Somehow I seem to find myself in these Devil Wears Prada “a million girls would kill for this job” situations. My first job interview ever, for an assistant job in the fashion department at Marie Claire magazine, lasted a generous 90 seconds. But while my first career was quite literally in the throws of fashion magazine craziness not unlike the movie — Starbucks runs, racks and racks of clothes everywhere, late nights, early mornings, and hours spent at fax machines (yes, fax machines) — I’m so glad that my second career is starting out in the throws of flour and bread baskets and sourdough starters. And I’m very thankful that I know what it’s like to start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.
I love and appreciate that my close friends and family think that I can just walk into Tartine Bakery and get offered a job on the spot. “What? They’re not going to hire you?” But hiring me would entail that a) they actually have a job opening, and 2) that even if they did, hundreds of other (more qualified) people wouldn’t also want it. What they did offer me, however, was a two-day stage (that’s French for internship) in their world-renowned bakery under the tutelage of their amazing team. And those two days were nothing short of amazing.
Starting over isn’t easy, and never was that more apparent then when I was standing over a wooden work bench pitting about 8,000 cherries last Thursday — after I had just finished peeling two cases of oranges. I was essentially tasked with doing the filing equivalent of a corporate job, where the biggest challenge is not letting your mind wander too much into the dark side of “why am I doing this again?” My internship at InStyle magazine during the summer after I had just graduated college was in the research department. Although it may sound glamorous, I was tasked with reading through page proofs to make sure there were no typos, and then calling the stores listed on each page to make sure they sold X bag or Y shoes for the price listed on the page. Then I put my initials on the top of the page proof and handed it off to the next person. And waited for the next one. Each page took about 30 minutes, tops. Sometimes I got one page a day. There are only so many times one can visit the supply closet looking for new highlighter colors, so I would sneak upstairs to the fashion department and ask if they needed help. Quite proud of my stealth, it took weeks before anyone in the research department knew I was moonlighting in the fashion department, and by the time they caught wind I had already been offered a full-time job somewhere else. But hey! If looking for typos and sorting clothes helped me get where I am today, then I can pit cherries with the best of them!
To be fair, I think my fruit-filled first morning was a way for the pastry team to gage my competence and willingness. I guess I passed muster because by the first afternoon, I was glazing cakes and shaping cookies. I completely forgot to drink any water in those eight hours, peed maybe once, and probably wouldn’t have eaten had they not invited me to family lunch (OMG, Arturo’s Mexican red chicken). I left the first day feeling OK, inspired and exhausted, knowing that I need to get faster but thankful that at least I’m a quick study. Then I went back for day two with the bread team…
The Head of Bread (can I just say I would kill for that title on a business card?) is like no one I have ever met before. When he called me to ask that I come in for a meeting, I could have chatted to him for hours — until that awkward point in the conversation when you both realize you actually haven’t met in person yet so it might be best to carry on face-to-face. Maybe it was the British accent, maybe it was the fact that we were talking about sourdough starters within the first minute, but I was smitten. (Not like that, although it should be noted that finding a job and dating online are not that dissimilar, for better or for worse I’m trying to hone my skills with both.) Our face-to-face meeting was surreal. Not only did Diana Kennedy (my idol of Mexican cuisine) happen to be in the bakery that day (a rare happenstance, as I hear that she rarely leaves her serene spot in the Mexican jungle), but Chad Robertson (Tartine’s owner, deemed “the baker of the world’s best and most imitated bread”) was also there. When we met, by the awe-inspiring bread oven overflowing with fresh loaves that had just finished baking, he said to me: You have a very impressive background. When they showed me your resume I said, ‘Yes, call her back!’ It took everything in my power not to faint right there in front of him, and topple over into the very very hot oven. This man is a bread-making messiah. I don’t think it will ever fully sink in that he thinks my background is impressive.
Fast forward to one week later, when I am standing at yet another wooden work bench shaping country loaves with the Head of Bread, when Chad walks in. Although I did a crap job of trying to hide my wobbly, misshapen loaf, he thankfully had a lot more important things to focus on at that moment. And whilst he was discussing said important bread business with the team, I finally stopped for a second to think about all I had done that day: Sprouted two giant containers of rye berries, learned how to make oat porridge bread, stacked and unstacked a lot of bread baskets, made and shaped their Danish-style ancient sprouted rye bread by myself, learned how to load a deck oven, shaped a few loaves of their famous country loaf, and practiced some Spanish. Not too shabby for a “green” baking stage just off the boat from cooking school.
So, Mom and Dad: I don’t have a job at one of the country’s best bakeries, yet. But I’m working on it. I got to geek out about bread for a day, meet some amazing and passionate people who were nothing short of inspiring, and got my hands dirty, quite literally, in how this all works. Feck, even just walking around the back of the bakery in an apron was magical. In the meantime, I’m going to keep practicing in my lab (aka San Francisco kitchen) and feeding as many friends as humanly possible while I figure out what’s next. It may take me a little bit of time to figure it out, but I will. I promise.
My hands were stained from the cherry juice for three days after I left the bakery and my shoes still have spots of crusted-over sourdough starter, but every time I look down at them, I smile. Let the new journey begin…