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Extreme life of a Chef

I recently went on a trip to Antarctica. It was an amazing adventure! As you can imagine, it is not a traditional cruise to the Bahamas. We had to travel through the Drake Passage – 2 1/2 days without seeing land. This is one of the most volatile ocean passes in the world. In fact, two days before I set sail, another ship was so badly battered by the Drake, it had to turn back and never made it to Antarctica.

I was amazed with the food we were served during our travels. Fresh baked bread and delicious and creative meals! I was able to sit down with the Head Chef, Chef Brian and hear about what it’s like to be a chef on an ice-breaker vessel that travels to the most remote regions of the world.

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.

Gingerbread

I first met Elizabeth, head pastry chef at Kona Village Resort, on a family trip to Hawaii when I was about 10 years old. She used to let my sister and I come into the kitchen where we would be able to watch her plate desserts. It was always so exciting to see the hustle and bustle going on behind the scenes. It was a few years later that I began to hear about the wonderful gingerbread work that Elizabeth would do for Christmas at Kona Village.  I have always been enamored by the time, creativity and intricate detailing that goes into building gingerbread structures. This year I had the pleasure of speaking with Elizabeth about her craft.

Elizabeth Therialt, Dessert Chef

Kona Village Resort, Hawaii

Answers are paraphrased from a phone interview

1) How did you become a pastry chef? What drew you to this field?

Baking has always been a part of my life. I grew up in a family of hunters, bakers, fishermen and gardeners. I knew that baking was an expression of love. It was a way to be able to give and please people. My uncle and grandfather were bakers in a commercial setting. My grandfather was actually called “Whitey” because he was in charge of the flour and sugar and was often found covered in a light dusting of white powder. Both my Grandmothers were bakers as well; one for the school system and one for the other harvesters. I always baked as a hobby, but didn’t consider it as a career until I took a course in Cooking for Wellness at The Polarity Health Institute in Washington. Later on I took pastry at the University of Hawaii.

2) You are known for the amazing Gingerbread structures you create for the Holidays at Kona Village. When did you begin this tradition?

I began doing the gingerbread houses in 1995. This is the 15th gingerbread house that I have made. My third year of building the houses I actually made two structures; one for each restaurant (which was a huge undertaking). I am a storyteller and use the gingerbread as my medium. I try to present my point of view of the Hawaiian culture.

3) Where do you get your inspiration from?

I grew up in Fresno, California; many of my family trips were to Disneyland, which has greatly affected my imagination. It is based on this thought process of imagineering that I find inspiration for my gingerbread houses. I want to create a fantasy within my pieces. I create mini scavenger hunts in the structure. Allowing the guests to try and figure out what items were used to create the structure. It’s following in the spirit of discerning what is and is not real in ones own life. Many times the guests visit and revisit the pieces and each time discover some new detail or element to the piece.

This year’s theme is based on Kalaemano – a property just North of Kona Village. The learning center and path to the ocean is the main focal point of the property. My themes are based on what captures my heart.

Kalaemano

Petroglyphs Ki’i Pohaku

Breadfruit Tree

Learning Center’s Amphitheater

4) What goes into building a gingerbread house?

Some years the maintenance crew helps me build the wooden structure, while other years I choose not to engage in that collaboration. When I am building these structures I strive to create as much as I can out of edible materials. Everything comes from the land or the kitchen.  When I am unable to use food for certain parts of the structure I will turn to other supplies found in the kitchen such as ice cream cartons and asparagus crates. It is a structure completely comprised of renewable parts.

Each gingerbread structure takes 100 + hours to build. This years structure has the thatching made of shredded wheat, the lava is a powdered sugar/gelatin mixture that is baked and burnt, the sand is made of rice-krispies, sesame seeds and white rice, the grass is dyed coconut, and the benches are made of vanilla beans. The entire structure is held together with gingerbread cement which uses about 75 pounds of powdered sugar and 50 egg whites!

5) When do you begin planning/building the gingerbread house?

In thought, the planning begins the day after or during the previous years design. In action, I begin in September or October.

6) You are not only an extremely talented pastry chef, but you have quite a number of other jobs and hobbies. Please tell us a little about what makes you so special.

My ‘specialness’ is no different than anyone elses, we are however each ‘unique’ unto ourselves. We each have an individual connection to the divine and I am blessed to use that connection. I just prioritize it. I have a passion for passion. I find the delight in the unusual and in the spiritual cleverness in the unexpected and the creative presentation of spirit. That is what I look for. I try to see the weaving of the creative mastery that goes on around us. The drum in particular has caught my heart. Every rhythm of life has a heart beat. During the year before I joined the staff at Kona Village I spent time in Sedona where I made my first drum. So really both drumming and pastry came to me around the same time in my life. It allows me to know love and be loved in the most expanded way possible.

Here are some pictures from the gingerbread structures that Chef Elizabeth has created in the past

Hale Samoa Restaraunt

Hale Moana Restaraunt

Maori Hale (guest bungalow)

Kona Village Fitness Center

Kona Village Gate House

Kona Village Reception Center with Staff

Chocolate Pahu Drum and Honu

Hale Samoa Restaurant at Night

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