Sunday, May 21, 2006

Match Tough

When I graduated from the Pastry program, I was one of the best bakers to come out of the program in years... Or at least I was told. My last semester, I was in charge of all the bread production for the entire school. I loved it. I went into the apprentice program thinking that I could just expand upon my baking knowledge. Then, Chef threw me a screw ball. When I started the pastry apprenticeship, he told me that I was no longer allowed to bake bread. The first three weeks of my apprenticeship was spent working with chocolate, a task that I was capable of, but hated doing. Then, halfway through week four, something in my head clicked, and the concepts of working with chocolate was suddenly oh so clear to me. It was then that I started contemplating becoming a chocolatier instead of a baker, and I looked forward to learning everything that I could about chocolate. Then, chef threw me another screw ball. Just as I became proficient in Chocolate, he told me that I was no longer allowed to work with chocolate.

Every time I became proficient in any given area of Pastry Arts, Chef would force me to start learning another skill. It was then that I had an epiphany. "Match Tough" didn't mean that I had to bust my ass all the time, "Match Tough" meant that I shouldn't restrict myself to any one thing. If only worked on my baking skills, I probably would have become really good at it, and eventually became a head baker somewhere, but that's all that I would have been. Just a baker.

A Pastry Chef can't just bake. A pastry chef has to be able to do everything; bake, make candies, desserts, decorate cakes, work with chocolate, everything. Sure, some of my classmates were making money, and advancing their careers, but all they were specialists, and all they would ever be, were specialists. I wanted to become a chef, and the sacrifices that I made early in my career would pay off in the long run.

When I finished the apprenticeship program, I got a job working in the Pastry shop at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. After spending two years as an apprentice, I was looking forward to seeing how my skills matched up against industry professionals. To my disappointment, knowledge and skill, like in most union establishments, took a back seat to seniority. I was happy to see that the chef I apprenticed under had made sure that I was VERY well prepared for the industry. I had more skill, experience, and knowledge than half of the pastry shop, but because I was the new guy, I was relegated to baking cookies all day. For 4 months, all I did every friggin day was bake cookies. I hated it, and seriously contemplated quitting.

I had spent some time contemplating, and made a long distance call to my chef. After a long talk, he reminded me that part of being “Match Tough” is sacrifice. Just like when I was an apprentice, I now had to make a sacrifice for the betterment of my goal of becoming a chef. Sure I was baking cookies all day, but I was hardly an expert cookie maker. At the time, I had yet to make the perfect batch of cookies. Also, during my apprenticeship, I had acquired so much knowledge, that I bare knew how to use it all. Sure, I knew the concepts of pastry in theory, but I was in no way an expert. The Greenbrier gave me the opportunity, and the facilities to put into practice a lot of the concepts that I only knew in theory. Yeah, making cookies all day sucked, but, because of my experiences at the Greenbrier, now I can make a DAMN good cookie.

I had let my situation make me bitter, and I forgot what it truly meant to be “Match Tough”. I got the words “Match Tough” along with the Chinese kanji for “Sacrifice” tattooed on my forearm, to make sure that I would never forget again. Many have remarked when they look at it that it is up-side-down. What they don’t realize, is that the tattoo faces me so that I can read it. That way, whenever I look down, I can see it and be reminded why I do what I do.


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