Japaleeno to Chipoltee
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
(to Eschew the Devil I Knew, Pt. IV)
The one area that I've never gotten too much help with, is the baking department. Because I had my own personal notion of needing to master both sweet and savory, and because I was one of the only few who seemed to actually enjoy the fruits that a bit of planning might yield, versus the bullshit most line cooks and chefs seem to be fated to calling their day. Cooks and chefs for whom, of course, science and math are hardly applicable in the kitchen; the same who might even look down on the pastry folks because somehow it's not possible to have a high degree of food knowledge unless you work the line.
To be sure, I've worked in a few bakeries over the years in addition to the restaurants and guest ranches, But the recipes are already set, or they were in the ones that by which I happened to be employed, and there wasn't really a lot of room for input or experimentation: Versus being a line cook or sous chef who might throw together some kind of something for some grub, whenever I tried doing that in the bakeries I always ended up getting in trouble.
I didn't necessarily mind the hours, and I didn't mind preparing the house recipes. I was able to learn a whole slew of tips and tricks along the way, and I'm grateful to be able to say that I've got that sort of experience in addition to everything else. What I did not like, was that there was very little room for input. My goal was to be a chef, right? Well if I couldn't prepare my own recipes, then surely I was less than whatever that might be, right? And if I was going to be spending my time making this stuff, then I should also be making it while advancing my career, right?
Thus does the vast majority of my experience derive from the savory side of things; and thus did I wind up figuring out how to bake most things quite by myself--good ole trial and error. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'm obsessive, but I figured out a way to figure out something like the best, and created an overall systematic approach to the combinations of ingredients necessary to prepare any number of basic baked goods, each deriving from the simplest and gaining unto the fattest (never really the sweetest, because even as a kid I never really enjoyed the cloying sweetness of certain things, or the chemical taste of food dyes or the oiliness vegetable shortening). All things related to baking and pastry, at least as far as my involvement or input was concerned, became entrenched in this self-created matrix of large and small doughs, fillings, frostings, and techniques.
Only because I've made clam chowder so many times, can I tell whether or not it tastes quite right--based on what I'm expecting from my preparation. Same with most other dishes. Fortunate or not, I've become quite adept at devising ratios and recipes in my head, and having them turn out pretty much exactly as I had imagined they would. And that, to me, is the ultimate consistency of self. I can say with confidence that I can do this, that, or the other thing, and know how it's going to turn out and, generally, what you might think of it (please note this is not a psychic ability, and in fact becomes more evident only as I get to know you--and I hate when people ask me to tell them what they want to eat: I'm not you, I don't fucking know).
Believe it or not, I don't have recipes for most of the food I know how to make. And yet I have reams of pages, notebooks filled with recipes--experiments, restaurant recipes, ranch recipes, Italian and Mexican and Indian and Southern and Barbecue and Mediterranean. In the end, considering the relative lack of structure in what may be called "American Cuisine" (compared, of course, to the rigidity of "Traditional/French Haute Cuisine"), there are so many dagnabbed derivatives and ratios that it's really quite impossible to decide upon favorites or standards. My standard, is my experience; the positive feedback I've received from consumers and fellow shit manufacturers; the regularity of the result of performing the same tasks and techniques time and again. I'm not saying I'm the best or that I'm necessarily better than you, I'm just saying I know what I've got up my sleeve.
Even still: A recipe that doesn't get followed, means just about nothing to anyone. What even do the churros matter, if now I'm going to try and break away from everything I've ever known? Were they worth it? Are they really that good? Fucking hell, it's a phallic doughnut coated in cinnamon and sugar, for crying out loud!
It's not even about the motherlicking churros.
It's not about the fact that over the years I've cultivated this personal, core set of recipes and/or preparations. There is very little that is unique when it comes to food, and there is very little when it comes to doing anything that's never been done before. We are living successfully in our current day and age thanks to generations and centuries of knowledge passed down, fostered and nurtured and flourishing wildly because it's readily available at the touch of a digital button on a little device that contains information on just about everything, for just about everyone. So no: Even the fact of a gluten-free and vegan churro in and of itself is nothing new, and neither is the fact of using mesquite flour for baking very new. At all.
...The flour blend, that's the thing we thought was really special.
But we were vulnerable.
Technically I can only speak for myself; and, as for myself, although I may say that we can look back on this year and think everything thus far seems almost-planned, I just so happened to be there for most of that time period, and can truthfully attest to the fact that there was little to no planning involved, whatsoever. January and February saw me wrestling with the bald truth and consequence of kitchen burn-out, debating yet again whether or not it made sense to get yet another kitchen job and not knowing, in any case, where I might find one because for some reason no one seemed interested. Probably just the timing, I told myself.
Eventually, somebody offered me something, and I took it. Already feeling like I'd essentially done everything I'd ever wanted to do, with regard to rank and title and longevity and complexity, experimentation and application, blah blah blah my career. I have my core set of recipes, I know I can handle the business side of things, I'm usually pretty good with people once we all get to know with each other, and I already have a vast library of resources available to me thanks to my own neuroses and the conveniences of technology: The melting-pot, bubbling away at its constant low flame and spewing derivatives, ratios, solutions, and whatever else.
But I'd never really got to do anything much with the baking. And the prospect and probability of being able to do so, and even possibly being able to do so on a grand scale, maybe not at first but in the long run (I don't know if anyone said that or if that was all in my head, but either way--perception is reality);--it might not have been a dream come true, but it made for a pretty decent rebound. Especially considering the fact that the actual concept had yet to open and I was brought on as a sort of filler-in every now and again, ostensibly training for management but also with the clear understanding on all sides that I was to be married within a month, and that the honeymoon had already been booked. Thankfully this was no issue whatsoever, but it made it easy for me not to truly commit during those first few weeks. For one, I knew I wasn't intended for the location; for two, mutually ending the relationship with my previous employers had allowed for a huge amount of time for reflection; and for three, I had Wedding Brain, I suppose. Thinking about the honeymoon and the fact of leaving the country for the first time ever; thinking about the concept that I would be working at, rather than trying to be part of the one I was at. Thinking, also, about the fact of being able to work again, side-by-side with my wife.
She and I met in the kitchen, after all. When that restaurant closed down, she got a job at one place and I got a job at another. When she finally decided she'd had enough of that place (and that takes a lot; according to the zodiac my wife is a cancer, which means she's a crab: She can handle more than you'd ever imagine), I and my employers were in a position to bring her aboard. Certain conditions applied, of course, and we were able to meet those with ease. All in all, probably about half the time I spent employed there--the latter half--my wife was also with the company, in some capacity or another. But we never really got to work together, per se, because there was always a barrier. The same professional barrier that we'd happened upon when we first met, and that we continue to understand as being crucial to maintaining a fair and professional working relationship, but also something a bit more stated and intentional, for some reason. We really wanted to make a point of not being together at work.
So not only do I have New Employee Brain, Wedding Brain, and the honeymoon sitting on the horizon, my soon-to-be-wife is also going to be working there with me--just like when we met, side-by-side (but of course with the same professionalism as always). On top of that, we're talking about our living situation and the very real possibility and wisdom of downsizing (our residence at the time was simply far too big, and far too expensive), but the options hadn't exactly made themselves clear just yet (because at the time I still wasn't thinking far enough outside the box). Meanwhile I'm still dealing with the burn-out, if not the actuality of it then the aftermath--trying to cling to that godforsaken tradition of mine, and justifying it by telling myself that it's about the baking, this time, and the pastries, and the whatever. Not so much the food, and not multiples of restaurants, and hopefully not having to do too-too much with the kitchen proper because maybe it'll be big (the baking thing)....
Indeed we may have lost our minds on the honeymoon. Maybe it was the constant flow of Mai Tais and Pina Colada Double-Rums. Maybe it was that, plus the whirlwind of planning the wedding, quitting an old job (wife) starting the new job (me), and the overwhelmingly exciting prospect of starting new jobs (both of us, at the new place). Whatever it was, pretty literally right after we got back from the honeymoon we decided on the fifth-wheel. We'd already considered the possibility of a tiny home in our earlier discussions, and we figured that at the very least, it wouldn't hurt to have a look-see and find out what it might take. Initial inquiries were a little iffy, but we happened to get financing approval from an unexpected source and we decided to run with it. Hell, with the hours I worked and the hours she'd be putting in, we spent a fairly small amount of time in the actual home itself: Why not have a smaller space, with only the things we need, at a greatly reduced cost per month, that will eventually be ours to own completely? Not only that but thanks to lower bills maybe we can save enough money for a truck and actually be able to travel with it. Not only that, but maybe if we manage to save enough money in the long run, we might be able to take off a whole year and go travel, if we wanted to!
And that, became the motivation: It wasn't about the career, it wasn't about the brand, it wasn't about the people or the concept per se. The job was fun because it wasn't important. It was important because it wasn't necessary. It was necessary because it wasn't what we wanted to do in the long run but it was how we were going to get where we wanted to be.
The catch, of course, was the task itself: For myself, anyway, it was opening up and sharing something I've been carrying around with me from guest ranch to guest ranch and restaurant to restaurant. Ta-dah! Those hard-earned, hard-learned baked-goods recipes that always wow people but not only that, make me stand out because most cooks and chefs don't know how to do baking and pastry on top of whatever else they do; and they can be delivered consistently, because it's all written down and I know what to expect and I know what you're going to get....Need some kind of different? All it is, is a matter of derivative and ratio. That's why all those recipes so distilled, I now carry with me in a little brown book--much easier and more readily available than the giant three-ring binders sitting on the shelf (just in case I ever need a quick reference). Make a few adjustments and voila! there's a completely new dish. Maybe not taking the potatoes out of the chowder, but if you go too far then you've simply got something else entirely--different category, different derivatives.
Probably not the wisest idea, opening up at a time when I felt already raw, used up, and generally dried to a crisp. I can't call myself a jalapeno popper from Too-Stoned Arizona, anymore, by now I'm a smoked and dried chipotle pepper at best. Yet there I was, one moment licking my wounds and debating whether to carry on or to pursue a different path, the next moment baring my belly yet again to the beast.