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Just Another Day at the Office

I just came across this article I wrote at the very beginning of my career as a pastry chef. It is so nice to look back on one of my first experiences in the food industry. Pretty amazing to know that years later, the challenges remain the same.

4:30 AM should not belong to the waking. Although technically morning, there is nothing about this hour that welcomes consciousness. But as a baker, I am already awake, bathed and starting my day an hour and half before my local Starbucks opens.

I work at a high–end cupcake store where seventeen varieties of cupcakes are made each day in addition to special orders. I was once asked if my work ever gets boring, since I seem to do the same thing every day. The answer is no — in this industry the unexpected happens daily, and I must be prepared for whatever is thrown my way.

Typically, I open the store. I unlock the back door and slip inside the dark storeroom. I turn on all the kitchen lights, change into my uniform, wash my hands, turn on the ovens and review the day’s specials and the private orders. At this point, another baker will arrive and we spend the next four hours cranking out cupcakes. So, on what seemed to be a fairly average morning, I was opening up the kitchen when I received a call from my fellow morning baker — she was sick and was not coming to work. I hung up on her immediately (having no time to scold her on the late call) since I knew I had to begin working full force if I wanted a chance at getting the cupcakes out on time. The company I work for believes in using home-sized Kitchen Aid mixers, thereby producing small quantities of cupcakes throughout the day to preserve freshness. This is a fantastic way to produce quality items, but is not especially efficient when trying to rush orders. The gravity of the situation hit me: no one else was coming in for the next four hours, I could not double the recipes due to the size of the mixers and I was already twenty minutes behind! I needed a plan.

There were a total of seven mixers, four for making cupcakes and three for making frosting. The only way to meet the deadline was to use all seven mixers simultaneously. I quickly began making two batches of vanilla, two batches of chocolate, one batch of red velvet and two batches of the day’s specials. I work with the same recipes every day and have a good feel for how long each part of the process takes, so while one batch was mixing, I’d melt butter in the microwave and measure out the milk for the next batch. I played games in my head to keep everything straight; what stage I was at with each mixer, which ingredients had yet to go in, how long each mixer had been beating and at what speed. I sang melodies to help me keep track of the numbers; how many of cups of sugar, how much flour, how many eggs. The thrum of seven mixers running full blast set the rhythm to my tune. Between verses I’d dash into the next room and line the pans with baking cups. Then, another hurtle arrived — one of the ovens was down. I had to recalculate everything. How many cupcakes could I fit into a single oven? What were the different bake times for the different mixes? What were the different temperatures they had to be baked at? What would be the most efficient order for the batches to go into the oven? My scuttling and singing continued until I solved the puzzle by settling on a baking line-up that would get the cupcakes baked as fast as possible. Before I knew it, small fluffy cupcakes were beginning to fill the countertops and my heart rate slowly began to return to normal.

I’m happy to report that all the cupcakes came out beautifully that day, and all of my batches were baked and ready before the staff arrived. Do I find my job boring? Anything but. Efficiency and focus are a baker’s only armor against life’s unpredictability, and a few seconds of careful thinking can be the difference between success and disaster. Even in the pre-Starbucks dawn of 4:30 AM.

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