Moving on

I’ve given notice at O* and will be leaving on August 7. At exactly three months long, this will be the shortest job I’ve ever held as an adult. This isn’t my style to throw in the towel so quickly, but I’m in a unique circumstance here in London. I’m looking for positive learning and working experiences and O* just ain’t it.

I’m leaving for two main reasons: Too many hours and a terrible work environment.

The work commitment is more than I expected or hoped it would be. At 55+ hours per week, it’s more time than I want to give while I’m on a work-vacation in London. Right now, I’m all work and no vacation. This time-suck is getting into Starry Nights territory (which at times was 70+ hours/week!), but then I was the owner and in charge; here at O* I’m just a production chef. We moved to London to travel and see Europe, and yes, also to work. While my wife can easily create a balance of the two with her job, my job was getting in the way of that balance. This doesn’t make any sense when you realize what I’m giving up for a basic $10/hr job. I have to bring in some money, of course, but at what cost?

Secondly, while the O* name and brand has a great international reputation, the kitchen I’m working in is one of the most negative work environments I’ve ever had the misfortune to work in. It wasn’t immediately evident at the beginning, but everyone gossips about everyone else behind their backs, management and leadership isn’t respected, and many people are talked to without any modicum of professional respect, as if they were idiots. Condescension runs rampant. I’m on the receiving end of that often, and life’s too short to put up with that shit. I don’t want to spend my time working in a place where we’re not a team and have basic respect for each other.

If I were back home in Seattle, neither of these reasons would be enough to leave a job. I hate walking away from an opportunity prematurely and both of these reasons would be fixable were I back home. But I’m not back home. I’m in London where I want to work in some great places, making great food, neither of which is happening for me at O*. I’ve got a maximum of five years here and it would be a complete waste to give O* any more of my valuable and limited time.

I’ve got 9 days to go and then I’m back on the job hunt.

Milestones at work

Today was the first time I opened the shop on my own. Someone decided to trust me with keys!

The first shift at O* is called “the bake” and starts at 6am. Since it was my first time flying solo (I had two training shifts last week), I figured I better get in a bit earlier to give myself a little wiggle room; I arrived at 5:20am.

For anyone else who works at O*, that start time would really suck since most people have a 45 minute commute to the shop (at least!) As it was, I only had to get up at 4:45am which still gave me plenty of time for a quick breakfast and coffee before I made my eight-minute commute to work!

Once I arrived, I immediately fired up the ovens, changed into my uniform, and got to work. The baking “script” is a pretty tight timeline and routine and is quite regimented. In fact, that’s becoming a hallmark of working at O*: Heavy regimentation and routine. I often find it onerous and inscrutable, but that’s a blog posting for the future.

For the bake, though, I find that a detailed script is actually quite valuable. It reminds me of when I was a chef’s apprentice and had to create a minute-by-minute script for the day so it would be easy to see if I was behind or ahead of plan. At the time, I thought doing this exercise was overkill, but I’m glad I got the practice. I’ve since fully adopted this method of planning and it’s served me very well, so when I was in training for the bake, the thinking behind a tight script totally made sense.

The bake’s script is all geared towards getting out of the ovens by the time the savory chefs need them at about 7:15am, which means that normally the bake has about one hour to be completed. If I don’t hit all my sequential time marks, my lateness will affect everyone else all day long. The ramifications of me being late in the morning by as little as 10 minutes can still be felt well into the afternoon. With that kind of pressure, I really didn’t want to screw it up!

But today went well, no hitches or delays. I didn’t have any “standing around” time though, since the person on the bake also needs to plate everything up for the shop’s window display. I made good progress on that task since I had arrived early (nearly everything was taken care of by the time the 7am pastry chef arrived) , but this is the task that would have screwed up my detailed timing if I had not started early today. In the future, this is the area I will be focusing on: How to get all the baking done while simultaneously getting the desserts ready for the shop.

I’m on the bake again tomorrow, so we’ll see if I can shave off some time here and there.

Interesting trivia
As of the end of my shift today, I have logged exactly 450 hours working at O* since my first day on May 11. I know this because I have an app on my phone I use to keep track of my time since the company doesn’t require me to keep a timesheet. Logging my own hours is a habit I picked up from a mentor years ago at M* as a method of measuring comp time, aka “time the company’s not paying me for”. Even though O* doesn’t recognize comp time, I still think it’s good to know what I’m giving so that I can properly evaluate my income vs effort.

The Creme Anglaise Challenge

When making Creme Anglaise, you no longer need to temper the hot dairy into the yolks. Really. Amateur and professional pastry chefs take heed!

Recently, while developing some ice cream recipes, I read that tempering is completely unnecessary. I picked this up from Francisco Migoya in his frozen desserts book. He mentions this in the context of making ice cream base which is basically Creme Anglaise. Migoya advocates mixing all the ingredients together cold then bringing them up to the proper temperature all at the same time. This practice goes against the (very) classic wisdom of tempering hot cream into the yolks and only then heating everything together.

I did some searching on the ‘tubes and couldn’t find anywhere that even mentioned the idea of a cold-start method, let alone any web sites that recommended it. The only recipe variations I found centered on how much sugar to put into either the yolks or the dairy; All recipes required tempering. Interestingly, virtually all the recipes had the same ratio of sugar, yolks, and dairy (by weight – sugar:yolks:dairy::1:1:4) but there was great variance on the types of dairy ranging from 100% cream to 100% milk and all combinations in between.

I figured this new (?) idea afforded the perfect opportunity for iconoclasm; to test entrenched assumptions and measure the results. These are my detailed notes and conclusions.

Yield: 20 fl oz

16 oz Dairy
4 oz Sugar
4 oz Yolks
1 tbl Vanilla paste
1/8 tsp Salt

Batch 1: Sugar split between cream and yolks
Total time to reach fridge: 7 minutes, 30 seconds
1. In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, salt, vanilla, and half the sugar; heat to 185F.

2. Remove dairy from heat and whisk remaining sugar into yolks until pale yellow and ribbony.

3. Temper hot dairy into yolks, then pour mixture back into saucepan and whisk thoroughly.

4. Over medium-high heat, stir constantly with a spatula to 185F. Remove from heat, strain, and pour out in a thin layer and chill down.

Batch 2: All sugar in yolks
Total time to reach fridge: 6 minutes, 45 seconds
1. In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, salt, and vanilla; heat to 185F.

2. Remove dairy from heat and whisk all sugar into yolks until pale yellow and ribbony.

3. Temper hot dairy into yolks, then pour mixture back into saucepan and whisk thoroughly.

4. Over medium-high heat, stir constantly with a spatula to 185F. Remove from heat, strain, and pour out in a thin layer and chill down.

Batch 3: All ingredients mixed while cold
Total time to reach fridge: 6 minutes, 30 seconds
1. In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cream and yolks. When fully mixed, add salt, vanilla, and sugar.

2. Over medium-high heat, stir constantly with a spatula to 185F. Remove from heat, strain, and pour out in a thin layer and chill down.

Production details

  • Even though it’s a good idea, I did not strain any batches.
  • Note I used a spatula, not a whisk as some people do. While the whisk probably allows for better distribution of heat while cooking, the trade-off of not being able reach the corners of the pan isn’t worth it to me.
  • When done, I poured the sauce into a shallow pyrex baking dish and put into the fridge, uncovered, for about 15 minutes.
  • I realize my technique was a bit brutal (more heat faster than necessary) and that all three batches probably have professional merit, but given that I subjected them all to the same treatment and Batch 3 came out best, I’m concluding that Batch 3 would still be the best even if all three batches were done with gentle and slow heat.

Analysis and review

  • Appearance – All batches were the same light yellow color, as you’d expect for Creme Anglaise, with flecks of black vanilla bean throughout.
  • Consistency – All batches were thick and creamy, very much like mayonnaise.
  • Texture – Batch 1 was visibly curdled with a definite gritty mouth-feel; Batch 2 was less curdled, but evident. Batch 3 was perfectly smooth.
  • Flavor – All batches had good vanilla flavor. Batch 1 was a little eggy, but servable. Batch 2 wasn’t eggy at all, but was much sweeter (seemingly) than the other batches. Batch 3 was just a tiny bit eggy and not overly sweet.

Thoughts and conclusions

  • The cooking process should be done over lower heat, probably nothing higher than medium. This will make the eggs take longer to set but that’s always a good idea. We’re essentially making sweet scrambled eggs when making Anglaise.
  • None of the methods was significantly faster than the other, which makes sense when you realize you have to get the total volume to a particular temperature. Pre-heating half the ingredients to “jump-start” the heating process doesn’t actually shorten the total cooking time.
  • I think the sauce where all the dairy is heavy cream results in a sauce that is too thick. The dairy should probably be an even split of heavy cream and whole milk, but I haven’t tested this supposition lately.
  • I would highly recommend the cold-start method as a much more fool-proof solution than any of the tempering methods. Adding hot liquid to yolks, even gently, seems really stupid when you think about what you’re really trying to do: Gently raise the overall heat of the eggs to coagulation temperature. Why shock them like this with nearly boiling dairy?

I challenge all the home cooks and professional chefs out there: Get rid of the tempering method and start using the cold-start!

Kitchen vocabulary in the UK

Here in the UK, they have a different word for many things (even though they ostensibly speak English!). It’s like that Steve Martin routine, but for the British.

Working in a commercial kitchen, using the wrong word can occasionally cause for speaker and listener to say “What the…?” followed in short order by “Oh! You mean…”. We eventually work out the misunderstanding, but since I am in a British kitchen, I usually concede the point. Not particularly American of me to give in, I know, but hey, I’m not a complete wanker.

Keeping an open mind
This list is the set of new words I want to start using. Might take a little practice to make the switch flow naturally, but I’ve got plenty of time to practice.
Courgette – Zucchini. I just love the French version of this vegetable over the Italian. Raise your hands if you, too, think it’s ironic that the British use a French word by choice.
Rocket – Arugula. Both words are ok, but I think “rocket” is just so much more fun to say. And I’m tired of people saying “arugula” like it’s some old-timey car horn.
Sodium bicarbonate (or simply “bicarb”) – Baking soda. The British word is so much more accurate and easy to differentiate from baking POWDER.
Glucose – OK, technically the same word and meaning in both countries, but at home, we’d most commonly refer to it as “corn syrup” which is pure fucking evil. Glucose in the UK comes mostly from wheat. I wish glucose were more prevalent in regular retail circumstances in the US so we’d all have an alternative to corn products.

U–S–A! U–S–A!
No way am I throwing over my own word for these other words. This is the linguistic hill I’m going to fight and die for.
Herbs – Properly said with a silent “h” and an American “r” sound. If I said it the British way back home, I’d get laughed out of the kitchen.
Aubergine – Eggplant. Same here as with as “herbs” above. I wouldn’t last a minute in an American kitchen using this word. But again, note the British using a French word instead of a perfectly good English one!
Coriander – Cilantro. I greatly prefer the Spanish version. Coriander is the seed, not the leafy green. Go with “Chinese parsley” if you must, but if you ask me to hand you the the coriander, you’re going to get a scoop of dried seeds.
Streaky bacon – WTF. Seriously, it’s just bacon. Leave the modifiers and adjectives for shit that’s NOT bacon. Like BACK bacon.
Tin – Can. They’re not actually made of tin anymore. Shall we all join the 21st century?
Fancy peas – Regular green peas, out of shell. Because regular peas are construed as “mushy peas” perhaps…?
Jug – Pitcher. I was looking for a pitcher to hold a pastry bag while I filled it with cake batter the other day, and another chef said “oh you mean a jug!” And I thought a large earthenware container? No, I meant a pitcher, a vessel with a spout and a handle. Jug isn’t just a different word for pitcher, it’s the wrong word.
Aluminum foil – The US may actually be wrong, as per the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, but screw ‘em. I’m sticking with aluminum.

Of course, there exist nearly countless words that are different between our two countries, but I’m mostly concerned with food-centric ones. More to be added as I continue my UK culinary journey!

Typical day at work here in London

Window display at O*

It’s about one month in on the new job and I’m still enjoying it. In fact, I find myself looking forward to going back each day so that I can get a better handle on everything that needs to be done. When I’m at home, I mentally review what I did that day and evaluate the quality of my work and how I could be faster/better the next day.

My job isn’t exposing me to anything particularly new or revolutionary, so I’m not necessarily adding to my pastry “bag of tricks” in a huge way. But I am getting more experience with daily pastry production which is something that I do find valuable and quite a bit different from the pastry experience I have with catering. A restaurant or café has weekly patterns and cycles whereas catering is always different day-to-day. What I am learning here at O* is how a pastry department is run which will definitely serve me well when I return to the US.

Each day there’s always a lot of work to be done, but it’s not too stressful; nothing like catering, that’s for sure. When I was at F*, as much as I loved being there, managing the work load against available resources was wildly difficult. None of that here at O*. Since it’s a restaurant and retail café, the routine is pretty stable and predictable, with Fridays and Saturdays being larger production days and the rest of the week is spent getting ahead for the weekend.

I’m tracking my work time on my phone with a little app and I’m consistently working 50-55 hours per week so far. That’s more than when I was at F* but far less than Starry Nights. And again, the relative lack of stressful days can’t be overstated. I basically come to work, produce a lot of stuff and go home. There’s not much planning for the week required of me, so I can just concentrate on what’s on the prep list.

I did, unfortunately, recently receive some feedback from my boss that I need to speed up. I’m not used to hearing feedback like that, so it was a bit of a surprise. But I think about what we would say at F*, which is that while you’re learning, you focus on technique, then speed, then back to technique, then to speed again. Always back and forth on the two until you really get good at something. I think my standards and attention to detail are naturally a little higher than what’s required here at O*, so I think I’ll need to relax on that for a minute and really start cranking stuff out, high speed. Once I get a better handle on the speed and time management, I can go back to raising quality.

The kitchen in which I work is a decent-sized restaurant kitchen in layout, but just like every kitchen I’ve ever seen, it’s jammed to capacity. At some points during the day, there are as many as 18 people there, all fighting for space. The pastry section is situated on one end of the kitchen, with two 8’ benches pushed together. On any given day, we have three pastry chefs working, in staggered shifts, at one of three distinct stations: Big mixer, small mixer, and top-up.

Since I’ve started back in May, I’ve been assigned to the small mixer station for most of my shifts. I’ve worked the top-up station a couple times, but haven’t done the big mixer yet. Each station has a core set of responsibilities and tasks, with the remaining tasks being shared across the team. Most of my shifts have been at 7am and follow the same script: I spend the first hour plating up desserts and pastries for the window display as well as cutting fruit for the one breakfast item to come out of our station (fruit and granola). Once the display items are done and we’re ready for breakfast at 8am, I start decorating and finishing the items that were baked off the day before. This is things like chocolate tea cakes, orange cakes, polenta cakes, and large 9” cakes. Decorating need so to be done by 10:30am or so, then it’s on to mixing and baking. On the small mixer, I’m responsible for baking various small-batch items like chocolate tarts and Guinness cakes. Once the baking is done, then it’s prep, assembly, and planning for the next day, things like cutting brownies, setting up jams and butters for breakfast, filling financiers, wrapping stuff up to keep it fresh, setting up sheet pans of muffins, cookies, and viennoiserie for baking the next day, and cleaning the station.

The top-up station is a little less structured, with the emphasis on making sure the window pastry display is always full. This can take quite some time out of the day, or sometimes there’s not a lot to be done. The top-up station is usually the last to arrive in the morning and will start out with decorating and finishing, then demolding whatever’s been baked earlier, managing the oven, and picking up breakfast tickets. It’s the most random of the stations and can be the most frustrating since you’re never really in control of your timing or schedule.

The big mixer, which I haven’t done yet, is the first person to arrive and is largely responsible for getting the window display going and baking off all the pastries from the commissary kitchen. Once that’s done, they move on to making the 9” cakes (usually about 10 at a time), then the signature meringues, and some decorating. More on that once I get a few shifts on the big mixer.

So in all, my job at O* is more than I could have hoped for a job here in London. It’s a great company with a world-wide reputation, and the staff there are all friendly and fun to work with. So far so good!