I was taking a walk out in the East End this weekend, just casually looking for a place to grab a breakfast treat to take to a friend’s house. I was headed down Cumberland Ave, when I saw a sign for Katie Made Bakery. I had seen reviews for her baked goods, but didn’t realize she had a store front. I popped in and was able to have a chat with Katie and some amazing apple coffee cake as well. It was a wonderfully moist cake and the apple slices covering the top allowed it to still be considered a breakfast item. Katie Made Bakery also serves lunch Tuesday-Saturday with a menu that boasts several gourmet sandwiches, including a vegetarian option, and a seasonal soup. All of the savory items are made by Katie’s sister, Jenny. Although a small shop, the atmosphere is comfortable and both Katie and Jenny make you feel welcome when you walk in the door. The next time you’re craving a sandwich around lunch time or need a piece of chocolate cake for a special event, go check out Katie Made Bakery and let me know what you got!
When I finally made it to my friend’s house (with a second piece of apple coffee cake of course) we started talking about how funny it is to think about the things that become important to you when you work in a restaurant. This morning I had to search in ceiling tiles, behind ovens, and in between pie pans before I could find a clean towel. These are not special towels. They are just ordinary kitchen towels, but in a restaurant they are a commodity. Having towels means that your apron won’t be filthy and soaking wet within the first hour of work because you’ve got somewhere to wipe your hands. Towels can be used as oven mitts, sweat bands, and drying pads. They can also be used as bargaining chips. I have traded a towel for a whisk, a block knife, and a breakfast sandwich on three separate occasions. And it’s not even just clean towels. Every day when I am getting ready to leave work, there are at least three prep cooks hovering around me waiting to see who will get my towels. They are likely dirty and a little bit wet, but that’s better than no towel. There is also a hierarchy to towels. A chef will always have a towel in his apron loop, but rarely needs to use it. The sous chef has at least one around him at all times and also has the key to the towel room; you should become friends with him. The cooks will all likely have a towel, but only because they have found your hiding spots that you thought were very clever. The prep cooks are possibly the ones that need the towels the most, but also the ones that have to work the hardest to get them. The dishwasher has no use for a towel; they are going to be soaking wet anyways.
Another valuable material in a professional kitchen is coffee. For the past week at my current job, we have been mysteriously out of regular coffee. The little sacks of decaf taunt me and the other staff. With most of us working two jobs, pulling 17 hour days, or just having to wake up unnaturally early, we need coffee. It’s usually me who makes the coffee every morning since I am the first one there by several hours. The past week has been torture; watching the hopeful face of the opening cook as he shuffles in and spots the coffee carafe. “Empty” is all I can muster. He shrugs his shoulders and stifles a yawn. I make a joke about growing our own beans and he manages a bleary smile. We are all zombies without our caffeine. Luckily, the head baker has my best interests at heart and delivers a packet of coffee to me, hidden in between the loaves of sourdough he’s brought down from the main bakery. My day is almost over and I know I don’t really need it anymore, so I sneak into the kitchen and pass it covertly to the opening cook. He grins and stashes it behind his line without a word. He’ll have coffee tomorrow morning.
Every profession has it’s idiosyncrasies. Sometimes they can be frustrating, annoying, or just funny, but they are always there. What makes you successful is your ability to adapt and make the best out of what you have. Working in a kitchen can be exhausting and stressful, but it can also be invigorating and give you a real sense of accomplishment. You are fatigued, you smell like a grill, and you may have just been admonished for something you had no control over. But you also spent your day on your feet, using your hands to produce food that you are (hopefully) proud of. It doesn’t matter if it’s sandwiches, pies, or foi gras. All of the late nights, early mornings, and shortages are worth the look of approval from the chef when you hand him that perfect dish or the smile on a satisfied customer’s face as they take that first bite of blueberry pie. If it’s what you truly love to do, then that is enough.