sourdough 101

sourdough bread

A crusty loaf of sourdough bread, fresh from the oven

When I worked at Martha Stewart, life was all about 101s. Chicken 101, spring cleaning 101, container gardening 101 — there was a robust guide to the basics of any endeavor you could imagine. So in the spirit of the good ole days, here is my 101 guide to making sourdough bread.

Step 1 — Starting with a Starter

sourdough starter

A happy sourdough starter, full of life and bubbles

It all starts with a starter. A combination of flour, water, salt and yeast from the air (natural yeast) makes this bubbly, active, smelly, wonderful mixture that you use some of for each loaf of bread. [Many types of bread use dry active yeast packets that are activated by warm water (or warm milk) and a wee bit of sugar.] In my option, the best description of a natural starter is in the Tartine Bread book:

“Developing a starter begins with making a culture. A culture is created when flour and water are combined, and the microorganisms — wild yeasts and bacteria present in the flour, in the air, and on the baker’s hands — begin to ferment spontaneously. After fermentation begins, the baker ‘feeds’ the culture regularly to ‘train’ it into a lively and predictable starter.”

To make a starter, make a 50/50 mixture of bread flour (which is higher in gluten than all-purpose flour) and whole-wheat flour. Take a small deli container, fill it halfway with warm water (imagine tea that is drinkable in temperature) and add a handful of the flour mixture. Mix with your hands until all the flour is incorporated and you have a batter that feels like a thick milkshake. Then cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, put it in a cool spot, and let it hang out for 2-3 days. Check it after 2-3 days to see if any bubbles have started to form. If they haven’t, let it rest for another day or two. When it starts to form bubbles and to smell like stinky cheese, it’s ready.

*Important note: Where you live makes a big difference! I live in San Francisco, which is said to be the ideal climate for sourdough because the temperature is never too hot or too cold, and there is always some humidity in the air from the proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The more you play with dough, especially sourdough, the more you will become familiar with how climate affects every aspect of the process — especially the starter. So don’t worry if your starter isn’t active right away, and don’t freak out if it’s very bubbly after only a few days. Be patient! Let the starter do its thing and take as much time as it needs to get going. Making bread is very much a science, but it also requires a good gut instinct and attention to the environmental factors around you.

Step 2 — Feeding Your Starter

Feed it daily! Use equal parts water and flour (to start, use half bread flour and half whole-wheat flour) and add it to the starter, and mix with your hands. For daily feedings when I’m not making bread soon, I usually use about 75 grams of water and 75g of flour. Use a food scale to measure. Then just let it be and try to keep it warm. On the next day, dump a lot of it out (about 3/4 of it) and then feed it again, with equal parts flour and water. If you can, try to feed it at the same time every day (for example, every morning when you’re eating breakfast or every night when you’re cooking dinner).  This will help you remember to feed it and help it get on a schedule. Think of it like a baby. The starter has yeast and bacteria, so you want to keep the yeast winning over the bacteria. The more you dump out from the previous day, the less bacteria that stays around. You can alternate feedings of the 50/50 flour mix and just bread flour. Essentially, whole-wheat flour will activate it more than white flour, so if you’re not making bread anytime soon, it doesn’t need a lot of whole wheat. When it’s a happy starter, it will be stretchy, bubbly, and full of holes. When it’s an unhappy starter, it will be liquidy, flat, have very few bubbles, and will start to smell sour. If it starts to get unhappy, just dump even more of it out for its next feeding. 

Step 3 — Making Dough

sourdough dough

Sourdough dough, resting before it is shaped

After a few days of feeding it, you can start making bread. But no worries if you don’t want to make it right away! Just keep feeding the starter daily and it will be ready for you whenever you are ready for it. 

When you’re ready to make dough, you’ll want to give it TWO feedings the day before you make the dough. One in the morning and one at night.  They can be bigger feedings than usual (about 150g each flour mixture and water). On the morning you’re going to make dough, you want to do another big feeding. Then let it sit for about 3 hours and you’re ready to start. The starter needs to be super active when you make the dough.

First, read my primer on making dough — it’s a shorter summary of the description in the Tartine Bread book, and a recap of what I learned as an apprentice at Tartine

Here’s the basic recipe I’ve been working off of. I’d suggest that you start with this recipe and then once you get comfortable with it, you can start varying the flours (and the water, as needed).

BASIC SOURDOUGH RECIPE

  • 300g whole-wheat flour (30%)
  • 700g bread flour (70%)
  • 250g starter (25%)
  • 700g water (70%)
  • 25g salt (2.5%)

Put the flours, starter, and almost all of the water (about 650g) together in a big bowl and mix them by hand. Make sure every bit of flour is incorporated. It will be sticky! Let it rest in the bowl covered with a kitchen towel for 20 minutes. This is called autolyse. Then add the salt, the rest of the water, and up to another 50g of water depending on the dough. It should be a wet dough, so keep adding water and massaging it in until it just can’t take anymore. A lot of factors will affect this — how humid it is outside, how warm or cold the temp is, etc. So you just need to go with your gut and add water until it has had enough. 

I included percentages — these are called bakers percentages. Bakers use a 100% scale to create recipes like this. The percentage of water is important, it’s called the hydration percentage. [Tartine uses a very wet dough, and Chad goes into this in detail in the Tartine Bread book. Most people are scared of wet doughs but it’s one of the reasons why their bread is so great.] The flours are also based on percentages. Once you’re ready to vary them, you just need to make sure that they always add up to 100%. 

Once you make the dough, you’ll fold it every 30 minutes for 2 hours. Then let it rest for 1 hour. Then shape it, put it into a bowl or basket lined with a kitchen towel, and let it rest for another hour before putting it into the fridge to continue rising overnight. Specific instructions and photos are all in my primer.

Step 4 — Baking the Dough

Once again, all of the details are in my blog post about making dough. The key is to make sure your oven is hot enough, and baking the dough in a cast-iron covered pot (aka Dutch oven) is essential. You could bake sourdough without it, but it will be very difficult to get the same results. You’ll need to fill a spray bottle with water and spritz the inside of the oven every few minutes in the first part of baking to simulate the steam that you would have gotten from the pot.

When your buns come out of the oven, it will be very tempting to eat them right away — but try to resist! It’s very hard to cut fresh, hot bread so if you can wait even an hour, you’ll enjoy a sturdier piece.

A few tools that will come in handy:

  1. A digital food scale
  2. A large bowl (for making the dough) and two medium-sized bowls (for proofing the shaped dough); or you can be fancy and buy the proofing baskets that professional bakers use
  3. A bowl scraper
  4. A dough scraper
  5. A bread lame (for scoring the dough)
  6. A cast-iron covered pot — these range from high end (and pricey) to every day (and affordable). If you’re going for the Rolls Royce of Dutch ovens, buy a 5 1/2-quart Le Creuset Dutch Oven. If you’re just starting out and want a good quality model that’s a bit more budget friendly, the Lodge Cast Iron Combo Cooker will definitely do the trick.
sourdough crumb

Showing off my sourdough crumb

Happy baking!

 

today i woke up with sadness

I am confused. I am angry. I am frustrated. I am devastated. I am scared. I am sad.

All day I have been trying to process my feelings and wrap my head around everything that is going on around me. Normally, it’s not this hard. Today, it has been extremely hard. It has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to process all year, and that’s saying a lot. This has been a tough year.

This spring, my mom was diagnosed with an illness that will be with her forever. This summer, my dad was diagnosed with an illness that will be with him forever. In between, I lost my cousin — who was like a second father to me — to cancer. I started the year on unemployment and I’m ending it wondering what the future holds, for all of us. This has been a tough year.

I reached out to a few very important women (and one awesome guy) in my life today looking for answers. And some of them, from very very far way and very very close by, reached out to me. None of them had answers, but all of them had pain. Through them, I was reminded that comfort comes in many forms, but sometimes the most powerful of which is camaraderie. And love.

But don’t get me wrong, this still sucks. It sucks for many reasons, but a huge one for me is all of the sweeping generalizations that have been permeating his campaign, which are not true. I have health insurance because of Obamacare. Say what you will about it, but I am one of those people who couldn’t afford health insurance otherwise. I am a freelancer, no longer in a big, secure corporate job, trying to make ends meet each month, trying to switch career gears and start anew. It’s not easy, and some days I question everything, but it’s worth it. This summer, I had a serious health scare that I wouldn’t have been able to see through if I didn’t have health insurance. If there were no Obamacare. The tests and hospital visits cost thousands and thousands of dollars, which I don’t have right now. Which I’m sure many people will never have, ever. It’s scary. And it’s scary to hear rhetoric about how awful it is and how it’s going to be eliminated. I don’t know what I will do if that’s the case. To me, it’s not awful. To me, it is a life saver. And that is just one of the reasons I’m scared. And sad. And angry. It angers me to no end how people during this election have spoken so flippantly about our current president and all he has done for our country. And I know that it disgusts many of the people around me as well. America IS great. Or at least I thought so until today. Never have I felt more disconnected from the country I live in, a country that I believed in so strongly all of my life. A country that I was proud of. That made me smile when I took out my U.S. passport after a flight home from abroad. A country to which I felt thankful every time I came home to it. Just like I did just this past Monday, only two days ago.

As today draws to an end, I see more clearly that it is the people around me in whom I will find solace. One friend started a conversation on her beautiful blog. One friend is bringing a group of women together to start a conversation in person. Many friends all over the world sent virtual hugs. And my boyfriend and I decided to turn off the TV, turn off social media, eat dinner together at home tonight (carnitas and chocolate chip cookies can do wonders for the soul, I’ve realized) and dance in the living room together to Frank Sinatra. Although it’s harder today than any other day, I still need to have HOPE that love trumps hate.

love trumps hate

love trumps hate

my first wedding cake

Years ago, I dreamt of baking my own wedding cake. Maybe it was all those years of working at Martha Stewart surrounded by all of those wedding cakes (and bouquets, and favors, and centerpieces, and dresses — and dresses and dresses and dresses). Or perhaps it was more the picture-perfect wedding I was dreaming about. Now I realize that’s just flat out crazy.

But when your really dear friends, two of your favorite guys on the planet, ask you to bake their wedding cake, that’s just flat out awesome.

wedding cake

the cake.

When I moved to San Francisco four years ago, I had two friends. Two. Brian and Collin. And technically it was more like one and a half, since I had met Collin all of once before I moved but he came along with the package since he was Brian’s boyfriend. And if I’m honest, I hardly knew Brian. We spent a week together in the south of France during the summer of 1998, with a handful of misfit travelers from all over the world (quite literally), who ended up at our friend’s uncle’s condo on Bastille Day. It was one of the best weeks of my life, hands down, but then I didn’t see Brian again for years. Fast forward to the summer of 2012 when I’m fresh off the boat from New York, working in a basement of a start-up factory (that we affectionately called The Dungeon) with a group of all-male engineers who won’t talk to me (except for one, who is now a dear friend), and Brian and Collin adopt me with open arms. Thank God for them.

Bastille Day champagne

Bastille Day 2012

It is Bastille Day once again and Brian wants to recreate our fabulous night from 14 years prior, in San Francisco. “A, honey, let’s do this.” Yes. Let’s. And so we did. A lot. For the next four years.

Bay to Breakers

Bay to Breakers parade 2013

There really are no words for that kind of unconditional love in a friendship that just happens. From driving tours of the city (Collin is the best tour guide San Francisco has ever seen) to ever-present cocktails to shenanigans at the Bay to Breakers parade every May, their arms were wide open and filled with love, light, joy, and encouragement. I’m not sure I would have made it here without them. And their awesome friends. And while their friends’ circle didn’t exactly help my dating life, it also welcomed me with open arms.

Fast forward to this weekend, when Collin and Brian got married. So many laughs (along with a few tears), and so much joy for the fact that they can get married now, and celebrate their love with all of those who love them. I was honored when they asked me to bake their wedding cake. In the sea of chaos that is my life these days, it was the calm in the middle of the storm. My mom and I talked endlessly about every detail (she is my cake mentor, after all), and after a few group texts with the grooms, it was all settled. I would bake a 4-layer black-and-white cake with dark chocolate frosting, topped with gilded raspberries and gold luster dust.

black and white wedding cake

inside the 4-layer black-and-white cake

My go-to yellow cake recipe is Martha Stewart’s (along with the dark chocolate frosting) and my go-to chocolate cake recipe is my mom’s. I decided to add some raspberries to the center of the cake, along with a splash of espresso to the frosting to bring out the chocolate flavor and accent the raspberries. And then somewhere along the way I would teach myself how to gild raspberries. I would do all of this in a day and a half, since I was on the east coast until the day before the wedding. No problem 😉

Baking is my zen, and thankfully no matter what else is happening around me, I can tune it out and focus on cake. (A few years ago when the San Francisco job I moved out here for was becoming a real sh*t show, I started baking in the office… scones for breakfast, cookies for the afternoon, cakes for every birthday, baby, and wedding… there is no better way to tune out the chaos than to literally walk away from it and into the kitchen.) So bake I did, turning my apartment kitchen into a veritable bakery production line, and enlisting my boyfriend to help me taste the samples. (Although to be fair, he has never ever said he didn’t like something I cooked or baked — smart man, but he might not be the most honest tongue around.) Regardless, one day later there was a cake. A really big cake. My first wedding cake.

I don’t think I realized how much this cake meant to me until yesterday, when the grooms cut the cake and thanked me for baking it. Although I still managed to art direct the cake cutting (shocker), I was pretty choked up and sentimental. On that day and for that very special occasion, my hands and all they have learned over the years were able to show what was in my heart. And there’s no better way, for a baker especially, to share love.

 

 

apparently I’m a Jewish mother

Although I’m not technically Jewish, nor am I a mother (yet). But my cousin Ira told me that I was, the day before he died last weekend. Today would have been his 80th birthday.

chicken soup

My Jewish Mother Chicken Soup

It all started with my chicken soup. I make it when someone is sick, or needs a little extra love, or for myself when I need a little extra love. There’s just something about chicken soup. Oddly, my mom doesn’t have a staple chicken soup recipe in her repertoire, so I have been making a variation of the next best thing — a Martha Stewart recipe that she made on her TV show while I worked there. I know this image, and I reference it often. I’ve adapted it into my own version, which personally I like better. I used to think making a bouquet garni was fussy. Now I’m all about it.

So of course I made it for Ira when he was entering the final stages of his battle with liver cancer, along with a giant loaf of sourdough bread and my 3-day dark chocolate sea salt cookies. You could say I pulled out the big guns. He didn’t have much of an appetite but he needed to eat (and so did his husband), so bada bing, bada boom, that was the menu I came up with.

When I brought it over to his apartment on Saturday afternoon, I was ready for him to tell me he wasn’t up for eating anything. But instead, he held my hand and said slowly, poignantly, “You really are a true Jewish mo-tha.” And then he didn’t let go of my hand. He held it for longer than he’s ever held it, and I started to wonder if he had actually ever held my hand before. Maybe to grab it quickly and pat it with his other hand in an attempt to commend me or congratulate me or something — or more likely with Ira, to emphasize some sort of sarcasm. He was brilliant at loving sarcasm. But never, that I could recall, had he held onto it before. Then he told me that the fresh bread sounded “won-da-ful” and he would eat a chocolate chip cookie. (That’s when I knew something was up — he never ate sweets.) So I savored the moment, continued shooting the shit with him as we did so well, and held his hand right back.

The next day his husband called to say that he had passed. Strangely, I didn’t cry. (I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, so maybe I have dried up.) But a flood of memories came over me in such a rush that I couldn’t make heads or tails of what I was actually feeling. I was immediately thankful for the time we had spent together, not just the day before but over the past four years that I have lived in San Francisco. Ira was my west-coast dad. He introduced me to chicken feet at his favorite dim sum place on Geary, took me to the old-school Polish delis in the Outer Richmond, and always kept on top of my latest job search/boyfriend search/NY bagel search. He told everyone he knew that I went to cooking school (apparently beaming with lots of pride), and I learned on the evening that he died, that he had also started telling everyone that I had found love. He never had a chance to meet my boyfriend, but he has made fun of his Minnesota accent enough that I feel like he does know him. Ira was the first person I went to when I needed advice, and he was always right. In fact, he said so much to me the day before he died, and we both laughed out loud about it. He’s been to so many places, seen so many things — of course he would always be right. And I was lucky enough to have him as my valentine this year. (We went for dim sum and he didn’t even make me eat chicken feet.)

Ira Lubell

Valentine’s Day with cousin Ira — no chicken feet this time!

Ira — I’m not sure what the world is going to do without you, but Lord knows I will still be asking you for advice about everything. And I will still be cooking you my Jewish mother chicken soup.

Happy 80th birthday, Ira. I love you, always.

JEWISH MOTHER CHICKEN SOUP

  • 1 whole chicken, about 4 lbs.
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
  • 3 celery stalks, cut into rounds
  • Any other firm or root vegetables you have in the fridge, cut into rounds
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, stems reserved
  • 1/4 cup fresh dill
  • Coarse salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 lb dried pasta, such as rigatoni, elbow macaroni, penne, or farfalle

Bouquet garni:

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1 dried bay leaf

Tie parsley stems together using kitchen twine. Prepare a bouquet garni: Place peppercorns, bay leaf, and garlic in a piece of cheesecloth; tie to enclose using kitchen twine.

In a large pot, combine parsley stems, bouquet garni, carrots, celery, onions, other vegetables (if using), and chicken, breast-side down. Add enough water to cover; season with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce to a simmer, and cook, partially covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes. Skim any foam that rises to the top and discard.

Meanwhile, cook pasta separately according to package instructions for al dente. Drain and set aside.

Remove chicken from pot, and let stand until cool enough to handle. Skim fat from surface of soup, if desired, and discard. Remove and discard parsley stems and bouquet garni. Remove meat from bones; discard skin and bones. Shred meat into bite-size pieces, and return to pot. Cook until heated through; season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add a portion of pasta to each serving, and garnish with chopped parsley, dill, and freshly ground black pepper. (Sometimes I add a little grated Romano cheese, too.)

 

can you really reinvent yourself?

There are some days when you wake up and everything makes sense. Then there are those days when you find yourself wandering aimlessly around Williams-Sonoma looking for an OXO mixing bowl — and a purpose in life.

Kim's baking book

one of Kim’s many amazing cookbooks

Today was one of the later. I had a business lunch in Union Square, and left more confused about life than when I had arrived. So I decided to go to my happy place, the mecca of all things baking and cooking and yummy smells, to visit the cookbook section. It’s where I go to get grounded when nothing else will do the trick. I scan the sea of colorful beauty that is the cookbook bookshelf to find my friend Kim’s books, which are all a culinary journey in and of themselves. They’re inspiring and beautiful, just like she is, and each of the alluring images is meant to be devoured as intensely as each of her remarkable baked goods. And they make me happy. There’s just something about a photo of giant chocolate chip cookies stacked on top of each other so high that the pile looks like it might topple over at any minute, but it doesn’t.

I had the pleasure of working with Kim recently on a photo shoot for a cookbook about pies. Ummmm… pies. Lots and lots and lots of pies. So many pies, so little time. (I tried to eat each and every one of them, and not let any crumb go to waste. But soon realized that my waist was the recipient of all the waste, and that was not a very good thing at all.) Working on the photo shoot was both a blessing and a curse. For the first time, in a very long time, I was actually doing something that I loved and getting paid for it. But it gave me a taste (sorry about the pun, I’m my father’s daughter) of a new life, a life where you can have your cake and eat it, too (sorry, again) and all I’ve been able to think about since then is how I can go about having that life. In many ways, I’d be starting over. Reinventing myself, if you will. Not in as crazy of a way as my stint attempting to reinvent myself training as a bread baker. But still, quite a bit of a departure from where I left off before Ireland.

flat stanley with pie

Flat Stanley sneaking onto the set of the pie photo shoot

My resume is filled with words like strategy, execution, customized marketing, data-driven, platform analysis, etc. etc. etc. etc. Sometimes it makes me nauseous.  It was my life for many, many years, and like a light switch, I can turn it on again just like that. I turned it on at lunch. It was that kind of lunch. Lunch about potential work in my old life, but at a new place. Yet as soon as it was over, a million thoughts flooded into my head. Do I want to go back to my old life? Do I want to do that kind of work again? Is it now or never? Am I fooling myself that I can actually create and walk on a new path and still live in one of the most (if not the most) expensive cities in the country? And if I try to, will I forever be caught in between the lands of “overqualified” and “not enough experience in that yet?”

So during today’s lunch I was asked, as I always seem to be asked these days, “What are you looking for?” (Which I’ve come to prefer ever so slightly to the question of “Can you work with millennials?”) Once again, I didn’t have a straight answer. I think it makes people nervous and confused when you don’t have a straight answer to that seemingly straightforward question. But I don’t. My answer takes some form of “many things,” followed by a list of the things I’m currently working on. That list runs the gamut, and I lose most people before it’s even finished. It seems a bit all over the place, and I get that. To be fair, I am a bit all over the place these days, both literally and figuratively. But when you are trying to reinvent yourself, do you need to just pick one thing? Do you have to choose between what you once were and what else you might want to be one day? I don’t know. I hope not. Because if so, then I’m doing it all fucking wrong.

A good friend, who is in a slightly similar place, and I talk about this type of thing a lot lately. What happens after you climb the corporate ladder pretty high and then want or need to change course? Why do people and prospective employers seem to not know what to do with you anymore? Why is your vast list of experiences and accomplishments now a deterrent? If you’ve already worked at some of the top companies in your field, is there even anywhere left to move over to? Our generation (Gen X) has been trained to work hard, climb the ladder, do everything we can to gain experience and expertise, achieve lots, push ahead, plow through, and all that jazz. But this upcoming generation of millennials is being trained very differently. They are the new golden children, sought after for their youth and fresh eyes and new perspectives, as well as “awesome” experience in social media, disruptive technologies and the like. After all, they were raised in an era of social media and crowdsourcing. Their lives at age 15 were way different from mine. For the first half of my media career, Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet. (Or open to the general public.) My friend just gave me a copy of the new book called Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-up Bubble by a former Newsweek journalist who goes to work at a tech start-up after he’s laid off from the print magazine. I’m only a few chapters in, but I find myself nodding constantly. Yes, I felt like that. Yes, I know how that goes. OMG, yes!!! I couldn’t believe it either! Yet another book written about almost exactly what I am going through at that exact period of time, but not written by me. (Two other famous “novels” still torment me to that end: The Devil Wears Prada not-yet-published manuscript found its way to my desk when I was the assistant to the fashion director at Mirabella magazine; The Nanny Diaries came out when I was a nanny for a very rich and very fucked up family on Manhattan’s east side after I got laid off from my first Internet job during the original Internet bust in 2001.)

There are days like today, and pretty much every day over the past two weeks, when I just want to wear a big sign that says, “I can do it! Really, I can! I’ve done lots of things!” I wonder if that will work. Or maybe something more like, “I’ve been around the block before — I’ve got this.” Or even better still, “All of the random things in my purse don’t make me more enigmatic, but rather more interesting.” I just wonder if anyone (clarification: anyone who might potentially hire me) will ever really get that, or just trust in that. I really hope so.

Needless to say, Williams-Sonoma did not have the bowl I was looking for. So I walked home, up the big hill, amid the glaring sunshine, wondering where to look for it next.

finding my tribe

Two weeks ago, I flew more than 5,300 miles for a hug. Well, OK, lots of hugs. I needed to see my tribe.

three blondes

the three nutty blondes, made even nuttier by the bubbly

I’m a hugger. And it still baffles me to no end how most people in San Francisco are not. Tree huggers, yes. People huggers, not so much. Even though my mom is German, she’s a hugger. That’s probably where I got it from. We hug every morning when we first see each other and again at night before we go to bed. We’re known to sneak some hugs in there in the middle of the day, too. So yeah, we hug. A lot. But hugging aside, it’s no secret that I’ve felt more than a little out of place in San Francisco lately. So I got on a plane (or two) and flew 5,351 miles from San Francisco to London to be with what a good friend (whom I met in SF but doesn’t hug) calls “my tribe.”

I’ve been a bit of an etymology nerd lately, thanks in large part to a fellow word nerd whom I met here in SF (and whom I’d classify as a medium hugger). While there are many definitions for the word “tribe,” my favorite is a simple one: A group of persons who have a common character, occupation, or interest. The word dates back to 13th century Middle English, from Latin tribus, a division of the Roman people: tribe. (Always the Romans, they knew what was up.) Even though I used the term quite often, I never put much stock or deep thought into it until last night when I was recounting my trip to the aforementioned word nerd. I realized then that I flew all the way to London for more than a bacon sandwich, really amazing gin or a giant bag of Cadbury’s mini eggs. I flew all the way to London to reconnect with my tribe. The tribe I have spent years depending on but never really realized it.

IMG_7840

sometimes in life, you just really need to share a sausage

I hop around a lot, which confuses many people. I’ll move country or city without a lot of premeditated thought, I’ll get on planes to far away places on a whim, I’ll do yoga in jungles or French chateaux or tiny northwestern islands, and I’ll occasionally do crazy things like live on a farm in Ireland for three months. A doctor here once told me that this sort of lifestyle is a symptom of my “overstimulated mind” — apparently my mind moves more quickly than any other part of me, so I need to change my stimuli often to keep it happy. I fall into the hyper-creative, entrepreneur-brain category, which seems to have a common neurological pattern. We are “people that balance their neurochemistry by constantly doing something stimulating or innovative at all times,” according to this Inc. article that the doctor was interviewed for. Believe of it what you will, but much our 20 minute discussion years ago still resonates with me today.

IMG_7887

a proper Sunday lunch with good friends can do wonders for the soul

I’ve deduced that a lot of people just don’t get me. (The doctor did add that romantic relationships would be challenging. Um, yes.) So for the few people that I meet that also fall into this same category, we get along swimmingly. For the rest, they’ll either a) try to calm me down, strongly suggest that I choose one path, or just shake their heads; or b) let me be my nutty self. This is not to say that the same person cannot play both roles at various times or in different situations, but the reactions are pretty clearly divided into those two groups. Because of this, I try to be conscious of my reactions to other people’s paths, dreams, career aspirations and the like. I hope I do OK on that front. But spending a lot of time alone these days had lead me to crave some seriously awesome human interaction with people who get me. People in group (b). This is not to say that I don’t have a tribe in the States. I definitely do. But it’s different. We are so work and career-focused here that it’s very hard to be, for the first time in your life, not defined by your job and truly embrace life in the US. Perhaps it’s the adventurous European spirit, perhaps it’s the bond you create with people who are in the trenches with you (another term coined by my wise Californian non-hugging friend), perhaps it’s a mix of both that lead me across the pond to my tribe.

FN gals

we look so well-behaved here

I spent a week laughing and eating and drinking gin and hugging. I spent a week in a place without judgement, both literally and figuratively. I spent a week surrounded by unconditional encouragement and support for my new journey, and really good gin. (Did I mention the gin already? Oh well, it was really good.) On my last night, I got a bit emotional (shocker, I know). Surrounded by the smiling faces of friends, many of whom are as nutty as I am, I realized that I’m not as f—ked up as I often think I am, and I’m ready to carry on (as they say) back home.  No, I don’t have a full-time job. No, I’m not earning six figures anymore. No, I’m not moving back to New York tomorrow. No, I don’t know exactly where this new road will take me. But yes, I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

As a very good friend and fellow culinary school mate says to me almost every day, “How lucky are we?”

Version 2

i love these mugs, and these lovely ladies

I live in San Francisco, but I’m not 27

Version 2

As Otis Redding so accurately captured this moment… just sittin’ on the dock of the bay

A few weeks ago, I went to the corporate offices of a well-known “disruptive” tech company in SF to pitch some content strategy ideas, and I was immediately struck by the overwhelming awareness that I’m not 27 years old anymore. (To be fair, I’m not even 37 years old anymore.) Waiting at reception after I checked in via an iPad (I miss humans), I watched oodles of twenty-somethings walk around carrying half-open MacBook Air laptops in the palms of their hands like a waiter carrying a tray, being followed by prancing puppies clad in denim jeans stopping at dog biscuit stations for treats and then bounding up the factory-inspired metal stairs after their owners. The girls wore classic San Francisco girl outfits — skinny pants, loose blouses, booties, big sweaters, Warby Parker black or tortoise-shell glasses. The guys wore classic engineer duds — gray T-shirts with some sort of logo or cartoon (the more unrecognizable the design, the cooler the dude), jeans, and sneakers. It was sort of cold that day so there were some hoodies. I was wearing a Diane von Furstenberg patterned tunic dress, burgundy leather knee-high boots and a gray wool Vince one-button cape jacket. So yeah, I, um, didn’t fit in. A born-and-bred New Yorker who started my career in fashion, I might be just slightly more aware of what people wear. But — it was soon very apparent that the outfits were very much the book covers by which we all could be judged.

I only met one person there and she was perfectly lovely. Though we spoke quite different languages, we thankfully seemed to be speaking about the same thing. (Score!) During the presentation she mentioned on a few occasions that my ideas were “like so totally awesome.” (Double score!)  I can’t imagine what my slightly pained and very pensive face must have looked like during that meeting. I just really wished I had a millennial dictionary to help decode our conversation while it was going on.

Speaking of dictionaries, I’ve recently rediscovered my love for Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I have the third edition, published in 1979 and handed down to me from my older brother, who was also an English major and a grammar nerd. I’ve found one other grammar nerd here, he’s 30 so technically still a millennial but not as much of a logo T-shirt-er as his peers. We can nerd out almost endlessly about affect vs. effect and the correct uses of the word “hopefully” (there are very few, in fact). And I really appreciate this nod to concise and grammatically correct speaking and writing. Many, if not all, of my publishing peers in New York would think of these efforts as a given, but sadly in the young San Francisco tech scene, I yet again seem to be a fish out of water.

That same week I was also at the corporate office of another well-know “disruptive” tech company in SF for another meeting. The offices were stunning. Draw-dropping, crank your neck, mouth-wide-open stunning. A modern glass and open-plan space juxtaposed in a 96-year-old warehouse building, it is a design masterpiece. But when I looked around the dining room, casually eating my grilled chicken schwarma and still oogling at the tap bar from which I chose an awesome local sour wheat beer, I noticed that everyone looked, um, well 27. Trying to imagine myself working there, I just couldn’t get past feeling like a dinosaur. I guess in dog years in the tech world, I am. At least the building was older than I am.

All this to say, my life is different now. It’s been just slightly over a year since I left my corporate VP job and starting blazing my new trail. And it’s taken me that entire year to step back and get some perspective on it all. Some days are fucking scary. Others are amazing. Most mornings when I wake up to start the coffee brewing and start motivating myself, I don’t know which kind of day it will be. Although I don’t regret any of the adventures I’ve taken in life, I do miss the times when I had friendly faces of encouragement around me always. I do miss having coworkers. I realize now that the “we’re all in this together” hokey stuff is very comforting.

I was struck by an article I read recently on medium.com entitled Blind Positivity Sucks. After a bit of harsh reality around how much people on the Internet seem to be obsessed with positivity, motivation, and inspiration, it goes on to say:

Blind positivity is believing that your dreams will come true instead of putting in the hard work to make it happen.

That line actually gave me some reprieve around my approach to life lately. Because damn have I been hustling. Hustling for $0, it should be noted. Promises of payment or contracts or longer-term working relationships, yes — but actual money, no. So it probably goes without saying that there are only so many consecutive days that you can hustle for $0 that you don’t occasionally stop and ask yourself, “What the feeeck (as the Irish say) are you doing? Do you really think this will work?” And honestly, I have no feeecking idea.

I’m not 27. I live in a city where everyone is obsessed about the next big thing and disrupting anything and everything that could possibly need disruption. Many of my “peers” are brilliant and will go on to do great things. Many of them don’t use “your” and “you’re” correctly, but will still go on to do great things. I don’t really want to disrupt things as much as I want to make them better. I want to teach little kids how to cook. I want to show them where their (not there) food comes from. I want to help the awesome chefs and bakers and food people in this city spread their knowledge and their research and their amazing food with others. I want to connect those amazing people with the little ones like I’m Cupid with an arrow made out of bread. And every so often I want to put on my chef’s whites and open my knife bag and get cooking somewhere awesome. I just need to stop and remind myself — I’m doing all of those things. For $0, yes, but I’m doing them. I’m now on the Board of Directors for Bay Leaf Kitchen, an amazing non-profit organization that teaches kids about cooking, farming and food sustainability from age 3. I’m helping Chad Robertson with anything and everything related to the future of bread. He has taken to introducing me as, “This is my friend, Alexis. She came to me to bake bread and then I found out who she was.” It makes my heart sink every single time. And this weekend I’m going to cook somewhere awesome — at the Taste of the NFL charity dinner the night before the Super Bowl, which helps fight hunger across the country.

So the hustle is not for naught, but the true test is reminding myself every day that I’m putting in the hard work. It’s been crazy to leave a world where you define yourself and your successes from a corporate perspective. Audience growth, product engagement, unique users, PNL, percentage change year-over-year, etc. etc. — it all plays like a game of corporate bingo. If nothing else, I’ve learned from blazing this new trail that I need to redefine what success means to me.

And there is no better reminder about how much hard work can pay off — AND how sometimes we just need to see what we have — than this scene from The Pursuit of Happyness. Especially because it was filmed on a street that I walk down almost every day.

*SPOILER ALERT — if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should watch it first. Right now, in fact. It is one of the best.