There are nicely outfitted professional kitchens, there are duct tape-and-twine kitchens, and there is little, in my experience, in between. I have worked in both types in my short and unglamorous career and while both do have their charms, I find that I have an unexpected, but quite clear, preference. Give me the duct tape and bring on the disasters.
In a recent conversation with an old friend and former boss, I mentioned I was working in food again, playing with large batches of everything, laminating doughs and re-learning how to make large-scale bread. He offered that he was jealous of our dough sheeter, a twelve hundred dollar machine that is, essentially, two rolling pins and a couple of circular conveyor belts. We use it to make lumps of dough – up to twenty pounds – into long rectangles down to two millimeters thick. It’s very handy in speedily and uniformly processing the massive amounts of pie dough and puff pastry we use every day, and it’s essential in the creation of our from-scratch croissants and danishes. A croissant, I am sure you know, is a laminated item, meaning that the “dough” is actually layers of alternating dough and butter, eighty-one of them – and all, ideally, perfectly even. It begins with one slab of dough and one chunk of butter and ends up…well, laminated. (I tried to find an existent picture of raw croissant dough on the internet but, apparently, no one is interested except me. And hopefully now you.) It’s doable by hand in small batches, but that way isn’t any fun. Care has to be taken to keep both dough and butter at the same temperature, and as cool as possible. Rolling something out by manual rolling pin makes for a much warmer affair, both because it takes longer to do and because you have to make many more passes with the rolling pin, thus creating that much more friction and therefore heat. The couple of times that my friends have asked how they might make homemade croissants, I’ve told them that it’s not really worth it and, for the home cook, I think that’s true.
So my dear friend – a pastry chef in the Midwest – wishes that he had a sheeter. Sometimes he makes from-scratch danishes for brunch, he said, and does the whole show by hand. Danish dough is even more a pain in the tuckus than croissant dough as it is stickier – owing in part to a substitution of milk and eggs for water in the basic formula – and has more layers of butter and dough than its more straight-laced cousin. When he makes danishes, he laminates the dough by hand, forms them, and then proofs the pastry in a rather slap-dash “proofbox” that is actually a plastic tent with a pan of hot water at the bottom.
Proofing in the process by which yeasted doughs, once formed, are set to rise just before they are put in the oven to bake. Proofboxes are used in bakeries to regulate this process, maintaining a constant temperature and humidity so that, no matter the conditions outside, the baguettes, for example, will always need forty five minutes in the proofbox before baking.
My reaction to his jealousy surprised me. I would have expected to feel smug, I think, that I get to use a neat piece of machinery that he lacked and wanted, that I was making a product that he couldn’t, or couldn’t make as well. But I didn’t feel that way at all. Instead, I felt jealous of him. While we talked, I imagined him at home in the evening, standing in his own kitchen with a notebook on the counter, composing the brunch menu for the coming week and brainstorming how he could come up with a danish, that oh-so classic breakfast pastry. That swirl of sweet, buttery dough filled with glop – fruit or cheese… How to make an evenly laminated, presentable product without throwing labor costs out the window? How many days would it take to make the dough and laminate it? Could it stay cool enough? What size recipe would fit in the mixer? How many would go in the oven? How to rig up a proof box? How warm or cool would it have to be given the average temperature of the restaurant’s kitchen during the day? Then I pictured him at work, assembling the plastic sheeting over a rack of baking pans, perhaps, boiling a saucepan of water to steam up the plastic and warm the dough to rise.
He works – most people work – with disadvantages right out of the gate. Small operations rarely have money or space for sheeters or proofboxes. Sometimes the equipment in pastry kitchens is little better than the appliances I have in my cupboards at home. Or maybe I’ve just been working in threadbare kitchens this whole time. Maybe my perspective is skewed.
There is an ease in working for the well-outfitted kitchen. You rarely have to make up a special procedure or custom tool to compensate for an item or appliance that ought to be there but isn’t. It’s easy to do your job when you are given the right tools and so that is just exactly what you do. And while this way of working is generally less frustrating and certainly more efficient and predictable, it is much less fun.
Lordy, is it so much less fun. In teeny tiny kitchens, you have to dance around your coworkers. You squabble over who gets to use the one and only scale. You negotiate for oven and rack space. In small operations, you often run out of ingredients. Sometimes, you can’t put a produce order together that is large enough to make it worthwhile for the produce distributing company to give you an account. It is the case either that you don’t use enough in a week, or you don’t have the refrigerator space to store it all at once. When you can’t get the produce company to deliver to you, you send your grunts out to the nearest grocery store with petty cash in their pockets or you make trips to Costco on your afternoon off. Maybe you don’t have a mixer large enough to hold a full batch of cookies, so you mix it by hand in a large white plastic tub. Or, you don’t have a proofbox, so you make one.
And when your shift is over, and you are mopping up the space at the end of your shift, you feel a much greater sense of accomplishment and connection to your product and your customers than you ever could have if things had gone more smoothly.
It could be that I can never be happy working in a kitchen that is not my very own. If I were employed in the other sort of place, I might use these pages to complain about how hard it is to constantly run out of currants or lemons. I might write about my frustration at using half of my time compensating for the equipment that I lack with half-effective and haphazard improvisations. From this vantage point, however, it seems to me that these things are part of the soul of cooking for which I have begun to ache.