First week done

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*.

Typical day
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 team
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.

The product
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.

The goal
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.

Kitchen notes – 5/15/15

The definitive solution to de-seeding a pomegranate: Cut it crosswise, perpendicular to the axis. Hold the cut side in the palm of your hand and smack the fruit’s rind with the back of a spoon. The seeds will fall right out into your hand, requiring very little sorting.

Metric liquid vs weight measurements
“A pint is a pound the world round” as long as you’re only measuring water. This applies also to kiligrams and liters, or very nearly. 1 liter weighs 1.0028Kg, so practically speaking, in the kitchen it’s the same.

“Italian” meringue
Baking the sugar on a sheetpan for a few minutes at super high temp, and then adding to egg whites results in an Italian-style meringue, even though it’s still dry sugar, like a French meringue. I haven’t tried this at work yet; more on this after I’ve tried it.

My first job in a foreign country

One of the primary reasons I became a chef is so that I would have an internationally portable skill. Today I landed a job here in the UK where I’ll be working as a pastry chef. Mission accomplished!

Starting next week, I will join the team at O* in the Islington shop (one of about several locations across London), which is only six minutes by foot from my little mews. In addition to the upside of a very short commute, this job has everything I was looking for in a UK pastry chef position: I’m part of a team of other pastry chefs, it’s a productive and busy place without being oppressive, I will get to create beautiful and delicious desserts and snacks (displayed right in the street-side window!), and it’s going to be a fantastic entry on my resume.

As I mentioned in a previous post, O* has quite the fan-boy following back home, one that I don’t quite understand. The food is good (vegetable-centric), and the restaurant design is pretty cool (European Nordic/Germanic modern café feeling: inviting and comfortable, and just a little austere for the American sensibility, which is probably what makes it attractive.), but for the life of me, I just can’t figure out why the huge following. I’ve been told the cookbooks are amazing, but I don’t see that they’re doing anything particularly unique, they’re just making really good food. That plays well here in London, certainly, but in Seattle just doing solid food isn’t enough, you’ve got to have “buzz”. So while I’m very happy to see, for once, that a non-hyper-modern, Pellegrino-rated, Spanish/Danish restaurant which serves tapas made of rehydrated freeze-dried tree moss has a fan base in Seattle, I’m just a little bewildered by the cult-like following.

Anyway, I’m extremely excited to start work and I’m looking forward to the opportunity of being part of a very well-known restaurant group. The executive pastry chef of all the stores is a woman from Poland and I’m happy to be working for her. She’s meticulous and consistent as well as organized and patient, but with a high standard. The way she runs her side of the business is also very collaborative and inclusive which is a nice surprise – I expected more of a top-down environment here in the UK. While I’m not strictly motivated by getting my items on the menu, it’s nice to know that management is always open to good ideas.

I can’t wait to start cooking and baking again! I’m sure there will be frustrating days (there always are, in any job), but I’m excited about the chance for growth and new professional experiences. This is what I’ve been working towards!

And if you’re wondering where I actually work and why the cryptic “O*”, it’s because of an incident I’ve had in the past on my blog with Google and people’s automatic search term alerts… But I’m sure you can figure out where I’m working!

NOW it’s home

Chocolate chip cookies

Let there be cookies!

My first dessert made in London

Baked Alaska

…is a Baked Alaska.

Bringing real-style Americana to the British cousins!

Up next, my signature chocolate chip cookies.