A Different Sort of Cooking
Remember that bit about my loving food too much to make it for a living? Though this is true as far as I understand the restaurant business (and myself), it’s been shelved. I work in a bakery. It is local, of a reasonable not-small-but-quite-not-large size, and puts out very respectable goods. I work on a crew of six that produces for a handful of outlets, onsite and off. We make everything from scratch and don’t use any fancy, alienating equipment (in the past I have found, for example, a baguette-forming machine to be somewhat alienating). We are interested in quality, of course, but in efficiency to an equal degree. There is no musing over pre-shift coffee about how I shall flavor my scones: It has all been arranged, calculated, printed out and clipped onto a board from which a pencil dangles on a string.
There is something very freeing in all of this. There is something rather cold as well. There is no art in my bakery, not that I have been able to see anyway. There is craft – and pride therein – but no art. Things have been reduced to technical details: the temperature of the butter, the best way to measure molasses, the calibration of the scales so that every cookie weighs the same as every other. Attention to these aspects of the craft is critical. But the heart is missing. Maybe there is no room in our crowded schedule for love. We rarely see our customers, are not often present for their first bite. We never see them smile when they taste something they like. We are deprived, by the way the system is arranged, of the feeling that we are feeding anyone at all. We are loading racks. We are meeting quotas and filling orders. We are minimizing waste.
When I began the post-baccalaureate job search, I did not intend on landing in a bakery again. As my mother pointedly commented when I told her where I had been hired, going back to food “creates a certain symmetry” in my curriculum vitae. I won’t itemize my reasons here, but there were, are, many for wanting to stay out of the professional kitchen. At the top of the list, however, is this: I really, really love food. Moreover, I respect it. I respect eaters, too. I enjoy feeding people, watching them taste what I’ve thought up, what I’ve crafted for them. I revel in eating with my dinner companion, picking apart a meal we’ve just made, congratulating ourselves for small triumphs and drawing out a plan for how to do it better next time. I want to make things the way I think they ought to be made. And I will. I want to experiment. I dream food. I soar when I get it right; I stew when I miss my mark. Pun intended.
But in my bakery, there are none of these aforementioned pleasures. There are others – a perfectly risen loaf, for example – but we are, I feel, utterly disconnected with the nature of our product. We are missing the human link. We aren’t feeding anyone.
In noticing this, I am both distressed and relieved. This separation puts my experience on the clock in an entirely different category from the cooking that I do at home, the cooking that is rather special and that I hold dear. At work, I am liberated from my warm and fuzzy feelings for food. Unencumbered by emotion, I can think of weights and measures, of speed, of yield and trim loss, of dough temperature and health codes. It is one part survival and self-protection, and many parts necessity. Indeed, I think this outlook makes me a better employee.
So I am learning how seal-off that part of me that gets all mushy about food. If anything, I think it will make time in my own kitchen all the better. Lately, when I get off work all I want to do is come back home and cook, to explore some idea I had while weighing and mixing those hundreds of pounds of flour. It is different, what I do on the clock. I am not even sure if it can properly be called cooking. It can’t in the way I mean it, anyway. Cooking is something more than coagulating proteins and emulsifying sauce. It is this emotional, human component that makes it so marvelous, the very bit I cannot do without.