Back in the Saddle

Back in the Saddle

You never know where life will take you. You can plan as much as you like, but in the end, fate calls the shots. This is a story of fate and me. 

By Leslie Bilderback 01/03/2013

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I made plenty of plans last year, as my eldest went off to college. I was going to paint her room, finish a quilt, fix up the garden and organize the garage. Instead, I spent the first few weeks of her absence watching Disney movies in tears. So proud and happy, yet so sad to see her go. (It was surely a college parent who invented Xanax.) I was more than a little appalled at myself. So, in a fit of empty-nest delirium, I decided to look for a job. Working at home, on the computer, in my PJs is, I admit, not real work. It was great when I was needed as an active parent. But now that the youngest is about to get her driver’s license, I’m going to need a reason to get up in the morning besides letting the dog out.
 
Over the years I have parlayed a decent chef career into an active presence on the culinary periphery. But although teaching is rewarding and writing is challenging, neither holds the thrill of a real live job. Explaining the history of the blood orange is hardly an adrenalin rush. I’ve been living vicariously through friends and students who are still at work, getting accolades and working on the cutting edge. Meanwhile, describing myself as a chef — while not physically cooking food for money — started to feel weird and wrong.
 
My problem (one of them) is that I am picky. I want nothing short of the ideal job — creative control, comfortable hours, easy location, friendly co-workers, decent money. With my credentials, finding that gig should have been a breeze. Except it wasn’t. I got tons of offers for teaching and R&D… in other states. I got lots of management offers at Applebee’s and TGI Fridays. I got a few on-call catering offers. Everything sounded sucky. At the risk of sounding arrogant, being overqualified is humiliating. Employers were obsessed with my chronology, which no doubt covers a broader time span than they are used to. (Not too many résumés rolling in with highlights from 1988.) And while the Internet is miraculous in a number of ways, it blows in the job-search arena. I received daily emails with terrific opportunities in trucking and healthcare. 
 
Dejected, I decided to peruse Craigslist. This is where fate intervened. On the first try, 
 
I found a listing for a pastry-chef/baker position right here in South Pasadena. I know my town, and it could have been only a few places. I sent in my résumé, and within an hour the phone rang. As I had hoped, it was a small bakery/restaurant run by a woman I know. We had worked together briefly years ago, and I always considered her a talented chef. She had been a pastry chef in all the best L.A. restaurants while I was doing the same in San Francisco. We worked for and knew many of the same people. We have very similar culinary sensibilities and are about the same age. We differ in that she made the leap to running her own place, making her infinitely braver than I am. Open for seven years, hers is a beloved South Pasadena destination. I was ecstatic. She wanted me to bake pastries and breads in the early mornings and was willing to cut me loose occasionally to continue my Navy work. It was perfect. Best of all, she understood my motivation. I am at a point in my life where I can do whatever I want. And if I want to backpedal to the place I started, that’s my prerogative. (Or, conversely, my huge mistake. We shall see.)
 
So now, not quite 50, I am going back into the kitchen in the same capacity as when I was 24, and already the work has reinforced what I already knew — I’m old. I have been explaining the physical demands of restaurant work to students for years. But, as it turns out, knowing that a thing can happen does not prevent the thing from happening. Forty hours a week of active cooking is a lot different than doing a demo here and there. I go to bed now feeling like I have been working in a quarry (an old-timey quarry, not the kind with machinery), and it has taken a month for my feet to stop stinging every morning when I get out of bed. My shoulders ache, the palms of my hands are sore and my skin looks like the “before” picture in a Jergens ad.
 
And I had forgotten about the burns. All bakers and pastry chefs have them, more so than line cooks, because we are reaching up into tall ovens more. (And we are clumsier, because of all the sugar.) The forearm is especially susceptible, and the resulting scars, though admittedly bad-ass, are not attractive. I had forgotten that I wore a lot of long sleeves to hide the scars. (My mom even sewed long lace onto the three-quarter-length sleeves of my wedding dress so as not to offend our guests in the front row.)
But despite the aches and pains, I am relishing every food-service idiosyncrasy. Sure, I’m enjoying the satisfied look on people’s faces when they enjoy what I’ve made. But I really missed things like saying “behind you” every three minutes. (We do that so people don’t turn around and crash into us as we pass with a hot pot or the like.) I’ve even started saying it in the real world, as I maneuver around people in the aisle at Trader Joe’s. I’ve missed walking into walk-ins. These large refrigerators invite all sorts of mischief, and on my first day I got a little misty remembering all the illicit activities I have interrupted over the years. (Seriously… I could fill a book.) I’ve even missed heaving a 50-pound bag of flour over its bin, and slashing into its gut with a paring knife to release its innards. (So satisfying!)
 
The best thing, though, about going back is the real people. Working at home, I was becoming a cranky hermit, annoyed with everyone and everything. I’m still cranky and annoyed, but now I have a group of people who agree with me! I had forgotten how amazing it is to work at a common table with like-minded people. At first, I am sure they thought I was a weirdy, awkwardly fumbling around a new kitchen. But I think I have been accepted, because the other day someone said, “So long, see you tomorrow,” as I walked out at the end of my shift.
 
I have lived in South Pasadena for nearly 20 years. I moved here when I gave up cooking in favor of raising kids. I don’t regret that decision for a second, but now that my initial mission is nearly complete, I am thrilled to be popping ibuprofen and dusting off the orthotics.  They are familiar friends from long ago, and they signal that I am back doing the thing I love.
 
Thanks, fate. You rock. 

Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, can be found in the kitchen of Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena. She also teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com..

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