Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sabbaticals end

Five days left at the bakery. I am sad. I indeed feel very proud to have been part of this winning team for even the few months I spent there. A cook friend once told me his thoughts on bakers..."They walk about in a kind of manic fury wearing shorts and a thick coat of flour on their faces" It sounded ideal. I thought yes I need a break from the restaurant kitchens to spend some time in peace. I called a truce with myself when my "Unmarried partner" (don't you just love the census?) told me I no longer spoke of food with the undying fortitude that I once had, when she first decided that I was a worthwhile investment of her time. She was being brutally honest. But yes I had kind of burned out. I needed new energy, confidence and direction.

At first I decided that in the bakery I would pass the time and pay the bills all the while refining my talent with flour. I needed solace and found my new colleagues and new work would fit the bill. I would find that, the time would fly by, the bills remained the same, but I fell in love with this little slice of Brookline.

While in Europe I had done a fair bit of baking but nothing that truly prepared me for the daunting task of loaning my hands and my spirit to those souls in need of baguette. So I shaped and shaped and shaped that french dough and slowly found a kind of Zen rhythm to the night. I mixed a few starter doughs, and then earned my place in front of the blazing oven. I felt awkward with that twelve foot long pole attached to a flat shovel (called a peel) in my hands. It was such a symbol for bakers through the centuries, and I, a humble novice was given the right to wield that unwieldy beast of a tool.

There is a moment in the night during a bake shift when you can peek in the oven and realize that all that hard work is paying off. You see that your friend the "Mixer" followed the recipe chart to the letter, and then enriched the dough with and ounce of intuition and decided that this batch of flour a touch weak and needed an extra thirty seconds at high speed to ensure sufficient dough strength. You also see that his/her partner in crime the "Shaper" (most nights that being me) then put the right amount on tension into that dough and ensured the girth and length of the loaf was proper, (the Shaper also insured that the flow of dance music never skipped a beat). Still in this moment you see that indeed those slashes you made in the dough with a razor have opened like a daffodil in April. The steam injection was just right, the temperature of the hearth was just right and indeed you will have a prosperous bake. All this you realize in the blink of an eye as you lift the little window into the oven. Yes that gratification is addictive.

Having cut my workday in half I found myself needing hobbies. I decided to embark on a journey of exploration into those projects I never had gotten to. I spent time tending the embers and coals in my battered smoker. I mastered bacon. I toyed with pancetta, salmon, tongue, turkey and chicken. I discovered all benefited from an afternoon up in smoke. I teased myself with the idea of making my own cheese. Funny that I live three blocks from one of the finest sellers of cheese in the world. I canned and jammed, and pickled whatever I could find. And I cooked.

I cooked my way into poverty feeding anyone who would eat. But in the end I found what I was looking for; a literary critic would say I had found my voice. And I agree, I had discovered my gastronomic voice. I stopped listening to the voices in my head telling me how to design a dish. That direction coming from chefs of my past. I started to cook from that voice in my heart. I cooked how I felt, and shared that with my little world.

Of the many things new to me these months that I value, I count highest on the list the souls I met along the way. The friends I never knew I needed. The management that toiled with great patience in an attempt to mold me into a man worthy to wear that funny little cap and white apron. Among those new to me, I count artists, farmers, cooks, soldiers, historians, cartographers, engineers, philosophers, linguists, nutritionists, dancers and musicians, all with that selfless goal of watching their day's work ending up on the dinner tables of our neighbors and in the lunch boxes of their children.

So I say Bravo Clearflour. Thank you for hospitality. I feel like I was but a few drops in the poolish bucket that is your life. But I thank you for that privilege, and I wish you the best of luck you will never need. I end my little post with an excerpt from my blog from the beginning of my sabbatical.

"feels like the first time"

dated Sept 25th

"Last night I was a commis again. Lost in a world that revolves around the manipulation of the life cycle of yeast. The bakeshop has it's own sounds, it's own language, it's own pecking order and it's own rhythm.

The first sound my ears had the pleasure to imbibe as I rolled up the door (bike in one hand confusion in the other,) was The Clash "Rudie can"t fail". I took it as an omen of good things to come. It was only a prelude of choice musical selections for the duration of the shift.

Then the storm of jargon roared past me. Batches of bread being called FB's or FL's or french 1,2,3,4, or retail, or or or...

Shaping bread will be my primary task for weeks to come I'm told. I must have rolled 200 baguettes, it's so Zen like. With each loaf the opportunity to improve on the last one. Looking down at the other shapers loaves for inspiration and wonder. I ponder how many baguettes I've eaten in my lifetime, and whose hands they were born in. It is a slightly intimate connection I have with my community now, knowing that my work has become their daily bread."