Looking for 'The One': A Writer's Life in Kitchens
Lydia McOscar of the Brookline Booksmith, a booklover's paradise that has called Brookline home since the 1950s, is teaming up with GrubStreet to curate a series of personal essays from debut authors about our fair city of Boston. First up is Louise Miller, a Novel Incubator Graduate who launched her debut novel, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living, this summer at Brookline Booksmith. Here, she writes on baking, macrobiotics, and what "love at first sight" means to a chef.
A chef never forgets her first. Mine was a little bakery-café in Central Square, Cambridge. Two stainless steel tables pressed together lengthwise, a wooden bench for the bread baker to shape ciabatta and brioche buns on. A small walk-in refrigerator, a three-bay pot sink, a stand mixer that came up to my shoulder, a four-burner stove top, and two giant ovens—one with a clay bottom for bread, the other a convection oven for pastry. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, for the first time seeing measuring cups that measured by the quart and five-pound cans of peaches. Everything felt exaggerated and magical. These were the days before chefs became rock stars, before bakers competed nightly on television, before any average Joe could tell you what the term mise en place meant.
The kitchen felt like a secret that only I knew. It felt like a gift. It felt like falling in love.
I had been hired by the baker-owner, who was pregnant and preparing for maternity leave. It was the first kitchen job I ever applied for. I was twenty-two, a recent art-school dropout, and my dad—the person I was closest to in the world—had died suddenly six months before. I was unmoored. I had clarity about only one thing—that I needed to quit my retail job. My grief had left me raw and impatient, irritated by the smallest of customer requests. I needed time away from people. I needed to do something that felt useful. The only idea that made sense to me was to bake.
I fell hard for the kitchen. The bakery became my whole life. Every morning I would ride my bicycle across the B.U. Bridge at dawn, the mist rising from the Charles River beneath me. I spent long, happy days in the hot kitchen, hanging onto every word the owner said. I would collapse onto my bed in the afternoons, spent from the physical effort of carrying fifty-pound bags of flour and hacking apart eleven-pound blocks of chocolate with a giant cleaver. I slept soundly for the first time since my dad passed.
The relationship fell apart when my boss had her baby. The bakery was left in the care of a twenty-something manager who had a rare talent for both baking and undermining. Her management style was to pit all of the employees against each other. She was sleeping with the bread baker, who was married. As their affair soured, so did the quality of the food. We lost customers. We lost staff. As each employee left, the manager took on their job, convinced she was the only person who could do anything right. By the time I finally quit, it was just me, the manager, her mother and a handful of front-of- the-house staff still working. I left, vowing never to step inside another kitchen.
After spending a month in Vermont helping a friend with her newborn, I returned to Boston. Jobless, living off the little bit of savings I had left and my sister’s generosity, I reluctantly entered into my next kitchen. While in Vermont I thought about other work I could do, but I kept coming back to the satisfaction I felt from making things every day. The restaurant was in my neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, a ten-minute walk from my apartment. I must have read the sign in the window two dozen times before I went in and filled out an application. After an interview and some test-baking, I was hired. It was a casual commitment—just three days a week. Still, being in a kitchen again made me a little nervous. Especially this one—I was totally out of my element. It was a macrobiotic restaurant, and the desserts were to be made without white flour or eggs or dairy or processed sugar. I was sure the relationship wouldn’t last.
But it soon became as familiar as my best friend’s house from childhood. Working in this kitchen was like dating someone you liked well enough, but then falling in love with their warm, charming family. I didn’t love the actual baking—it was too far out of my wheelhouse—but the staff! Everyone who worked in the restaurant was also something else—a dancer, a psychic, a writer, a painter, a punk rock drummer, an opera singer, a tae-kwon-do black belt. There was a cat named Sally who lived in the kitchen and kept the mice out of the giant bins of brown rice and quinoa. My basement workspace was lit by a bare light bulb. I shaped loaves of seitan next to a person whose sole job was to cut vegetables. I came home smelling like ginger and tamari and maple syrup. Every shift I laughed until my belly hurt while making terrible, heavy brown desserts that only the most devoted macrobiotic person would love. I thought I would never leave.
But it was a kitchen full of dreamers. They dreamed big—too big. We moved into a bigger space, in a new neighborhood. Our relationship fell apart late one night. I was woken up by a telephone call from one of the waitresses. You need to come to the restaurant, she said. When I arrived I found the whole staff at the bar. It was to be the last night of service—the place had gone bankrupt. We all stayed until sunrise, drinking up the beer and booze, packing our recipe books and favorite tools, sharing stories, and saying our goodbyes. I stepped out of the restaurant at dawn, rolling pin leaning on my shoulder, and walked home, heartbroken, not able to imagine what would come next.
Several months later, I took a position as a part-time assistant to a mentor-friend who was the pastry chef at an exclusive country club. Like dating an investment banker after breaking up with a man who made his living wheat-pasting band posters onto construction-site walls, this was my rebound kitchen. The grounds were beautiful. The kitchens were enormous and well appointed. The walk-ins and dry storage shelves were overflowing with an abundance of the finest ingredients. But I couldn’t relax. I felt under-dressed just stepping onto the grounds. I was terrified to talk to the boss, who everyone called chef, and intimidated by the whole kitchen staff, which was made up entirely of bawdy, riotous young men. I kept myself hidden in the warm safety of the bakery, but even there I was haunted by the feeling that I didn’t belong. When my mentor friend left, I left right behind her and never looked back.
My next kitchen was a mistake. I knew from the minute I walked in the door it would never work out. It was a blind date set up by a mutual friend with a trendy restaurant in the South End. I worked in a little basement prep kitchen with uneven concrete floors. I had to carry trays of uncooked cake and cookies up a narrow spiral staircase to the only oven, which resided on the line. I spent my shifts running up and down stairs, trying not to burn anything. I didn’t connect with the chef. I didn’t connect with the food. I didn’t connect with my only morning co-worker, a tough older woman with squid-ink- stained fingers who spent the entire day complaining about the owners. I knew it was a bad match, but I didn’t quite know how to get out of it. I didn’t want to let my friend down, I didn’t want to be kitchenless. But after a month of pure dread at the thought of going to work, I ended the relationship. The chef looked relieved when I said I was leaving.
My next kitchen was a start-up in the suburbs west of Boston. It was like being in a relationship with someone who was newly divorced, who had spent the time between the separation and the signing of the divorce papers at the gym. Everything was sparkling and new. The scent of the kitchen was hope. We had come together to wash away the troubles of the past and create something fresh. But we all carry baggage into our relationships, don’t we? When the shine of newness wore off, a waft of unspoken expectations began to filter through the kitchen. Disappointment lingered among the loaves of challah. Needs changed from day to day. Then the consultants were brought in. Consultants are the couple’s counselors of the food world. They are only brought in when you know that the relationship is on the rocks. When the owner announced she was closing up shop, I left with two weeks pay and a couple of wicker bread molds knowing one thing—never again. I was through with kitchens for good.
I collected unemployment. I looked at career options. I applied for a scholarship to massage school. I was a month from starting school when I received a message from an old kitchen friend. He had a job opening.
I didn’t return the call.
He called again. He was now the executive chef at a private city club downtown. “I heard you were in between jobs,” he told my answering machine.
After days of stalling, I called him back. “I’m through with kitchens,” I explained. “I’m going to become a massage therapist. I leave in a month.”
“That’s great. Why don’t you drop by and see the place.”
If it had been anyone else I would have said no. But he had always been kind to me, and he was my mentor’s brother-in-law, which made him family. And I couldn’t think of a reason why I couldn’t stop by. I was unemployed, after all.
The club was downtown. I walked by it four times before realizing it was the place I was looking for. There were no markings to distinguish it from any other Beacon Hill brownstone, apart from the logo welded into the ironwork that covered the window on the front door. My clogs clacked against the marble floors. The front desk receptionist sent me to have a seat in the reading room. Brass-studded leather chairs lined a cavernous space dominated by a large wooden table covered with newspapers. My chef friend greeted me a few moments later, and gave me a tour of the building floor by floor, front to back. He showed me the ballroom with its porcelain sculptures set in gold-leafed walls and he showed me the pantries that housed the dumbwaiters, tiny elevators that carried the food from the kitchen on the 5th floor. Up we went, exploring billiard rooms and private dining rooms, until we reached the top. From the dining room we could see the Common, the Public Garden, the buildings of the Back Bay—even the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square blinking in the distance. He led me across the parquet floor, between linen-dressed tables sparkling with silver sugar bowls, through the dining room. Past the waitstaff station with its coffee pots and water pitchers and into the kitchen. Sloped floors painted red, worn smooth by years of use. Two walk-ins, one just for produce, the other for meat, dairy and fish. Windows that looked out onto the Granary graveyard, the back of the Athenaeum, into the offices next door. The line, where the chefs made food for the restaurant and the function rooms.
And then, finally, the baker’s area.
I never believed in love at first sight until that moment.
Two long steel tables, at least ten feet, dedicated for baking. Flour, sugar, everything that a baker would need right underneath. A six-foot cooling rack over by the window. My own hand sink. It was separate from the rest of the kitchen. Far enough from the fray that I could listen to my own music, but near the walk-ins so I wouldn’t be lonely. From the moment I first laid eyes on it, I knew that workspace was mine. I could picture stepping into that kitchen every morning before the sun came up, coffee in hand. I could picture being happy there. It felt like home.
Thirteen years later, it still does.
Louise Miller is a pastry chef and author who lives and works in Boston, MA. She received a scholarship to attend GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, a yearlong workshop for novelists. She is an art school dropout, an amateur flower gardener, an old-time banjo player, an obsessive moviegoer, and a champion of old dogs. The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living is her debut novel.
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