15 February 2011

Memories of Provence

Provence was my second position as a baker. It was wonderful to learn a bit about French baking. That interview was the most nerve-racking. Just that it's French was intimidating, and the head pastry chef requested a portfolio. I had never once thought to take pictures of my products. So, I made a batch of my "Tiramisu Bars" that were featured at Merridee's. It could have totally back fired on me, as it borders on edible bribery. However, it was well-accepted and instantly gave me a shoe in with future co-workers. (That reminds me that I'll have to post that recipe.)
Provence is a much bigger company than what I was used to. They had 5 locations spread throughout Nashville, as well as a large clientele from local restaurants, hotels, and other catering gigs. They also made appearances at the Nashville Farmer's Market during the spring and summer months. All the baking was done at a lovely, flour-dusted building in the Gulch, and it later moved to the airport area.
Baking at the Gulch was non-stop entertainment. In the morning, you get to see hipsters do the walk of shame, as they slink back to their cars with smeared makeup and disheveled hair. I met an interesting group of gutter hippies, who offered me some ganja to go with the biscotti ends I offered to the hungry bunch. At night, there was no telling who would pass by. One night I had a European fellow burst in, flanked by two young hotties, demanding fresh pastries "like in the old country." Being across the street from the Station Inn, which was also Jimmy Carl's by day (excellent coleslaw!), meant a steady stream of bluegrass and country artists. I even caught an impromptu after hours show in the parking lot one night. I swear that one day I saw Robert Irvine of Dinner Impossible.
Our team was amazing. We pretty much all got along. We made vulgar jokes all day, dotted with poorly done Borat impressions. Listened to NPR and pop music. It was common to find something, whether it was European butter or sucree dough, shaped into a sexual organ. Awesome for a morale boost on those early 4am mornings.
There were actual relevant experiences as well. I learned how to make genuine croissants and danishes. I burned caramel at least a dozen times before getting it down. I think my decorating and finishing skills soared. Blair, a Baked veteran, showed me how to flawlessly decorate cakes. Well, his were flawless. I swear, watching him was like watching a ballet. I iced way too many Christmas tree cookies. Discovered the endless possibilities in macarons. Discussing new flavors and ideas was a great exercise. Pistachio. Mango. Espresso. Lavendar. Megan, our head chef, even experimented with bacon pecan bars. Talk about sinful!
The best thing about my time there was learning from all my different co-workers. They all had different paths, skills, and tastes. Our head pastry chef had never been to culinary school but had a degree in psychology. Three of the chefs had culinary degrees with various results. One was a nurse full-time who came in to work for free, because he loved baking so much. There were a slew of interns from the few schools that offered culinary degrees in the area. I also got to know some of the bread department, as well as our administration.
The universal factor was passion for food. Not everyone was a Provence fan so to speak, but they all loved food and wanted to be involved with it in some way. Everyone kept up on new restaurants and new menu items. It was a blessing to be surrounded by so many foodies.

09 February 2011

Memories of Merridee's

I was brushing up my resume and thought about taking a stroll down memory lane. I have worked with 3 different companies so far, and each one was a unique experience.
I first worked for Merridee's. To be honest, I was just looking for a part-time job. This extremely vague classified ad began a whole new world for me. (Yes, now I'm envisioning Aladdin and Jasmine on their magic carpet ride.) Back to the story, I remember thinking, 'Yeah, I could do that. Why not?' I spoke with the head baker at the time, Donnie, and set up an interview. I was so nervous that I got there an hour and a half early. I remember peeking in the windows before calling to see where to go in, since the front doors were locked. Yeah, I just woke up my very groggy future boss. Once he arrived, we talked about tattoos, skating, wine, motorcycles, and the details of the position.
I think I took to it fairly well, even though I had only baked the regular stuff at home. The biggest thing that helped me was that Donnie emphasized using your senses instead of tools. Feel the dough. Smell the fermentation. Hear the thwap. See the stretch.
To congratulate me on my new venture, my husband gave me Brother Juniper's Bread Book. I think they meant Bible; it surely is mine. Through the two sources, I learned how all of this came together. Flour. Liquid. Salt. Yeast. Heat. Bam. Bread.
The second after holiday season was particularly slow, so I switched to the day shift. Nothing too exciting, baking wise, but the people! I got to know our regulars, see kids press their faces against the window. We even had a steady stream of celebrities, including Naomi Judd, Kal Penn, and Hayley Williams. I even met a couple, who remembered when Merridee's was in Fairview, its original location when it was a pioneer in the local, organic movement. I met Merridee's widower and got to know our owners better. I won over the Mr. Wilson type by calling him "Sport".
I think it was important for me to see the other side. We always joked that we bakers were the Keebler elves. Most of the employees never saw us until the holidays, when our shifts crossed paths due to over-time. Customers were struck with awe, when I informed them that I was the lovely lady baking their beloved Viking bread. I was proud of our work before, but now I got to see how much others enjoyed it. How much this place meant.
But at night, that's where the fun was. Friday nights were a guaranteed good time. That's when all three of us worked, me, Donnie, and Amy, the current head baker and my best girl friend. The neighboring bars and restaurants meant rich drunks stumbling about, usually asking if we would open just for them. "Just ONE cookie!" Most nights were calm, and the square took on a peaceful, if not mystical, persona.
I learned about so much music. Now, I have this collection of music dedicated just to my time at Merridee's. I know you're begging to know. Dresden Dolls, Snake River Conspiracy, Ratatatat, Dropkick Murphys, Days of the New, Tool, Queen.
I look back on it now as a good time. I got a best friend out of it, a ton of knowledge, mad props for featuring my own recipes. Most importantly, I discovered that my hands are my best asset. They can create food. Not just food but memories. They can help celebrate milestones, bring comfort, or just give people an excuse to meet or catch up.