day off. Restaurants do that to people.
I’d been hired before they’d finished the building, only a few months after I started blogging, and I don’t know that I’ll ever untangle my memories of the two.
The night of our grand opening, the kitchen didn’t even have a hood. Only a single induction burner, the one pot, and a handful of tapas: charcuterie, cheese, a winter salad, and three desserts. I had to bring in my own Kitchen Aid, and run extension cords through the ceiling.
By our first anniversary we had the hot line running and an improved tapas menu, followed by brick oven pizzas, and heartier entree-sized plates.
This brought in hungry diners rather than snacky drinkers, and my tripod of dessert proved too unstable. Some obvious winner would sell out early on and the other two would collapse under demand. So I expanded the menu to five items, which brought better balance despite the extra work.
However much room I had in the Pastry Dungeon, the upstairs kitchen looked like a postage stamp. The dessert station had half a lowboy, a dorm-sized freezer, and a speed rack next to the brick oven in a nook that edged past 100° during service. Every component of every dessert had to either thrive in that heat, live on a sliver of fridge space, freeze, or die.
That precarious storage dynamic kept my menus filled with gooey cookie trios, melty sauces, cold panna cotta, ice cream sandwiches, and a total lack of anything that could pass for “room temperature.” I had abandon flaky pastries that went limp in the heat, and turn to sturdy building blocks like shortbread, brownies, and pound cake.
Limited burners on the line meant I couldn’t incorporate sauteed elements, so I had to give up on dousing desserts in bubbly, buttery, boozy fruit and learn to love brûléed bananas, roasted strawberries, and pineapple upside down cake.
Working within those constraints forced me to develop better recipes, reincarnate old favorites in new ways, and otherwise learn to work outside everything I ever learned in a climate controlled culinary school. The limitations of space meant I had little in the way of reserves, which kept the desserts uber-fresh. Every morning I’d take stock of our leftovers, repurpose what I could and start over. Having a chalkboard menu let me navigate that sort of unpredictability without much fuss, and some weeks I changed the menu every day.
Somehow, this madcap situation came to the attention of Food & Wine. After that I had to resign myself to selling out almost every night— I couldn’t simply make more, we didn’t have any place to put it. Then I started writing a book, and the owners started to build a bakery. After a year of that, the idea of quitting could bring me to tears, but so could the ragged feeling of being spread too thin. I spent months agonizing over whether I should hang on or hang up my apron. Eventually I reached a place where I couldn’t reasonably invest more of my self into a business I did not own.
I told our chef I felt 86’d, then sat down for coffee with one of the owners to explain my position. No breakup has ever gone down more reluctantly. We hedged the conversation in terms of sabbaticals and hiatuses, and I puttered around for another month, building up stockpiles of cookie dough and sauces to ease the transition to a kid straight out of culinary school. Then I baked one last tray of Pop-Tarts and our sous chef popped the stopper from a bottle of bourbon. She toasted me through the kitchen, and that was that.
Now I’m a customer, kisses on the cheek when I walk in the door, and a blank space on the menu where my name used to be.
For the first time in memory, I enjoyed the holidays without the rush pulling me out of bed seven days a week. I celebrated a winter break out of town, without the threat of NYE to drag me back. I’m about to spend Valentine’s Day making chocolates for my sweetheart, not hand lettering a thousand cupcakes for desperate Romeos who forgot to order in advance.
It’s supremely weird without the rhythms of a restaurant governing my life.
I don’t know what happens next, but that’s a given for anyone in this industry. We’re not big on long term plans, we skate from opportunity to the next, stay until we’ve learned enough and then move on. For now, I’m baking at home for the first time in three years, visiting family I haven’t seen in almost as long, and learning to pay retail for chocolate.
54 comments and counting
Feb 13, 2014 · 2:29 AM
Been lurking for ages, loving every article you post, but this was such a poignant post that I felt compelled to comment.
It’s brave to make a jump, but it’s going to be amazing for you, I’m absolutely sure. I’m excited to see what’s next and can’t wait to get your book when it’s out!
· Stacey · http://alittleshopintokyo.blogspot.jp/
Feb 13, 2014 · 8:40 AM
I too have always followed your blog, using recipes at home and as reference in culinary school. I must applaud you for your true talent and hard work, especially under those conditions, and am happy to hear you are enjoying your time away. Looking forward to your book! Cheers!
Feb 13, 2014 · 8:43 AM
I believe you have discovered the secret to living. Don’t look back and enjoy your family.
· Lisa Keys · www.goodgriefcook
Feb 13, 2014 · 8:49 AM
I wanted to thank you for all of your posts and I do hope you will continue on. Just love reading them. I am happy for you to find peace in your life and to really enjoy baking for the ones you love. Can’t wait for your book release. Enjoy the view as you travel thru life.
Feb 13, 2014 · 9:08 AM
You’ve aptly named you blog Stella – being brave in life choices as well as on how you bake. Always love following your adventures.
· Laura @MotherWouldKnow · motherwouldknow.com
Feb 13, 2014 · 9:29 AM
Good for you, Stella! It’s been less than a year for me and I’m pretty sure I’ve learned all I’m going to at my bakery position. I’ve been making the same cookies, pound cake, and two flavors of macarons the entire time and just can’t stand to look at them anymore. I was hired to develop & test recipes, but I haven’t done that yet.
I find myself thinking of recipes for the upcoming farmers market season. I’d rather hit or miss there on my own terms than be forced to live out someone else’s badly executed vision.
· nytefalle · nytefalle.com/blog
Feb 13, 2014 · 10:12 AM
This was such a great post, Stella. It’s such a scary time, leaving something where you’ve become comfortable and found your little space to settle, especially when it challenges you and keeps you on your toes. Three years is a wonderful pocket of time for those kind of opportunities, but you’re right. There’s only so much of yourself you can pour into a place you don’t own.
I love that you posted a clip of Early. I wish you luck in finding a new place or opportunity to grow. I hope this means more posts from you! You were always one of my favourite bloggers and I always look forward to reading your posts in my email __
· Lisa | Je suis alimentageuse · alimentageuse.com
Feb 13, 2014 · 10:13 AM
This may be your opportunity to do your own thing. Your recipes are amazing, people love them every time I make something of yours. Maybe look into starting a dessert food truck or opening a small bakery. I went through the same process you did, only in interior design. I stayed at my job for 6 months trying to figure out whether or not to leave. In the end, it was the best choice I have ever made in my career. I work for myself now and couldn’t be happier. You will figure out what you need, I have faith.
Feb 13, 2014 · 10:54 AM
…and damn, I was hoping to meet you when I visit Lexington in a few weeks. How selfish of me to be thinking of myself right now but I had hoped I might have that opportunity. I can’t wait for your book, and I’m hopeful you will continue to share your expertise and spunky self with us here on your blog. I have learned much from you, and although Macarons remain my nemesis, luckily, I have your ever famous tutorial to refer to until I nail them. Your Swiss Meringue Buttercream is the best! No need to wish you success, you’ve already accomplished that. What I will wish for you is what my Mom says is the only really important thing in life – contentment.
· Mary@SiftingFocus · http://siftingfocus.com
Feb 13, 2014 · 11:35 AM
You know, there’s a movement to pass a Cottage Food law in Kentucky
Whatever you do, you will surely succeed at it!
And I (selfishly) hope you continue blogging!
· Bonnie · bonnieformanconfections.weebly.com
Feb 13, 2014 · 1:54 PM
Huzzah for you! Take your peaches elsewhere, lady. Glad you’re getting a little downtime. Sounds like it’s long overdue.
· Steph · http://www.theculinarylife.com
Feb 13, 2014 · 3:19 PM
I’m eager to hear what you move on to next! I always meant to get up to the restaurant (I’m only a half hour away), but when I had the time I didn’t have the energy and when I had the energy I didn’t have the time. I love your blog and your recipes, and I can’t wait to find out where you go from here.
Feb 13, 2014 · 4:09 PM
When it’s time to go it’s time to go. I don’t think I’d want the added responsibility of a bakery, either. I assume the book release (neeeeed itttttt) will involve a tour anyway, right? Can’t wait for you to get up here and see my anti dungeon!! Hugs!!!
· Anna · verysmallanna.com
Feb 13, 2014 · 5:27 PM
Congratulations on taking good care of yourself, Stella! I wish you so much goodwill – can’t wait for your book to be released, and I hope we get to follow your new life choices on your blog (as well as more delicious recipes.) Brava, Bravetart!
· jayneleni · www.lovebutterbakery.com
Feb 13, 2014 · 5:35 PM
Thanks for a great post Stella, Wherever you land, it will be amazing. You are simply too talented for it not to be.
I look forward to hearing more about you journey…but enjoy your well-earned time off.
· Silver Magpies · www.silvermagpies.com
Feb 13, 2014 · 6:19 PM
Hello Mz Stella, are you sure your not from Brooklyn cause you got Moxie, girl…you know, you didn’t owe any of us an explanation, but I am glad that the explanation is that you are doing what is best for you…can’t wait to hear where the next journey takes you, come to South Jersey, I’m ready for a career change…
Feb 14, 2014 · 12:25 PM
Stella, yay you! You’re LIVING YOUR LIFE. I can’t wait to see where your talent leads you to XO
· Mardi (eat. live. travel. write.) · www.eatlivetravelwrite.com
Feb 14, 2014 · 1:39 PM
@Everyone, You guys are all seriously the sweetest. I could write a whole blog post getting back to each and every one of you. It means the world to me to see so many notes of encouragement. The last time I quit a job (2 years in), I used the time off to start this blog, so I am excited that something fun will happen with all this time off.
I will definitely continue blogging, and hopefully the reality check of working in a non-professional kitchen will help me learn how to make my recipes a little more intuitive for baking at home.
I still haven’t heard the release date for the book, though I finished writing it last year, lol. I didn’t realize what how slow moving the publishing world can be. xo to you all.
Feb 14, 2014 · 3:26 PM
I just discovered BT last month and have so enjoyed reading through your recipes. Your Neo- German chocolate cake is at the top of my list ( have also always thought it looked like barf). The pic is so gorgeous. I’ve been getting all the ingredients (love La Tourangelle products). Your pave & Nutella are also on the list.
Quick question: when I go to my restaurant supply store or buy chocolate, I know the good brands, but then they get all tricky with Cairibe,& Carmelia. Then I give up bc I don’t want to buy a big, $$ bag for nothing . Advice?
Thanks and enjoy the process of finding out what’s next for you,
Feb 14, 2014 · 10:15 PM
Oh dammit…I had this excellent vision: I visit Kentucky, sample a bunch of bourbon, look at rolling hills and such then order strong at Table 310…end with sucking down every dessert on the list that night. Then I write you an oinking love note on a bar napkin. You owe me a dream, son!
I’m looking forward to hearing about what’s next. Hope you enjoy the rest. Oink!
· fatpiginthemarket · fatpiginthemarket.com
Feb 15, 2014 · 9:54 AM
Eventually I reached a place where I could not invest more of myself in a business I did not own.
Those words will stick with me for awhile. Law firms do that to people too.
Bon chance Stella. Love your recipes, haven’t been able to try your food “live” but your macarons cannot be better than your writing.
You have a powerful voice. It’s sheer joy to read your blog.
Feb 15, 2014 · 12:00 PM
Stella!!! I’m so glad your home!!! . Don’t go back, just cook a WHOLE bunch of cool stuff and share it with us!!!! Hahaha!! We would love to just keep you here!! Just make everything you every wanted to make…for people you love…and we can look at all the pics! I think that’d be a great job!!! Hope you have a wonderful time off!! Thanks, always, for all your help!! Have a great weekend!!
Feb 15, 2014 · 11:59 PM
Luv you and your blog! Wishing the best on your next new adventure (sending hugs). I have been following you for a long time though I don’t always have the time to read or comment much. I can’t wait for your book to come out!!! Recently, I pulled way back to reassess my priorities. People in our lives are what matters most. It feeds us in our love for each other and allows to grow and be transformed. Sometimes we called to do something different.
Maybe you’ll have a place of your own. Whatever you do – wishing you many blessings. CherieJ
Feb 16, 2014 · 10:05 AM
That was really beautiful to read. Taking time for oneself is the most important thing we can do. Otherwise, when we give ourselves to work, others, whatever, we don’t really know what we’re giving. We lose sight of who and what we are.
· Elizab · elizabakes.wordpress.com
Feb 16, 2014 · 11:35 AM
@MA, it’s really all about flavor. Valrhona offers an array of chocolate blends so you can find the perfect chocolate to pair with anything from caramel to mango. There should be some sort of indicator on the box, letting you know if it’s got a nutty or roasted flavor, or if it’s citrus-like and tart. There’s a website called ChocoSphere and you can go there and order a sampler box, if you like. It’s a great way to get to know each type without having to buy them all.
And thank you to everyone else, for keeping the well-wishes rolling in. It means a lot to me! Quitting a job is nothing new, but I’ve never had such a wonderful chorus of support to hold my hand through it before. Thank you, sincerely.
Feb 16, 2014 · 10:13 PM
First and foremost, congratulations on coming to grips with a very difficult decision. I am very happy for you and feel quite confident that “failure is not an option” as you vector yourself into a higher orbit. If you’ll permit me to mix NASA with Firefly, I’ll just say that everything is shiny and no power in the ‘verse can stop you. I’ll see you on the other side!
Feb 18, 2014 · 9:21 AM
Oh, that’s funny Uchujin. I almost made a joke about having to monitor cold storage on my station like someone from mission control, but then I thought it was a liiiiitle outrageous of a comparison. My heart is warmed to hear all the NASA analogies coming from you!
Feb 18, 2014 · 12:02 PM
I hear ya (kind of at that point with my job that I’ve been in for 8 years). Breaking up (with a good job/employer) is hard to do. But from the sound of things, it was the right decision for you and perhaps, further down the line, for the restaurant. You can’t make great desserts (or any food) if your heart isn’t in it and you are unhappy. Emotions always show up in food. Congrats and I can’t wait to get your book.
Feb 19, 2014 · 1:02 PM
Congrats & brava, to you, dear Stella! As someone who took a huge leap of faith, quit what was comfortable and tried something new after feeling overworked & overwhelmed, I can only hope that this break will recharge you and flood you with creativity and a renewed sense of satisfaction & fulfillment. Can’t wait to see what wonderful things come from this new change in direction! xo
· Kelly @ Kelly Bakes · kellybakes.com
Feb 19, 2014 · 2:03 PM
I’m sorry you were being spread so thin, but at least you have many happy memories to take with you. Now, onto a different stage of life. After many life changes in the past few years for me, I can understand feeling a bit nervous and worried about what is coming next, but you will be able to handle it and find something else that works for you. Best wishes!
· Aly · fudgingahead.wordpress.com
Feb 19, 2014 · 3:03 PM
Usually a bit too shy to comment on blogs, but I just wanted to say congrats! I’m a pastry chef working up north in Canada-land and I know too well what that feeling is like. The last time I had it I ended up in New Zealand. From one end of the world to the other and back again, now Im in bloody Newfoundland. I think you made a wise, and brave choice. Can’t wait to find out what you’re up to next! PS you’re such a goddess in my eyes. Recharge and come back swinging!
· Kara · www.karalalala.com
Feb 23, 2014 · 1:24 AM
After following your blog the last few years I was somewhat disappointed to hear you weren’t working anywhere in Lexington during my recent visit. I stayed at the Hyatt during that terrible ice storm, so eating anywhere out of walking distance was out of the question. I had a lovely dinner at Table 310 with a few co-workers. They must have been sad to see you leave. Our dinner and the wine was wonderful, but the three desserts we ordered to share were a total let down to the end of the meal and were barely touched. It worked to their benefit as we decided to have bourbon for dessert instead. We were seated at the table right next to the kitchen and noticed how small it was. I’m amazed what a great job they were able to do in such limited space. Seemed like a tight knit group. Good luck on your next career adventure.
· Nicole · arcticgardenstudio.blogspot.com
Feb 23, 2014 · 5:29 AM
Thanks for the great advice about trying a sampler from Chocosphere! What a great site. Because, while my store does have a 2-pg guide to the many types of chocolate, it reads like the snobby sommelier whose greatest joy is looking down on is philistines.
Thanks for your advice!
Feb 24, 2014 · 10:28 AM
Thanks again for all the sweet words of encouragement, everyone. It means a lot to me.
@Nicole, awwww, I am so sorry to hear that. I’ve been out of that restaurant for months now, but hearing a bad report makes me want to run over and poke my head in the kitchen. It’s hard to let go! I think they’ve been through a couple of pastry replacements so far, it’s a peculiar set up and I imagine it’s hard to find someone who can work in such an odd little niche. That was a nasty storm too, I’m glad you at least got some good Kentucky bourbon!
Mar 08, 2014 · 8:01 PM
I so much love your writing …PLUS your recipes! I send many wishes for your next growth adventure! Selfishly I’d LOVE to see you in our DCMetro area— since I rarely ever order pastry —since few ever measure up to my Plugra & Valrhona! I will await your book and hope to meet you at a signing soon. Your gift of exceptional educator is a rare in the culinary world — you compete with Susan Notter for top honors in my book ! May your heart be happy & ‘may you walk in beauty’! MgB
Mar 26, 2014 · 11:13 AM
Stella, I missed this post…was travelling. I think you’ve taken the right decision for yourself. You will rock as an author and achieve fame and fortune far beyond your restaurant job.
· Radhika · sinsationscakes.wordpress.com
Mar 26, 2014 · 11:45 AM
@fimo, thank you! After posting so much of my experience at the restaurant, I felt I had to follow through and explain the end too. It was a tough process.
@mg, I’ll keep you posted! A good friend of mine lives in DC and she has made me promise to come by as part of my book tour (goodness knows whenever that will be!!). Someday, our paths will cross!
@ Radhika, thank you so much for the kind words. It has been a very strange experience leaving a place so dear to my heart, and I do a lot of second guessing. But I am excited to see what happens next, whether I end up at another restaurant in town, or starting some new adventure in another direction. I will keep everyone posted!
Apr 27, 2014 · 1:44 PM
Thank you, ceca! We are in the editing phase of the book, so hopefully I will be back to blogging “full time” soon enough. Thanks for reading along.
May 03, 2014 · 1:02 PM
My Chef mentioned your blog in her lecture a couple of days ago, so I thought I would check ya out! I can’t tell you how perfect the timing was for me to read this post. I just left my first pastry job in a catering facility that was high volume/high end, but filled with broken and hazardous equipment. I feel the pain of having 1 working burner. Lol! I am not new to the food industry, so I understand it can have it’s “quirks”. This job had us for 16-18 hour days without breaks or time to eat and it wore me down relatively fast. Well, yesterday was the first time I openly admitted that this experience really broke my spirit. It was the best decision to get out of there while I still had a chance to feel the love I have for our industry, but a strange feeling of abandonment and heart ache has taken hold of me. So I feel I need to thank you for this post. It gave me a sense of hope that I wasn’t able to feel prior to reading this and I really think it has helped in my acceptance for the things I can’t control. Sometimes we forget what really matters and put ourselves last after the job, and it makes us forget what’s up or down. Quite a lesson to learn, but you’ll be better for it! I will look forward to all of your awesomeness and am so excited to see your adventures unfold !
May 05, 2014 · 5:27 PM
Hi Gi! Thanks so much for sharing your story— I do think it’s a common experience for people in the industry, but something so many are unwilling to speak up about. I’m glad that by sharing my experience you were able to find some solace. It’s something of an addiction, I’ve quit many jobs before and somehow always find myself working in another restaurant before too long. After a bit of a recharge I always find myself missing the craziness. We’ll see where I end up! Thanks again for stopping by, I hope you can find some balance in your career.
Jun 16, 2014 · 9:08 PM
You’ve been an inspiration to me since I stumbled onto your blog a couple of years ago. Congratulations on your big decision, and I can’t wait to see what you do in life next!
· Lee · campfiresandcaribou.blogspot.com
Jun 18, 2014 · 10:41 AM
Hi Lee, thanks so much for the encouragement! I’ve been laying low online for a bit, but I’m about ready to burst back on the scene.