It is important for people to feel pride in what they do well. We all have a skill or talent that sets us apart from others and maintains our individuality. This taken too far, of course, can lead to excessive braggadocio and all-around douchebagery. We shouldn’t brag excessively. Lao Tzu says in the Tao Teh Ching, “The Sage does not boast of his ability, hence he gets his credit… Only simple and quiet words will ripen themselves for a whirlwind does not last a whole morning, nor does a sudden shower last a whole day… One who boasts of his own ability has no merit.” Essentially, he who takes claim of everything can have everything taken from him.
But having justified pride in what you know you do well can boost your confidence and balance you as a person. There are talents I know I possess. I know I’m a pretty decent cook, I happen to be an awesome speller, my movie trivia skills are top-notch and I can beat Donkey Kong Country faster than anyone I know.
But to maintain balance, one must readily admit the areas in which one may not excel. For instance, I’m a pretty lousy athlete. Nerdy, sideways-hat-wearin’ white guys can dance better than I can, and the few fake teeth in my head are proof of why I never claimed to be any good on a skateboard. And as far as the world of cooking goes, I absolutely suck at baking.
It’s not that I can’t bake anything. I can whip up pretty basic biscuits (thanks to the tutelage of pastry chefs I’ve worked with). I can, on a good day, churn out a run-of-the-mill custard (thanks to countless batches of Hollandaise). But the fact that I managed to, even after two failed attempts, bang out a mediocre, sort-of okay angel food cake is a damned miracle. It’s just not my specialty, and it is, in part, due to what I call The Great Divide.
In the world of professional cooking there are two main schools of thought. A few culinary school students I’ve known always referred to them as Culinary and Pastry; the two divisions of teaching in culinary school. “Pastry” is pretty much what it sounds like. It deals with desserts, cakes, sometimes souffles and just about anything with sugar. That description is horribly limiting because there is a lifetime of knowledge and technique that can fall under the Pastry category. “Culinary” refers to everything else; everything from appetizers to entrees, soups, salads, snacks, you name it. To give you a more practical picture, the Culinary world is the hot stuff; the world of ovens, flat-top griddles, grills, saute ranges, and also includes the knife-slingin’ badassery I’m so fond of. The cook line in a restaurant is Culinary. Pastry usually has it’s own room (or floor if it’s a hotel or major production facility).
The way things go, people in the business are either Culinary or Pastry. The Chefs or the Pastry Chefs. A hash slinger or a dough ho. Almost never both. Any time I’ve seen a Pastry worker thrown on a cook line, they go down in flames. Sending a run-of-the-mill line cook like myself to help the Pastry Chef is synonymous with throwing your Pastry goods straight in the trash can. They will be ruined. The merging of the two in one person or successful switching over does happen, but is very rare in my experience.
So why am I so particularly bad at baking? I know myself well enough to know my end of it, and I’ve been chastised by enough Pastry students to know their end. Cooking as I know and love it is a land of artistic freedom. Don’t like the way your fellow pirate made his sauce? Add your own flair to it. Too broke to buy every exotic ingredient? Leave a few out. The end results are more implied much of the time. Not every Chef is so meticulous that he’ll chop your finger off for doing your own version of things. If you’re in a pinch, certain corners can be cut. One of my favorite things about cooking as I know it is accumulating a personal arsenal of tricks and illusions to enhance or totally salvage certain items. A lack or excess of one ingredient can be compensated by another. One could fill a phone book with ways to fix screwed-up food. A broken sauce can be reincorporated. Burned dishes are not always beyond saving.
Pastry is just a different monster altogether. It is a world of exact measurements and timing; of patience and rigidity. In-depth planning, execution and commitment. There is little, if any, room for error and the slightest mistake can mean absolute doom. Unlike Culinary, you may not know you screwed up until your product is done, cooled and tasted; far beyond the point of no return. In order for the final product to be perfect, each step along the way must be perfect. Centuries of tried and tested methods have been put into place from which one cannot deviate.
As I’ve said before I often cook in a hurry. When I’m hungry I don’t care much for perfection and flair. Even if I have a craving for something more difficult or particular, I’ll still eat a mouthful of home-made mediocrity to fill my eager belly. I once asked a Zen Master baker, “Why? Why does my basic, I-ain’t-impressin’-no-one bread come out dry and bland even when I follow the recipe?” She replied, “Bread is alive. You have to pay attention to it even when you’re not working it. Don’t forget it in the oven. Give it your energy and it will repay you.” I understand what the baking Sage meant (I think) but I simply don’t have the patience for most baking processes. I can’t imagine setting aside an entire day for one recipe. I don’t think with the right longevity to babysit a batch of starter in my fridge for even the most mouth-watering sourdough.
When I am handed a recipe my first thought is, “Cool, what can I take out?” I like to substitute, if not remove entirely, certain ingredients or even whole steps. One flour-covered, Pastry lady once told me, “You don’t just wing it. You start by making the recipe like it’s supposed to be made, then see what sort of things you can do to alter it.” That never made sense to me. I know what the result will be if I follow it exactly. There’s a picture in the damned book. It’s why I wanted to make it in the first place. What I want to know is how can I do it my way. But evidence suggests this is the wrong approach.
Many of the Pastry Chefs I know are nervous wrecks and have a hard time with the Culinary side of things. They have watched me add spices to a sauce in pinches, sprinkles and other vague, non-measurements pulling their hair out with lunacy. “You don’t even know how much you just added, what are you doing!?” It’s called eyeing it, and we do it all day. But then again, there’s a lot less at stake with our food. We can tell pretty quickly when something’s off or needs adjusting. A simple sample does a world of good. Meanwhile, just cracking open the oven to take a peek at the Pastry Wizard’s bread could, by some totally legitimate yet totally unbeknownst-to-me way, ruin it completely.
Though I do not envy the pressure Pastry Chefs deal with, I do admire their commitment. They are perfectionists, through and through. They have to be. They’ll set alarms to wake up in the most inhuman hours to feed a starter in a walk-in or rotate a sheet tray in an oven. They invest impressive amounts of research and planning into their projects and methodically execute each step with precision. They are irrefutably scientists. While my Culinary cohorts and I may have a vague idea of the science sizzling in our skillets, the Pastry Chemists know every chemical reaction and entropic process going on in their petri dishes of sugary delight.
I don’t view my lack of baking prowess as bad news. Learning so much about cooking can really remove the shine from everything. The glamor’s gone in so many ways. I enjoy going out to eat with friends but I’m usually unimpressed by my food. It certainly doesn’t stop me from eating it, mind you, but I sometimes have a hard time remembering the last time I was wowed. It’s a different story with desserts, though. To me the Pastry landscape remains largely unexplored and even the most mundane preparations send my curiosities and perplexities on the most imaginative of journeys. I briefly dated a Pastry Chef and neither of us knew anything about the other’s field. We always impressed each other. She’d make me monkey breads and cinnamon roles and I was putty in her hands. She’d say, “It’s not hard to make,” and I’d not say anything because I was too busy transforming my jaw into a trash compactor.
So I must say thank you to all the rigid, mad-scientist Pastry Robots who are so different from me. We share a passion for creating, but yours is one I could never emulate. I can’t stand working with you, but my insatiable sweet tooth is eternally grateful.