The Vineyard – The SRP

Sunday Roast at The Vineyard
Sunday Roast at The Vineyard

The Vineyard
179 Upper Street
London, N1 1RG

Typical roast; the veg serving was scant and the gravy a little thin, but the beef was pretty decent and the Yorkshire pudding was large and generous. Delicious roasted parsnips, too.

Our friend Ryan was in town from the US, so that was the high point of the Sunday Roast this weekend.

What I did at work today

Tarte au Poire
The classic Tarte au Poire

I love the classics. Making them requires me to focus on every little step and gives me an opportunity to think about each technique, resulting in a perfect dessert.

As I made these tarts, every step was a reminder of the past as I thought about all my memories associated with each task and recipe: All the times I’ve poached pears, made pastry crust, mixed frangipane. I don’t often find pastry work to be relaxing or meditative, but today was different as I worked through all these components. Today was an opportunity for me to be simultaneously connected and removed from what I was working on. It was also a new experience, too, as this was actually the first time I’ve made Tarte au Poire!

Tarte au Poire
Ready for service!

Today was a reminder of what it means to perfect my craft. Mastery is not practicing something until you get it right, mastery is practicing something until you can’t get it wrong.

Short-lived success

Sadly, my job at The Green Room Café is over. For a series of small reasons, none that have to do with me personally or professionally, the owner decided that they needed to do something a little different with their desserts. An idea that started out with grand plans, in the end, finished because of the realities entailed in running a small business.

It sucks, but being a former business owner myself, I can empathize. Somewhat, that is; I’m still disappointed that I got my hopes up.

The short version of the problem is that there just aren’t enough ovens to go around and sharing the facility was driving up labor costs in overtime. What confuses me, though, is that this is exactly the same situation they had before I started. So my confusion lies in how exactly was my contribution making the situation any worse? I think the owner really just needed a reason to scale back from all the instant change going on with the rest of the menu. With my colleague now running the show as the Head Chef and training staff and changing the menu, maybe it was a little too much all at once.

The owner thinks his solution lies in getting someone to make all the desserts and cakes in the evenings. Maybe, but I’m not sure exactly why that means he doesn’t want me to create new recipes, menus, train staff, and generally improve the offerings. I’m not willing to work late evenings myself (6pm-2am), which I made clear from the beginning and I wasn’t hired to be a production chef. So it seems I’m not the chef he needs right now.

I had a positive conversation with the owner on my last day (also my second day), and we left the door open to future discussions. Since my buddy is the Head Chef, I’m hoping he can keep me in the loop and talk me up while he gets things leveled out on his own team. Maybe we’ll be able to put together a revised plan to have me back later. I’m not holding my breath, but I am hopeful.

So it’s back to the freelance/contract thing for various entities. Things are picking up now that Easter is over, and I’m expecting to have nearly full-time work through at least August. And perhaps I’ll start actively pursuing my idea of working around Europe a bit.

Pastry employment in London

When I arrived in London over a year ago, it took a couple months to get settled, but I quickly found a job as a pastry chef at a semi-famous company, O*. My employment lasted only three months which is the shortest job I’ve ever had; in retrospect I can safely say it was also the worst job I’ve ever suffered through. That was Phase I of my pastry career in London.

Phase II began when I started freelancing and getting jobs through staffing agencies. This employment situation has been much more compatible with my lifestyle here in London, and I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet some really great people and work on some pretty cool projects.

Next, of course, is Phase III, which caught me completely by surprise, just last week. I was originally planning that my second year in London would see me reaching out and expanding my professional network to The Mainland as I looked for part-time temporary work all over France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, etc. I figured that it would be a shame to live so close to all these world-class food (and pastry) meccas and not try to get some experience working there. Having line items like working in some tiny patisserie in Austria, or a family-run bistro in France on my resume would be fantastic for when I return home. This was my plan for Phase III. I was all geared up to put out the feelers and see if any places needed an American pastry chef for a few weeks at a time.

But the best laid plans and all that…

What Phase III actually turned out be is the opportunity to be the Head Pastry Chef at a local café, designing the menus, creating the recipes, and training the staff. On a part-time basis. With flexible hours and tons of creative control. These sorts of jobs don’t come along often (ever!), so I figured I better pounce on this one and see what I could make of it.

This opportunity came about through a buddy of mine that I originally met at O* (See, ONE good thing came of all that suffering!). He had recently been bouncing from one job to the next which is pretty common for our industry here in London, when he found a small café that needed a Head Chef (Note #1). He interviewed there, got the job, and then called me that very day to let me know that his new employer also wanted a Head Pastry Chef.

So of course I immediately scheduled an interview and a tasting!

I met with the café owners, found out what they were looking for, and I instantly knew this was something I could really dig into and do some great work. At my work-trial and tasting a couple days later I made four desserts: Red Velvet cake, chocolate-hazelnut macarons, Orange-polenta cake, and Carrot cake. They loved it.

Red Velvet cake, chocolate-hazelnut macarons, Orange-polenta cake, and Carrot cake
Red Velvet cake, chocolate-hazelnut macarons, Orange-polenta cake, and Carrot cake

The café itself is The Green Room Café in Hackney, on Stoke Newington Church Street. It originally started as a floral shop in the mid-90’s before the owners decided to add a café to the space. Over the span of about 10 years they dug out a kitchen, extended the retail space, and built a garden (patio/deck) out back. The neighborhood is a cool little street in Hackney, with several other small cafes and restaurants; it’s an up-and-coming area with lots of potential and I’m excited to make my mark.

This past Thursday was my first official day on the job, before a big long holiday weekend, Easter. Here in London, that’s a four-day weekend akin to our Thanksgiving weekend. Since I wasn’t planning on working over the holiday weekend (Note #2) it meant I had a lot to do: about 12 cakes and two trays of brownies. It was a good amount of work, manageable, but what made it more challenging was working in a new kitchen, making conversions between American recipes and British ingredients, and the typically mismatched equipment. I got it all done well enough, but I’m looking forward to a more normal week so I can refine everything.

This morning when I arrived, they had sold everything, and then some. So that’s a good sign!

Going forward, I have a lot of ideas about what I want to try. I’m planning on creating a few core items which are always on the menu, a few weekly specials, and also rotating the menu on a seasonal basis. The British clientele is much more open to a varied range of desserts than I’m used to with the American consumer, so I’m really looking forward to trying both British classics and some newer more innovative ideas, too. I expect to become very proficient at the Victoria sponge (which is exactly the same thing as the American pound cake), but I’m also excited about testing out my own pastry ideas and recipes.

Here in London, titles are a little different than I’m used to at home. In most places that I’ve worked (that doesn’t have a huge number of employees) the Head Chef is the top kitchen employee. If there are multiple locations to the business, or if there are many employees, then the title of Executive Chef makes an appearance. But otherwise, it’s Head Chef to Sous Chef to Chef de Partie to Kitchen Porter. Of course back in the US, we seem to use Executive Chef a little more broadly and if the team is big enough, we’ll put Chef de Cuisine in between Exec and Sous.

I find it weird (and shocking) that so many places close their kitchen for extended bank holidays. I was in a place recently that wouldn’t serve food because it was a Monday bank holiday. As an employee, I love it, it’s great to know that in most circumstances I’ll get the day off with the rest of the normal world. But as a former business owner and as a red-blooded American, I’m shocked that Britishers would willingly lose out on such a potential high revenue days when so many other people are looking to dine out!

Changing my tune

Congratulations to Bernie on his win in WA state. I voted for Clinton in the primaries (absentee from London), but in retrospect I realize that Sanders is the better candidate.

Clinton got my vote because she’s both a Democrat and a professional politician. She knows how things work and how to get things done. Simultaneously, though, I think she’s incredibly morally corrupt (not legally corrupt, mind you) and she is very frequently doing things that I really wish she wouldn’t. She acts like a CEO who doesn’t have to justify herself to the little people. Anyone who’s ever worked in a dot-com will know exactly the behavior, tone, and attitude I’m referring to here.

The last straw for me regarding Clinton was a bit of a single-issue litmus test, I’ll admit. I absolutely despise how the East Coast Jewish Lobby (or whatever they’re called) hold all politicians by the short-and-curlies over their support for Israel. That country is a bully and needs a bit of perspective. But before the trolls start throwing around “anti-Semite” like they inevitably do, let me point out I feel exactly the same way about all the rich Cuban expats forcing the US into a 60+ year embargo that never worked.

Clinton is, as Steven Colbert might say, completely in the pocket of “Big Israel” and thinks the US should do more to militarize and support them. This is abhorrent to me. The last thing that region of the world needs is more religiously-fueled hatred/fear combined with an abundance of rockets and tanks in the hands of hormone-laden children (“soldiers”) under 20. Sanders on the other hand, and much to my surprise (less because he’s Jewish, and more because he’s an East Coast Liberal) has literally said he’s in favor of a two-state solution. And for me, that was it; I converted on the spot and I want to Feel the Bern.

If Sanders doesn’t win the nomination, though, I’m not going to be one of those petty ideologue “Democrats” who refuse to vote for Clinton instead. I will never vote Republican, I despise practically everything Republicans and conservatives stand for (religious demagoguery, over-grown military, racism, sexism, xenophobia, fear-mongering, giving more to the 1%, etc) and I truly believe that Trump is a physical manifestation (and a completely logical extension) of everything Republicans and conservatives have been agitating for the since Reagan’s regime in the 80’s. Chickens coming home to roost, and so on. The Republican Party deserves Trump and everything that follows.

I don’t think Sanders will win the Democratic Primary though, and I’m still unclear on his ability to be President. But he certainly is the best candidate. When (if?) Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, she will have my full support, and I’ll just have to trust that she will appoint Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) to some really influential and powerful positions. Because if nothing else, Clinton is a smart politician who can easily read the writing on the wall.

But until the Convention, anything could happen, so a shout-out to Eric B* for helping me to see the light.