In lieu of my recent restaurant departure I've come to have a few thoughts about how there are a lot of different kinds of pastry chefs, and how "comparing one's inside's to another's outsides," can lead to dangerous territory.
By this I mean-- competition and self doubt and keeping up with the Joneses and all those icky feelings that crop up when we're worried about who we are and what we do, and instead of just being who we are and doing what we do, we stop, and peer around the edge nervously, spying on our counterparts, and reading each others press, and worrying.
We worry that we have the wrong desserts and we employ the wrong methods.
We worry about how we might be too boring, or not boring enough.
We worry we're too old fashioned or not sticking to the Classics.
We worry about how closely we're sticking to the seasons and if any Eat Localvores are going to arrest us for putting strawberries on our menu one day too soon.
We worry our menu is not approachable enough for the clientele we are serving. We worry our chef will keep making her/his portions bigger and bigger and keep complaining that dessert sales are too low to keep us on. We worry our desserts are better than our chef's savoury food & one day he'll notice and fire us for some bogus reason.
We worry even when we're drunk or asleep or lounging easily on the bar or flirting with waiters or yelling at our cooks or trying to fix our Kitchen-Aid with masking tape or hiding our chinois in our lockers or doing our endless laundry or on a date or walking around nonchalantly as if we've not got a care in the world, on our one day off.
Sometimes the worry takes a vacation and ends up in a place it gets stuck because a volcano has decided to erupt or an earthquake has taken over the newsreels or someone in our family has died and
for a minute
we can breathe, worry-free.
But then it starts again.
We pick up a food magazine and see yet another recipe for a stupid dessert or a cliched pairing or the name of a pastry chef who's been getting press since dinosaurs opened ice cream parlours
and then the worry begins again.
Of course I'm being a little silly.
Not all pastry chefs worry around the clock. There are a few cool, calm & collected ones. A few Clark Kents who are just as wonderful even before they do a quick-change in a diminutive telephone booth. A few who know exactly who they are, where they came from and make desserts from their heart, their heartland.
But I do think a little worry is alright.
Because a lot of complacency is what I see on most dessert menus, wherever I eat, wherever I work, whenever I travel.
It's all too easy to make dessert cliches. It's all too easy to easy to conform. It's all too easy to become the undead pastry chef. It's all too easy to do only what you were taught in school. It's all too easy to perpetrate crimes against plated desserts, pastries, sweet thangs.
Because the masses want same. Sameness sells. Lowest common denominator flies off the shelf. Boring rules. The bottom line is infatuated with mass production.
Sugar is a siren.
The population is its ship.
Sugar spins web of deception.
The blind lead the stupid lead the lemmings.
All to their creative death.
And so it goes, round and round.
Sugar is a siren.
Because sugar, or the taste of sweetness, harkens back to our childhoods so strongly, and nostalgia is at the root of most classical dessert creations, it's difficult for people to allow pastry chefs to take chances with flavours/ingredients/pairings they love and hold close dearly.
Perhaps so close they suffocate pastry chefs!
stop worrying and----->
start thinking outside the pink box.
start coming up with some slightly new flavor pairings.
stop only ordering from your purveyors and begin going to health food stores and online sources for some of your ingredients.
start reading of-the-moment chef blogs and start looking more closely at food photos and buy some food magazines & cookbooks not written in your native tongue and get your mind out there-- even if you can't afford to travel your body on that culinary airplane.
delve deeper into the ingredients you think you know-- try different animal eggs, animal fats, animal & grain & nut milks, various flours with and without gluten contents. toast your flours, taste new salts, experiment with as many kinds of sugars as you can find-- jaggeries, muscovados, raw/turbinado/demerarra, coconut sugar. taste honeys from all over the world. taste all strengths of Manuka honey. attempt using miso in replacement of salt, or even sugar.
substitute labne or Greek yogurt or sheep's milk yogurt for creme fraiche. substitute fromage frais for ricotta. or better yet-- make your own ricotta!
if you always use mascarpone, look into Crescenza or other triple cream wonders. try goat butter for your next batch of shortbread.
challenge yourself to a week of vegan baking. gluten-free baking. nut-free baking.
if you've never used fresh herbs in your muffins, cakes, cookies, buttercream, try it today. buy small batches of Organic non-irradiated ground spices and see what a difference they make compared to what your dry goods supplier is sending you. think they're too expensive? you only need 1/4 of the ginger root powder if it actually tastes like itself.
go to restaurants just for dessert.
get yourself out of your personal cave of dessert making and try someone else's creations. for all you know they're on twitter or facebook too and if you have questions imagine how happy they'll be to learn that you, another fellow pastry chef, came to eat their food & now has questions about some of their plates!
do something besides sleep on your next day off.
try getting inspiration from not just other food related sources. go to a gallery, a museum, get on a rollercoaster, take someone's kid to the zoo, or lay in the moss under some redwood trees and look high up into their canopy for perspective.
what are some other things you do to clear your head when your chef or the owner or your customers want you to make the same boring desserts they
remember from their childhood
had their last pastry chef make
know how to pronounce/eat/serve
think they know how to make themselves
eat year round whether those ingredients are in season or not
are oppressing you with only boring dusty 1980's (or earlier!) ideas
the first chef who made something which strayed from his tradition/culture/local ingredient list/ etc. had to work hard to convince others of his and its merit.
the comfortable spot you've cornered yourself into keeps you and me and other chefs and future diners dumb.
guerilla acts of change are necessary to facilitate education, growth, change and to open one's mind one might sometimes need a crowbar as well as a spatula.