Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!
I like architects.
By that mean I like being around their process, akin to my enjoyment of the company of historians. They look at the world in a different way, with a structural perspective on physical or societal materials and how they come together. It’s an interesting space to live in. I admire their tenacity and problem-solving. All of which is to explain why I also admire bakers.
Awhile back, I bumped into a new baker at a shop. It was first shift, learning the ropes of the joint, the where/when of everything in that particular kitchen and she was obviously engaged and enthusiastic. I asked where she went to college. “Colorado State!” said she, and it was no shock to me when she said she studied architecture. We chatted about how bakers think like architects and it’s not a leap of faith how the study of one would lead to the execution of the other. at least in a professional sense. The concurrence in my grandiose theory was emphatic and appreciated; certainly singing the praises of said craft seemed to be something that was the exception rather than the rule.
Baking is a state of mind akin to alchemy, where all the mystical elements involved don’t really make sense except to the practitioner of said arcane science. Where time, temperature and sprit all mix together to form a ethereal cloud of goodness that seems far removed from the end result. But bakers and Chefs are different beasts in many ways and rarely is anyone completely proficient at both. (Don’t even get me started on whether the title of “Baker” should capitalized like “Chef” but for the sake of argument and respect I’ll do so here). So for what’s it’s worth here’s the things that make bakers singular and significant in any kitchen, commercial or otherwise.
Bakers tend to isolate – I don’t know a lot of gregarious bakers. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any but as a rule they are more comfortable with the company of a stand mixer than that of people. A lot of Chefs are like this too and the ones that are more introverted tend to understand baking more.
Bakers are task-oriented – This means that as a rule they follow a project or dish (for lack of a better term) from beginning to end. Rarely have I seen a baker hand off something in the middle of the process to be completed by somebody else. They understand the construct of what they are doing and tend to be invested in the end result. The bakery staff at a large hotel or the main bakery at Disneyland are exceptions to this by necessity but I don’t think it sits well with their nature. The sense of collaboration that many Chefs have doesn’t always translate to the sprit of the baker. They are ensuring the execution of their vision from a intimate part of themselves.
Bakers work weird hours – Almost all Bakers I know go to bed at 8pm and are awake at 3:30am – oftentimes including on their days off. This is a wondrous historical anchor. Bakers for millennia have been up to prepare the morning fare for the table whether in home or shop. The visual of a Baker starting in the wee hours from ancient Egyptian times through the Renaissance and into today hasn’t changed much, just the ancillary technology.
Bakers are a cultural anchor – Ancient civilizations and more recent societies have sprung up around baking and the agricultural means to make it happen. There is more to the craft of baking than mere sustenance, there is the aspect of community and culture. Which in is ironic considering the observation of Bakers as isolating, they are in their own weird way curators and cultivators of society itself. The idea of “hearth and home” is there for a reason and one certainly wouldn’t be the same without the other.
Bakers execute their vision in a singular fashion – If you are working the line or main kitchen your efforts are part of a greater process. With bakers they are one LEGO in the flow. Think of it this way – if you’re making a burger all the parts land in one spot to create this dish. That’s how what could be classically termed a “Chef” looks at the flow and execution. But the Baker thinks about the bun and bun only much like a butcher only thinks about the grind and composition of the meat. They might take direction from the Exec but they don’t think much beyond that generally. That’s a good thing in this case, it means they are focused and perfecting their craft!
As for me? Well, baking is definitely my Achilles heel. I can land a decent pie working in the Sierra and I have even odds of producing a palatable loaf of sourdough – although I can whip up a starter to die for. But aside from that my Betty Crocker skills are sadly lacking. It does cause me some kitchen lamentations on occasion yet I also realize that, like Clint Eastwood said in Magnum Force – “A man’s got to know his limitations”. So I have to swallow my pride and let those that do what they do well do what they do well.
Which is why the art of baking is such a gift to all of us. Not just because of the product but also because of the process. It’s a state of mind that has literally nourished civilization for millennia and it goes far beyond the actual confines of the craft. It touches a deep, simple part of all of us with each and every morsel. So, although Chefs get all the obvious glory – and generally have the giant egos to go with it – Bakers are the unsung heroes of the kitchen and in more than a minor sense also ones of humankind itself. So next time you bite into that bun or muffin, even if it came from a factory, pause and savor the art that is in that tiny moment realizing that still waters run deep in this case. Bakers aren’t just bakers….they’re Bakers.
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