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.
Updated to add: sadly the countless sweet comments left on this post were lost in a subsequent database crash, but they live on in my heart.
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