On November 10, 2008 I entered the biggest kitchen I've ever worked in. Not by square footage alone, although working in a factory means just that. We're talking serious production. The 100 quart mixer never stops except when its bowls need to be washed or decanted. Two 20 quart mixers are hot by the end of the night and someone shifts gears on the sheeter (in UK kitchen language it's called The Break) all night long. There are people on my team who hand cut cookies (biscuits) all day every day, not to mention each scone that's also massaged.
The day begins when I want it to. Often a cake will haunt me in my dreams until I can figure it out. I wake blurry and sore, stumble to the kettle, make a strong cup of tea, sort out the day's list, check a bit of email and walk briskly to London's infamous Overground. This crowded train will take me North most of the way, and then I get on a commuter train, getting off after 2 stops.
Our address is Unit 21 and you must know the secret code on 2 sets of doors to get in. Boys & Girls have 2 separate entrances and even though our locker room is small it doesn't smell of feet. We women are four, all on my team.
Then there's the uniform. Also like no other I've ever climbed into.
White trousers, white coat, white apron, red hairnet. Inside it we're same: all germless and non-unique. There are even beard nets for those sporting a below the chin shag.
A temporary report gets printed out. A long list of names and codes and numbers, both in sterling and amounts. Ovens (4) get turned on. ventilation checked. Purchase Orders filed. Trace codes checked. Induction burners (3) plugged in. Scales (4) found and parked. Recipes pulled.
Bowls, spatulas, whisks, rulers, brushes, scissors, baby offset spatulas, knives-- all arranged, put in their places.
Scaling starts. Batch sizes worked out on calculators. Fifty kilos of butter are uncovered-- one 25kg French, the other English. Eggs, yolks and whites get pulled from fridge to take the chill off. Milk and cream too. Room temperature is better.
The clock strikes 3:30 and everyone looks around furtively.
The final report is printed. And now all those numbers from the temporary report are real. No arguing them off, no time to turn back now. Three reports come out of the printer. 1. the 48 hour report for products needing lead time. 2. packing sheet. Where all those names go. On which trucks, to what stores and airports and hotels and food halls and supermarkets and restaurants and farmers markets and stores and people and sales samples and gift hampers and and and and. 3. the final report. All accounts must place their orders by 14:30 to get on The Final.
Trolleys line up next to the ovens, temperatures fluctuate, hundreds of timers are set throughout the shift and people shout over the din of busy baking. Sometimes the difference of 30 seconds is enough to force a baker to wait with mitts on and count. One Mississippi...
Blink and it's 2000 grams of eggs being poured into a mixer, flash and a batter breaks, breathe in and a batter emulsifies, eyes wide and cake batter swallows an arm scraping to the bottom. A mechanized embrace lowers a foot breaking bowl slowly and another set of shoulders are needed. Heave-ho and said bowl is at belly button level. Four strong arms tilt and pour. Fifth and sixth hands scrape bowl shiny,
and we start again.
Pans are sprayed and lined with perfect square petals of parchment. And hundreds of cakes enter a deck oven once and for all. Silicone saves the day. Pipe in, pop out, pipe in, pop out, and so the baking song goes.
Wash and rinse and scrub and whisk and beat and time and heat and sear and transform. Baking. It's a love affair that never leaves you.
Our menu is wide and varied. We make 20 amuse bouche and thousands of shortbread, 3 tin cakes and dozens of dozens of scones, the best English Muffins in London and an exquisite Eccles Cake, rhubarb makes a Spring appearance in a few items and eency weency leek oil roasted grissini are hand twisted and eaten by elite businesspeople on Transatlantic flights.
We make it all. We're everywhere. We transport when London is fast asleep and steal off on night buses floury and spent.
It's baking like I've never done before. Varied and deep, massive and intricate, business oriented and numbers-centric, inspired and inventive, problem solving and on-the-fly and mapped and retested, marketed and undercover, humble and hands-on, familial and loyal, red tape strewn and free from constraint.
Addiction, sickness or passion? Worth it or all for naught? New sport or siren's call?
I'm not sure, but I hope to make it to the other side.