Monday, August 23, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Prologue

So here’s the story: I’m a fifty-something man who’s worked in graphic design and marketing for the past 27 years. I was at my last place of employment for 21 years. The company is facing some challenges (let’s just leave it at that), and the workload and stress of my position increased in toxicity until I realized I had to get out to preserve my own mental health. I gave two months notice and left, without a job during the worst recession in memory. My family fully support my decision, and we have enough savings to get by for a few months.

I’m looking for a design job, but the truth is that I’m at a crossroads in terms of my career. When you’re not caught up in the work-a-day world you have a lot of time to think, and the question that comes up more than any other is “What do I really want to do with my life?” Because I’ve grown increasingly passionate about food in the last ten years, for me the answer is to get more involved with food, or at least to see if working with food on a professional basis is something I’d like to pursue.

I love to cook all kinds of things, but my impression is that being a professional chef is incredibly strenuous. I just saw an episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain (who is just slightly older than me) worked a double shift at his old alma mater Brasserie Les Halles in New York. By the end of the episode Bourdain was so worn out that he concluded he was too old to cut it as a working chef any longer. I realize that kitchens probably vary in the demands placed on their staff, but that kind of thing gives me pause. I need something I’m going to be able to hack for the next twenty years or so.

Then I thought about baking. I love to bake bread, especially whole-grain, artisanal varieties (such as Jim Lahey’s). Like many fifty-somethings I’m trying to get more fiber into my diet and am seriously interested in whole grains. The artisanal bread movement is gaining ground these days and I could probably contribute something to that.

I also love pastries of all kinds and have a lot of ideas for new offerings. There are so many terrific baked goods from around the world that you never see in middle American bakeries. With its mélange of college students, faculty, international students and artistic types, Bloomington might be adventurous enough to embrace Spanish ensaimadas and Italian zaletti. And why can’t you find a really good croissant in Bloomington? Are they that hard to make?

Furthermore the baking industry seems to be on an upswing. My understanding is that the number of bakeries in the U.S. is growing. In the past two months, two new bakeries have opened in Bloomington, and I’ve seen three or four job openings for experienced bakers. So there’s hope of finding employment.

Of course new undertakings are rarely bump-free, and after some research about what it’s really like to be a baker, a variety of doubts have been nagging me. Currently these are outweighed by an attempt to have a more positive outlook, as outlined below:

Doubt #1: Baking involves being on your feet a lot, probably long hours, which will be a change from my former sit-on-your-can-all-day office job. Reply: I’m a bicyclist with strong legs and in pretty good shape, so I can probably deal with that.

Doubt #2: There are lots of carbs and calories in baked goods, which I don’t need at this time of my life. Reply: Being a baker doesn’t mean you have to EAT everything you make, you can just TASTE. I’ll eat more vegetables and keep up the exercise regimen.

Doubt #3: Baking jobs often take place overnight or very early in the morning, which will put me at odds with my family’s awake-during-the-day asleep-at-night routine. Reply: Maybe it won’t be that bad once we get used to it. Plus there’ll be all those free baked goods I’ll be bringing home to ease the pain.

Doubt #4: I’ll be an entry-level peon who will have to take crap from people who know more than me. Reply: Suck it up. You’ve got to be willing to try new things or you’ll just be in a rut your whole life.

Doubt #5: Baking is not very lucrative, just a notch or two up the payscale from the lowest-paid profession, daycare teacher. Reply: But I love baking!

All in all baking might be a good fit for me, but to find out I need to get some experience and education. I’ve thought about trying to talk my way into an entry-level baking job but I’ll probably feel more confident having some legitimate credentials under my belt. With that in mind I’ve enrolled in an introductory baking class at a local college. Wish me luck!

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