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About cooks and bakers

posted Jan 5, 2012, 11:56 PM by Web Admin   [ updated Jan 6, 2012, 9:02 AM ]

Fraulein’s Harvest

This is the name we found for our wholesale breads, same recipe, different packaging. I have been talking to quite a few  bakers from all over the world recently, and I owe Miami and the internet for putting me in touch with some great individuals.

One of the benefits of not being in your twenties anymore is experience. 

You learn a little bit about how to find your way around in today’s world, learn how to approach someone you fancy, learn a trade, make money, and how to live a life. 

You compare yourself with other people in the media, or if you are clever, you will strive to live in harmony with your neighbors, learn what other people on the globe love and what their life circumstances might be. 

You will find out that you lead a comparatively wealthy, not too shabby life, don’t work like a slave, even if you think you do. You are a buck or two away from buying an apartment and have enough food on the plate to feed your family. You might be priding yourself, if you are German, that you work more than others, until you find out about Americans. They do not have 16 church holidays in addition to the 30 days off like we do in our sweet home Bavaria. They also do not enjoy  32.5 hour work weeks like the Volkswagen employees in Germany did some years ago. 

Though working hours vary depending on the social culture, in my trade which is still cooking, work schedules seem to be valid worldwide.

In Europe there are summer seasons near the Mediterranean coast and winter seasons in the Alps. Indian colleagues work summers in the Himalayas and winter in Goa or in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala or Tamil Nadu.. Apart from lousy pay for the trade, chores in the kitchen are the same for chefs globally, receiving goods, prepping for service hours, super stress during meal times to serve the best plate possible, then cleaning, then an after hour mild inebriation.

Unwritten rules of the craft in Europe ask an apprentice to wander from one employer to another to learn the trade. Young bakers and cooks did and continue to do so for centuries, hence the word wandering years. 

For an ambitious young food aficionado it is common to learn from as many great chefs as possible, staying with a restaurant or hotel for at least one year each. The result will be a rounded chef with a treasure chest of knowledge, skills, recipes and styles. 

Equal work circumstances prevail around the globe: Cooks are exploited to deliver more hours, mostly in top rated restaurants, with the argument they have to learn the trade and subsequently profit from acquired skills. Consequently, a cook in a top rated eatery clocks anywhere from 10 to 17 hours daily, with one or two days off. 

This is unless owners are short of labour or make it a policy for you to fill as many hours in two years what other cooks work in four years. This happened in a three star Michelin place.

This works well as long as the chef and the cook stick to a silent agreement where one shares knowledge and the other party works endless hours in order to soak up as much know how as possible, no questions asked about overtime or union rights. All this happens for the love to great food, the immaculate plate, the perfect sauce.

Pastry and baking are not always regarded as part of the cooking universe, though they commonly share kitchen and work circumstances.  Maybe it has to do with the way pastry chefs work. Every dish has to be measured in quantities, spoonfuls, ounces, cups, baking temperature and duration. There is not much room for the additional splash of white port, cream or water in this realm,  another reason why many unusually creative chefs never put their hands on anything in the pastry department, even dread and fear the secret powers of pastry chefs. This could be one reason bakers/pastry artists rank second in salary after an exec chef

What unites savory and sweet food workers is the love for their skill, the passion for outstanding results and maybe the craving for public attention. The prestige of having worked for a widely known place is what drives many of us into stints with more or less gruesome hours, sometimes less than pleasurable employers and lousy pay.

During recent research I came in contact with several bakers online plus I made the aquaintance of several master bakers in the Miami area. This bakeries do not aim for the top segment of baked goods, but make a living doing wholesale and retail to street customers and hotels. They mostly are family operations and try to keep themselves afloat competing against Wonder bread and the big grocery chains who buy flour by the 20 000 pound load. 
Major operations produce millions of breads a month, companies like the Mexican bimbo, http://tinyurl.com/yhgc5ax  dominate the market with inexpensive merchandise, fully loaded with great goodness and additives. They operate machinery capable of replacing the manual labour of many a man.

I understand that family companies cannot pay union wages or work factory shift hours.

I did not understand why many of those people work seven days a week, no breaks, no holidays, no overtime compensation. Many workers in small bakeries do not remember their last day off and some make a point in saying their last holiday was years ago. 

In the beginning I was under the impression that this was a form of slavery, or self exploitation to the extreme. Then I visited a baker from Haiti in Hialeah. We exchanged our product and when we talked about the trade he introduced me to his wife who worked by his side, and he later proudly confessed, that he did not miss a day of baking for the last three and a half years. Another coworker, a highly respected veteran with 35 years in the business of baking wholesale, told me, “ If I die, I will want to die standing in my bakery, it is a way of life for me and I will want to leave it like this.”

The incomparable passion for baking, regardless of the need to make money, must have something to do with creating food, basic food like breads, out of flour and little more than water. 

Even to me, a relative novice, something happens after seeds, salt, spices and flour meet the water that starts the process. Something uncertain begins to evolve as ingredients mingle, merge into a disjointed mixture, emerging sphinx like to a smooth, shiny, flexible, gliding resin of a hundred pounds. Flecked with seeds, it’s changing its shape with every twist of the hook, until it reaches the certain look, its texture I can only feel, not describe. I jokingly told the apprentice the other day, my dough if kneaded right, should feel like the breast of a beautiful woman.

I digress, the real magic is not the proofing, even if it is a mystery how those little yeast animals make hundreds of loaves rise universally at the same time to such dimensions.

No, the real revelation happens way after the breads are shaped by hand, dipped into grains, placed on baking sheets and left to rest and proof, sometimes overnight. The miracle does not yet happen when the roundlings are on the baking cart, and it isn’t happening when the cart is wheeled into the walk in oven at 460 degrees, though I have to admit, there is a solemn millisecond when I bless the trays and say a split second prayer for a good result. 

The magic for me is how heat transforms, rises, browns and makes fragrant, shortly animates, brings to life something previously dead, raw, not edible.

The moment the cart leaves the oven there will be a hundred shiny brown loaves, filling the air with the smell of oven fresh bread, crusty, rustic and appetizing. Salivating and smiling is the normal reaction there and a wee bit of pride when the breads are left to cool  while wafts of roasted aroma slowly subside..

Giving this beautiful and at the same time basic food to people,( distributing is the ugly word for it), is what makes these people tick and stand in their bakeries, day in and day out. And this is what I learned during these last weeks: There are many bakers out there. True, passionate people who love the magic of making bread and dedicate their lives to it, without the need for reward other than the miracle happening every day.