- The Boston Globe
Thursday, November 20, 2003
Twenty years after the fact, Im still inordinately proud of having won a high school pie baking contest. Why? Because I have an unrequited passion for pastry.
A highly unscientific survey of my friends reveals that I'm not alone; almost all of them are jealous when they find out Im going to be pastry chef for the day at Zebras Restaurant and Wine Bar in Medfield. For a hundred bucks, I will spend the day in the kitchen, whipping up tarts and spontaneously inventing at least one brilliant dessert. (At least, thats how it plays in my fantasies.) Then, that same night Ill get my money back in the form of a gift certificate to Zebras.
Hmm, it sounds too good to be true. Whats in it for pastry chef Aimee Clarke, I wonder. Is she paid for this under the table? (Nope.) Does Zebras owner Craig Neubecker have some dirt on her? (He has seen the inside of my house, admits Clarke, but thats not the kind of dirt I was thinking of.) I decide that whatever their understanding may be, its none of my business. Lets get cooking.
The big day arrives, and Im awakened at half past five by a driving rain. The dog, looking especially warm and comfortable in her bed, doesnt even raise her head to greet me. After stumbling around the kitchen making kids lunches and washing last nights dinner dishes, I wake up just enough to notice that theres brown water leaking out of the fridge and onto the floor. Ignoring it, I grab a waffle and hit the road.
So there I am, all heading down the Atlanta highway in a love shack (yes, this was playing on the radio), then, bam! One-mile backup to 95 South. Back to dark thoughts.
So, I think bitterly, Im going to be late for my very first day on the job. But then I remember: This isnt my first day, its my only day. If ever there were someone you could classify as non-essential personnel, cest moi. I relax and crank the tunes. I pull up to Zebra's an hour later, ready to roll (and slice and dice). I cant wait to throw myself into the middle of the fray, get down to some real action with knives and fire and the general frenzy of restaurant life. Not much longer to wait now.
OK, so I have 10 minutes to wait. Clarkes a tad late, but by 8:45 a.m., were settled in: coffees made, aprons tied, hairs pulled back. Im like a puppy, all eager, boundless energy. Were going over the days to-do list as Clarke heads over to turn on the convection oven. Then she turns it on again. And again. Clarke must turn the oven on 10 times before it stays lit. Apparently I cant escape substandard kitchen appliances this morning after all. Theres always one piece of equipment in the kitchen you wish would die, says Clarke affably. Clarke, Im quickly learning, is a very mellow woman.
After finessing the oven, she pulls out a scale and some yeast and drags a 50-pound sack of flour out from under a work table. Finally, were getting serious. The memories start to flood in: After working in casual restaurants and catering companies throughout high school and college, I landed a job at the Harvests takeout shop 15 years ago. (The Express, as it was called, has since been replaced by bathrooms. Theres a slice of humble pie.) I watched as Tiffany, the Harvests excellent pastry chef, turned her blood, sweat and tears into spun sugar and sweet dreams. Indeed, it was Tiffany who first taught me that pastry chefs must lug around half their weight in flour, pull massively heavy trays out of hot ovens, navigate dangerously wet and slippery floors, and stir scalding, spitting sauces and syrups.
But its not dessert were going to dirty our hands with now, its bread. Bread? You mean the slow-rising, patience-requiring, non-glamorous staff of life? How about that. This pastry chef thing isnt quite as exhilarating as I remember. Where are the prep guys yelling out sexist jokes? The wait staff and cooks cursing at each other? The grease fires? No, this is nothing like those fiery scenes of my youth. In fact, its downright peaceful here in the back of the house at Zebras. Theres no lunch service, hence no prep guys in the kitchen this early in the day.
Thats when it hits me: Clarke is a 38-year-old mother of three. She is a grown-up doing grown-up work in a suburban restaurant. Its a little disappointing. But Clarke doesnt think so. I have enough excitement at home, she says with a laugh. Then I remember that I never especially loved the sexism and racy jokes of a hot restaurant kitchen, either.
But I did love the intricate desserts I got to help with sometimes. Right now, its forty-five minutes into my pastry debut, and Clarkes still messing around with bread dough. Arent I supposed to be up to my elbows in cream puffs by now? My feet are starting to hurt. Then Clarke asks me to roll out a batard, which is just a fancy way of saying a ridiculously shaped loaf of bread. I make Clarke re-roll mine as quickly as possible, ensuring she gets it done before Lane, the sneaky photographer, is able to get it on film for posterity (and publication). Ineptitude number two: complaining that the paring knife doesnt work when actually, Im holding it backwards. And number three: referring to the walk-in fridge as a freezer.
But oh, there are highlights, too, like flambing the apples, using an apple corer for the first time (correctly), and being actually and truly useful two times: once, while holding a funnel so Clarke can pour raspberry sauce into a squeeze bottle, and the second time, cutting bread for bread pudding. But the days peak moment comes when Clarke asks if I had worked on the line at the Harvest. (Moments before, I had flipped apples in a pan just high enough so that Clarke would notice. Score.) Then at 1:18, literally the minute after the photographer leaves, I do my most brilliant work -- cutting out pastry puff rounds. With the paring knife. Deftly.
By noon, much of my hair has escaped its pony tai and reality is setting in. I had forgotten how much dishwashing and multitasking and, frankly, really hard, repetitive work there is going on in a restaurant kitchen. Truth be told, Im a little bored. And Im so tired that Im actually leaning on the work table between tasks. My aprons covered with chocolate stains and Ive been noshing on cake, brittle, biscotti, and ice cream all morning. Yep, its been great. Im ready to call it a day.
Fortunately, today is Clarkes short day since she has to pick up her kids from school, so I get to leave at 2:15 without letting her know just how exhausted I am. I notice on the drive home that my fingertips are stained with chocolate, and I chuckle, perversely satisfied with myself. Once home, I decide to meditate by lying down in bed under a comforter. My son and husband show up 45 minutes later and wake me up.
Im beyond grateful that I wont be cooking dinner for myself or anyone else tonight. Its back to Zebras with the gift certificate. I admit that its a kick when the bread basket arrives. Despite all the mornings bad feelings, even I have to admit that its delicious. But in truth, dinner isnt my focus. If ever there were a time to save room for dessert, this is it.
Finally, the waitress brings over the dessert menu, and I order the three that I had a hand in (albeit barely): chocolate bottom pumpkin bread pudding; toasted cornmeal cake with a sauted apple and caramel sauce; and warm white chocolate rice pudding tart with apricot confit.
This is the moment Ive been waiting for. Im ready to dig in to the fruits of my labor -- and then it hits. A wall of fatigue. I really cant eat another bite. Embarrassed, I get my desserts to go and ask my honey to take me home.
It turns out that I cant recreate the past after all. Ive decided not to be a pastry chef. Too much has changed since I first stepped into the Harvest kitchen 15 years ago. Now, its as obvious as the day was long that I belong in the front of the house -- as a paying customer.