This is a story about dreams, and realizing them.
And then realizing that they’re not for you, and deciding to turn around and run away as fast as possible.
It starts in the late 90s, when I was in elementary school. Had you asked me at age 10 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said either “a boardwalk portrait painter,” or “a chef.” The first was something I legitimately wanted to be (and anyone who has seen me draw anything since then knows that dream will forever remain unrealized.) The latter was something I pulled out of my ass. I couldn’t tell you now why I thought I wanted to be a chef when I was 10.
Perhaps it was the mushroom hats I wanted.
If you’ve skimmed through the about the klutz page, you’ll already know the story of why I bake now, so we’ll skip over that.
A year ago, had I told you that first small segment of memoir, you would have gasped, “Serendipity! Fate! It was meant to be!” with your hands on your cheeks (put your hands on my cheeks and you may not be using them for much anymore.) Funny how things change in just a few months.
Young me thought that becoming a chef or a pastry chef would be glamorous, and naturally the best thing (getting paid to make sweets? Why not?), but Now Me sees that there’s so much more to it than just really enjoying food, making sweets, and getting paid.
You have to be obsessed with it, and for all of my talk about food and passion, I don’t think I’m passionate in quite the same way a chef should be.
I had my first taste of coffee in middle school, and as soon as I set foot in the coffee shop, I thought, “this is where I want to be. I want to work here.”
I once did a short stint at a coffee shop, but that didn’t last very long.
It had been the job of my dreams, and I couldn’t hold onto it. Cue shame, questioning of my self-worth, and “how will I ever build a career now” tears.
A month later, I landed the next perfect job, and because I know someone from that job will be reading this, I realize now, many months later, that this new job is actually the best one for me. But because this job has been a success, and this is a story about non-success, this story will not be about this job.
I still needed one more job. Two months of applying, networking, interviewing in sketchy parking lots, and once even (seemingly) receiving a job offer, only to have it mysteriously revoked the next afternoon, and nothing to show for it, but exhaustion, fear, and shame.
Then someone suggested that I offer to intern in a restaurant kitchen, as a pastry assistant, for free. First, it would help me see if food service was really my destiny before I committed to spending two arms and legs, and all of my beautiful fingers, on culinary school. Second, I could get my foot in the door, work my way up, and become a real pastry chef, even without culinary school.
So I did. It fell through, understandably, but when that door closed, another one flew wide open:
In March, I was offered a full-time job doing pastry in a restaurant, with a training period to help me master the menu.
I decided after my second shift that this dream would have to end this month, or this season.
I miraculously networked my way into a pastry job at a restaurant, a 5-7 days a week job that entailed prepping three desserts, with garnishes. Cakes, tarts, compotes, even ice cream, all from scratch with local produce. I, with the occasional help of a pastry chef, would go in for one day of prep each week, and five evenings of service. During the week, service was slow and sometimes I couldn’t think of anything productive to do so I would just stare at the wall. Some nights, mostly Fridays and Saturdays, were non-stop, from open until an hour after close, and a shift could be anywhere from five to nine hours.
I couldn’t manage six days a week with the freelance writing and the other job, not to mention the grad school application (I got in! I’m going back to school!), so I elected to show up a few hours before service during the week and do whatever production had yet to be done (spinning ice cream bases, baking off tarts, making order lists for ingredients.)
Some of the desserts I enjoyed making, while some became the bane of my existence (pâte sucrée, never again), and regardless of how I felt about chopping up streusel, reducing compote, or prepping a malted milk vanilla bean ice cream base, I certainly learned a few things.
In the end, and from the beginning, I learned that a stainless steel commercial kitchen was not the kitchen I wanted to be in, and whatever difficulties lay waiting for me in culinary school would have to wait for someone else.
Speaking of difficulty, I once read an article that said, instead of focusing on what jobs we want to do and what we want to be successful at, or what kinds of fun we’d like to experience in our careers, it’s more productive to focus on what we want to suffer, and what difficulties we’re not only willing to face, but also want to face.
I don’t give a damn about whether I can dice a carrot into perfectly-sized cubes.
I don’t want to learn how to julienne a scallion with my eyes closed.
I don’t really need to learn about kitchen sanitation.
And I have no desire to join the army just so I can learn how to make something that’ll literally turn to crap within half an hour.
I had an epiphany when I realized that my one big passion was Food, and I naturally assumed that Making Food would be my calling, and as my calling, also my Career, even if all the Anthony Bourdain bios tried to scare me away from it.
Kitchen Confidential couldn’t convince me that I didn’t want to make pastries for a living, but spending two days on production could.
Before you assume anything: the restaurant staff were some of the greatest, nicest, and most encouraging people I know and I fully realize that for someone who really does want a career in pastry, this is The Ideal Opportunity. Few people get the keys to the oven, no job application, no interview, no resume, for a full-time job and an authentic experience. The restaurant itself is chic and the food delectable, whether it’s the grilled pork belly burgers with local cheese, herbed French fries, or the delicately seared scallops. And not to toot my own horn, but the desserts aren’t half bad.
None of that changes the fact, though, that my personality and the nature of the job get along like water and butter: not at all. I’m not a fast person: it takes me at least a month to prepare one recipe for this blog, and I’m thrilled when I can manage as many as three posts in four weeks.
I’m not a high-energy person: you tell me to run and I just want to lie down and take a nap.
I can’t multitask: I’m still not even sure how a person manages to prepare bases, fillings, and garnishes for three elaborate desserts within one day, when I can barely manage two dozen muffins in the same amount of time.
I hate decoration and frill. I don’t like it when they drizzle a little bit of syrup on my dessert when I go out to eat: it’s not enough for me to eat and I just feel like it’s going to waste being smeared all over the porcelain.
I’m not a perfectionist: I cringe whenever the somewhat less consistent of the pastries were tossed.
I’m not a loud, outspoken person, I don’t like yelling, I don’t like being surrounded by people, and I get overwhelmed in loud places.
It’s not at all that I think I’m above the job. It’s that I think the whole career and industry are better off without me.
It’s like trying to break down a wall with a paring knife, when there’s a wrecking ball right behind you and someone who knows how to use it already sitting in the driver’s seat.
Last year, when I lost the coffee job, I blamed myself, I was ashamed, and I worried that achieving my dreams may be impossible. Now, I still blame myself, but not because I messed up: it’s because I know who I am now, I have some idea of what’s expected in this industry, and I know that those two don’t line up. I’m not ashamed: I’m empowered. I can close this door permanently and say, “Veni. Vidi. Not for Me.” I can confidently say, “Never again, but thank you and best of luck to everyone else.”
Now I don’t worry, because my dreams are becoming more manageable by the day. I still have some. I have fewer now than I used to, of course, but by process of elimination, I can find the one that fits me like a glove, the one in which I’ll thrive the most.
My favorite movie when I was a child was Cinderella (ask my parents all about it.) The Prince had to find the woman who best fit the glass slipper, and one of these days, I’ll find the dream (the glass slipper) that best fits me.
I used to worry that it would be too difficult to get my foot in the door, but now I can close, lock, and walk away from the door*.
Stars are effervescent from afar, but up close, they’re deadly floating balls of gas.
*Of course I still love eating and making and learning about food, and this blog will never not be My Thing. Someday I may get paid to something with food, but it won’t be by working in a commercial kitchen.
Categories: about me