Well, that happened. I finally went back to work after nearly six months off. I miss the long lazy lunches of being unemployed but it does feel great to be back in the kitchen. I got a good thing here in London and I feel pretty lucky to be working at O*.
My job is basically a restaurant pastry production job (similar to what I was doing at T* in Seattle), but the volume of work is more like what I’m used to in catering. There’s so much demand for desserts that it’s necessary to employ four pastry chefs on a rotating schedule, seven days a week. I can’t imagine any restaurant in Seattle employing that many pastry chefs. I walked past O* on one of my days off and there was a line out the door for the take-away pastries. O* probably does double the business any of similarly-sized bakeries back home.
The work day is a little longer than I’m used to, but it’s not harder. Catering was way more stressful, frenetic, and ultimately more tiring than what I’m doing now. Here at O* we have a big list each day, but split between several people it all gets done pretty easily. And the labor issue I was bitching about earlier is much easier to tolerate now. I’m salaried, in the US sense of the word: I don’t get paid for my time, I get paid for my work. Same amount for each day, regardless if it’s a 7 hour day or a 12 hour day. This is a game I understand. I have to get faster at my work so we get the daily list done, then we can all go home.
The kitchen is staffed with a diverse international crew, and there are actually very few Britishers, surprisingly. In the pastry department we’ve got Polish, Brazilian, and French. The rest of the kitchen staff and FOH is Hungarian, Canadian, Italian, Spanish… Add me as the only US citizen, and nearly the whole world is represented! English is the lingua franca of the kitchen, but with all the varying accents it can be quite interesting. I’m constantly reminded that the hardest sound for non-English speakers is the “th” sound which is one of the most common sounds in this language! And some Britishers don’t even get it right, using a soft “v” or “f” instead.
I’ve found that my pastry skills are transferrable here. I’m not surprised, just relieved. The things I’m learning and practicing are more about “how we do it here at O*” than it is “teach me how to make a genoise cake.” I’ve got all the basic skills and experience, I’m simply tweaking it to get the outcome and results that match the O* brand.
And this brings me to the analysis of the type of pastry and desserts we do at O*. I’ve been trying to quantify the product for a while and haven’t really come up with anything just-right yet. The design of the restaurant is definitely what I would call modern Nordic European cafeteria with its all-white décor with a harsh color contrast using red and other spot colors. Food is presented at the front of the store on large platters, buffet style and the wait staff builds individual plates from that upon request. The menu, in contrast to the Nordic feel of the space, is decidedly Mediterranean, leaning toward Turkish and Persian and Greek: Lots of yogurt, middle eastern spices, and very vegetable-heavy.
How these flavors manifest in the desserts is what I’m having a hard time encapsulating. It’s certainly not French patisserie and it’s also not British or American bakery. It’s rustic in the sense that none of the desserts are refined and super-elegant, and the flavors and textures remind me of Eastern Europe in their heaviness and denseness. The flavors of the various desserts are Americana to some extent (apple cake, carrot cake, chocolate cake, brownies…) but the emphasis on almond meal usage really pushes everything conceptually towards Hungary and Austria. It’s almost as if an old-school traditional Hungarian pastry chef received his formal training in Paris read about American desserts tried to come up with a modern version of the British bakery. Everything is very well-executed and tasty, it’s just the style of dessert I’m not accustomed to.
And that’s the whole point. I’m excited about the influence O* will imprint on my professional sensibilities. When I come back to the States with these experiences, I expect I’ll have some unique ways of thinking about and creating pastry and desserts. Something that will hopefully serve me very well in my future and set me apart from other pastry chefs.