Monday, April 1, 2013

This Is No April Fool's Joke!

Four years ago today, I went to work in professional kitchens, starting with the Dahlia Bakery. It was quite an experience, one I documented in a regular column called Critic-Turned-Cook, which appeared on Serious Eats for more than a year. I was planning on turning this culinary adventure into a blockbuster movie -- Susan Saradon would play me -- after my memoir became a best seller, but, well... could never get an agent interested in pitching it. That's the way it crumbles, cookie wise.

Anyway, what the heck, I recently re-read this section of my sample chapter and still think it's pretty fun:

My eyes open just before the alarm was set to go off. Groan. It’s 4:47. I barely slept. I am so excited about my first day on the job in Tom Douglas’s pastry kitchen, I feel like it's Christmas morning.
After I got my food handler’s card, I had filled out the necessary paperwork, studied the company handbook and spent hours practicing my knife skills. “Pretend like you’re shaking hands with it,” one You Tube video instructed.
Still, I wonder if I can cut it. I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen. I feel like I’m bringing my kazoo to play with a symphony orchestra. But I do want to play. I’m game. That should count, right? Showing up is half the battle.
At 4:49, my poor husband, John, is finally sleeping after hours of wrestling the insomnia demon, so I quickly and quietly dress in the dark, go downstairs and guzzle a cup of dark roast before starting the 25-minute walk downtown to the restaurant, past the glowing Space Needle and homeless men sleeping in doorways. A cyclist blows past, his headlamp illuminating the rain-filled potholes on the street.
It’s April Fool’s Day. How fitting I begin this kooky quest on this silly holiday. I feel like the set-up to a bad gag. “A washed-up critic walks into a kitchen…”

I feel shaky, like I am going to throw up. I don’t know what to expect. I beat myself up as doubts creep in: What was I thinking when I concocted this hair-brained scheme?
At the bakery door, I ring the bell and Phil answers. He’s my Obie-Wan, a seasoned veteran who leads me through the dark kitchen of Dahlia Lounge into adjacent pastry kitchen and into the light. There, in this warm space, the sweet scent of sugar and butter and flour hits me like a blast from the distant past. It smells like Nana’s kitchen. Phil shows me where to hang my coat and hands me an apron. I’m in! I am officially a uniformed member of the food brigade. Before long, Phil gives me my orders.
First up, the rest of the kitchen tour: Staples like spices are arranged neatly on a shelf above a workstation. Sugar and flour are stored in bins the size of huge trash cans, which are refilled daily. Finished pastries, milk, cream and sugar are in the walk in fridge. In this rambling space, the team of 10 creates pastries for all the restaurants and the Dahlia Bakery, a list of nearly 50 various goodies.
But in this kitchen, Coconut Pie is king. It’s the signature dessert and many hands touch this ultra-rich preparation, including mine.
 I’m there 20 minutes and Phil sticks a whipped cream-filled pastry bag in my hand and turns me loose on a tray of teensy coconut pie bites for a catering job. “The trick is to squeeze gently from the top,” he instructs. “Twist it.” He plops the cream in the bag as adeptly as a pitcher delivers a fastball to the plate.
After topping the 20th little pie, I want to brag: “Hey, look. I think I’ve got it.”
But then, I look over at cake expert Anna. She’s dicing rhubarb with the skill of a surgeon. And there’s second-in-command, Randi, the former teacher who is a master multitasker, juggling cookies and cakes and placing orders and restocking shelves. 
My whipped cream accomplishment suddenly feels so small.
Three hours and hundreds of pies later, I feel like crying. My feet are on fire. I’m wearing sneakers and my soles are screaming: “Sit down! Take a load off! You’re killing us.”
I’ve still got four hours before I clock out and I’m in the walk-in frantically scanning the shelves for butter. I’m trying to be helpful, to dodge the steady stream of bodies moving through the tight space, singing: “Corner!” “Coming through hot!” “Right behind you!”
Forget the reference to playing with the symphony orchestra. These talented ladies and gentlemen are graceful dancers. Except instead of lifting bodies on stage, they’re wrestling 50-pound pots of molten custard and scalding-hot sheet pans filled with the most incredible chocolate truffle cookies. The timers on three ovens buzz steadily and the team calls audibles: “Bottom left!” So nobody spaces out something that’s baking.
I haven’t even been here a full shift and any pretense of the old critic’s objectivity has been shredded like the coconut flakes poured into the Hobart mixer. I am in awe. How do these people do this? How do they take simple ingredients and turn them into something that prompts moans of pleasure? While standing on their poor, tired feet all damn day. It’s obviously a calling. Like the way I knew I had to be a writer my first day on the high school newspaper.
Yes, of course, I had been on the receiving end of this sweet effort. But in the magical spell cast in a well-run dining room, you don’t necessarily think about what’s going on behind the curtain. It’s like going to a play or a movie. It’s entertainment and, if you’re lucky, you can just give into the pleasure on the plate or on the stage or screen. And that’s what I had done when I reviewed Dahlia Lounge, Tom’s flagship restaurant, just a few weeks before the plug was pulled at the P-I. I gave it three and a half stars, missing the perfect four just barely. One funky-tasting batch of crab cakes shaved a half star. As a critic, I often wondered how everything could be on target except one glaring mistake. Or how a kitchen could be so “on” one night and so “off” another.
Now, where is that butter? I look around, feeling like an idiot. I know it’s probably right in front of me. I feel woozy, a potent mix of nerves and lack of sleep and oh, my aching feet.
The chilly walk-in must contain a million calories worth of goodies stored on rolling shelves known as speed racks. It smells like heaven even at 36 degrees. I’m so tempted to sneak a snack, but that would not be right. Not on my first day. Focus. Focus. “If I were butter, where would I live?”
OK, of course, there it is, in a huge box, by the door. Now I remember. Hadn’t Phil pointed it out just a few hours ago? I can’t remember being so tired since the summer I got fired working on a salmon processing boat in Alaska.
Before the day is done, I dice rhubarb for pie, staining my fingers red, and help make filling for the bakery’s version of Fig Newton cookies. I snip the top off dried dates, a mundane task usually done by the dishwasher. 
When I run dough the wrong way through a machine that stands in for a rolling pin, it nearly flies off the counter. I feel like I’m in an episode of “I Love Lucy.” Except it’s not funny. I am mortified. Everybody is watching. They must think I’m a complete incompetent, but Joe reassures. “Don’t worry. It’s happened to everybody,” he says.
At home, I use my food processor all the time, but these industrial versions are like driving a sports car when you’re used to an old clunker. I later learn how to start the giant mixer on the lowest speed and bring it up slowly.
When pastry chef Garrett’s I-Pod shuffle lands on “Beat It” as I stand with Phil by the Hobart mixer, creaming butter and sugar for gingersnaps, I crack wise: “Hey, talk about the perfect song for what we’re doing.” “I don’t like Michael Jackson,” he grumps.
There are two giant wooden tables in the center of the room, and six cooks share the space, notebooks filled with to-do lists open in front of them. Like the newsroom, there’s a fair amount of congenial chatter, punctuated by periods of intense silence. Nobody takes a break. Nobody sits down for lunch.
I do my very best to be helpful, to be quiet and stay under the radar. But, I’m nosy by nature, one of the reasons I got into the news gathering business. And soon, I ask my new work buddies for recommendations on what kind of shoes will put me out of my misery.
“I love my Birkies,” said Carol, a former corporate bigwig who’s now known as the piecrust queen.
There is no consensus. Crocs. Danskos. Garrett, the sharp-dressing pastry chef, sports Chuck Taylor high-tops.
In the days that follow, I become obsessed with feet. I look at shoes the checker at the supermarket wears. I scope out my mailman’s footwear and study the “Shoes for Crews” catalog like it’s going to bring me sweet relief, some measure of comfort.
After decades of sitting on my ass behind a computer, I feel a new kinship with people who stand on their feet while making a living. It’s insanely exhausting. I do not complain, except when I call my newly unemployed husband after my shift and whimper: “Can you please come and pick me up?” I can’t bear to walk the three blocks to the bus stop.
I’m not a baby. I vow to try and follow my own standard advice and “Man up!” But man, the sad state of my feet rules my life. From this moment on, I never take the glorious act of sitting down for granted. It’s a gift when tush meets cush, and I start to feel sheepish that I ever criticized people who have to make a living doing this wicked hard work while standing on their feet for 10 hours at a time. If I had only known, would my barbs have been so sharp?
A toss-off line I meant to be clever came back to bite me on my second day in the pastry kitchen when Carol asks what made the coconut cream pie at The Shanty so special?
I stammer: “Ah, ummmm. I think it was such a surprise that a diner had such good pies. You could really taste the coconut.”
In a “Cheap Eats” review of The Shanty years before meeting Carol, I wrote: “This place might have the best pie I’ve ever put in my mouth. (Apologies to Mom and Tom Douglas.)”
Meant to be sassy, but I can see now where it comes off as smart ass-y.
I really did want to eat humble pie at that moment, though, because the diner does desserts when the owner has time and the Tom Douglas pastry kitchen cranks those coco pies out seven days a week. They’re the signature dessert and they’re kind of hated in the pastry kitchen. Like the way a big sister hates her annoying, ever-present snot-nose brother who always gets more attention no matter how many cute and crazy-clever treats she creates. 
 After demonstrating I was up for doing just about anything, Garrett issued me a challenge: “What if you did a project on your own?”
Gulp. This greenhorn turns a deep shade of jade.
“I don’t know if I’m up to it,” I said, knowing instantly I’m missing a golden opportunity. Garrett is giving me the chance to sink or swim and I choose to stay on shore. What a chump.
Fortunately, I soon redeem myself by offering an on-the-spot review.
“Shelley’s coming in to taste the rhubarb hand pie,” Garrett told a few people on the pastry team and they flew into action like firefighters sliding down the shiny pole. The fire they were tending to was to ready a dessert for one of the company’s top dogs.
“Who’s Shelley?” I ask Phil.
“She’s been with Tom since the beginning. She tests recipes and co-writes his cookbooks,” he said.
The frenzied scene that follows is like something I imagined kitchens do when they figure out a critic is in the house.
Assembling all the pieces for this pie was quite a production. One person made the filling; another cut garnishes with painstaking precision. The dough fell to Joe, the former massage therapist who has magic fingers.
When this rhubarb-stuffed turnover came out of the oven, Garrett stuck a fork in my hand and asked for an evaluation. But my sharp edges were already softened. All I could murmur was, “Mmmm!”
I later took advantage of my Tom Douglas employee discount and ordered one of these spectacular desserts at Serious Pie. One I didn’t have to share. So. Damn. Good. Four stars. 
As much as I missed eating out on the expense account, I loved the freedom of eating for the pure pleasure of it. When you’re reviewing a restaurant, you must be focused, dissecting every bite looking for clues and taking extensive mental notes. (Notes, madly typed back at home on my laptop shortly after paying the tab.)
During review dinners, friends would sometimes get annoyed because my eyes would wander. I watched tables around me, taking the temperature of the room. Is everybody happy? Or are diners hungry and cranky, waiting way too long for food? It was always my objective to capture a snapshot of a place, as an observer. The frustration came when there were problems with consistency, a revolving door at the kitchen, short cuts taken to plump the bottom line. Restaurants are not like movies. They are so many variables. The best ones get it right most of the time.
After getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse how of food gets to the table, it reaffirms my belief that every well-prepared meal is a minor miracle. I feel so fortunate to play even a very tiny part in it. I smile, thinking of the murmurs of delight sure to be unleashed after eating one of those coconut bites and truffle cookies and fig Newtons I helped to make. Yes, my feet hurt so much I want to cry, but I walk out of the kitchen after surviving that first day and I feel like I’m on a sugar high.
My new generic kitchen clogs arrive a few days later and I rip open the box to try them on. I feel like a new woman. I slowly start to find my feet, feeling like I might actually fit in and contribute. Maybe, just maybe, I could cut it.

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