Tag Archives: chefs

Becoming a San Francisco Baker, Part 2

By day two of Artisan Bread Baking Level III, I had a hunch: The cards just weren’t stacked in my team’s favour. Sure, we looked the part.Team 3 wore white chef’s coats buttoned to the collar with crisp, starched aprons secured at the waist. We clutched the same roll of formula-printouts in our hands as we entered the production facility. Just as the others, we plopped down our pens, smartphones and water bottles on our workbench and had access to the same high tech mixers and ovens. But there was no doubt about it: Team 3 lacked a certain, shall I say, je ne sais quoi.

Me and my mixer.

Me and my mixer.

Didier tried to be diplomatic but I know he knew what I knew, even before I knew it.

It was called experience.

The pros in our class knew exactly how to operate the second they stepped into the spotless bakery. But for us rookies, it was our first swing up at the bat in the big leagues.

Worse still, the real bakers knew that time was of the essence. They circled around the large room and took a mental log of where all the important stuff lived, like tubs and cylinders used to scale ingredients or hold fermenting dough. They instantly sourced out the Essential Four (flour, water, yeast and salt) and understood that all the water had to be cycled through a digital cooler then laboriously calibrated with a probe thermometer.IMG_2828_EDIT From the corner of my eye, I saw a flurry of activity, bakers racing by our workbench wielding tall, plastic stacks of containers, pulling bins-on-wheels full of flour and figuring out which scales worked and which didn’t.

But my team was just too busy standing still, staring at each other’s nametags and politely pointing at the pile of formulas and wondering which of us would lead our naïve flock.

It was Chef Jesus, of course.

But how would I possibly address this tall, broad-shouldered teammate who stood by my side, yet towered above me? Should I pronounce the name embroidered on his chef’s coat like Sunday school or offer up a Spanishy “Hey Seuss? When I mangled out the latter, a cringe swept over the Texan’s mug then Jesus Lugo calmly inhaled, looked me straight in the eye and said dead-pan, “That’s right, Madeleine.”

From then on, I knew our team had an inkling of a chance. Not only was Chef Jesus Lugo experienced, but an extremely patient man who just happened to be built like a Mack truck. A community college instructor from El Paso, Texas, Jesus took the bull by the horns and picked up (no, levitated) a 20-kilo pail full of poolish and deftly poured it into the VMI Phebus mixer near our workbench.

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L to R: Teammates Claudia Rezende and Gabrielle Thomas

Meanwhile, Claudia Rezende from Sao Paolo was scaling flour, reading glasses perched halfway down her nose, bouncing kid-like on her tiptoes in order to see the digital numbers flashing in front to her. She was giddy with joy to be standing in this facility in South San Francisco. Like I, she’d booked a room at a nearby airport motel and was titillated to be honing professional skills. But after less than a minute at the scale, Claudia stamped her foot angrily and swore something completely unsterile in Portuguese. One huge scoop of flour had just tipped the scale and the digital readout had gone blank.

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Scaled yeast in a container on top of scaled flour.

Bread is baked by weight not volume and bakers follow formulas, not recipes. On day two of the course, we would bake four different breads: semolina durIMG_3270_EDITum crowns, rustic filone, spelt bread and 100 % whole grain bread. Every bread formula was designed to produce 25-40 kilos of dough (enough to cover the surface of a bath tub like a big, fluffy pillow) and would bake off into 50-75 loaves.

Everything was weighed.

On average, every one of Didier’s formulas was based on 10 kilos of flour. I’ve watched Toronto bakers slash open humungous 10-kilo-bags of flour mix, dump the entire contents into a mammoth mixer, pour in litres of water by the pitcher-full then turn on the mixers’ timer and walk away.

Not us. At SFBI we were “in production” in a refined, complex, scientific and artisanal way. Thus, the semolina durum crowns we mixed up on Day Two required 10 kilos of hard, white bread flour but our job was to meticulously scale (baker-speak for weigh out) this flour into a large, plastic rectangular bin, haul and dump it into a mixing bowl the size of a jumbo exercise ball, then add two (not one!) pre-ferments: a whole wheat durum sponge and a durum semolina poolish that had been prepared the day before and left to ferment from sundown to sunrise.IMG_3035_EDIT

“The pre-ferment!” shouted out Didier in the classroom the day before, his pitch just shrill enough to wake anyone snoozing in the back. “This is our secret tool. We can add something, something so fantastic to the final dough with a pre-ferment. What do you think that is?” he asked, his tone rising on the last syllable and left hanging in the air. He stared at us expectantly for a long while until he couldn’t stand it anymore and teased up the air above us, pointing and waving his magic marker frantically.

“Uh, uh, more fermentation?” suggested someone as if risen out of a coma.

“Yes, so….?” he prodded and waited, the room growing loud with silence until he sang out “Flavor my friends, flaaaaaavorrrr!!!” he droned with religious fervor.

But of course.

To be continued

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The Best Dinner Ever

It takes balls or foolhardy abandon to organize an event and call it The Best Dinner Ever. That meant I had to go.

For a good cause, my friend Nora twisted my arm and that of others to attend. We donned sparkly, tight evening wear and put on our heels. We tried to look natural – even a little bored – before stepping on the red carpet that was laid out before the entrance.

It’s not every day you get flashed by paparazzi enroute to dinner.

That was our first clue that this might be the best ever.

Second clue: Glen and Jamie.

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They were our hosts for the night and stood near the entrance to The Chef’s House (215 King St E) glad handing. Glen looks suave enough to be cast as the next 007 Agent. IMG_7746 Jamie plays sidekick. IMG_7745He wears funky, thick-rimmed glasses that barely take your attention from the luxuriant tuft of red hair standing upright and three inches off his head. Both have huge poise and TV-like presence. It didn’t hurt that their faces were plastered on the water bottles. (Note to self: If you ever want to feel like a celebrity, get your face on a water bottle.)

Seconds after a warm handshake with the awesome duo, I was presented a champagne glass shimmering with bubbly Prosecco and topped with a fat, strawberry-slice-floater.IMG_7711

A young server wearing a baby-blue tie and crisp, beige shirt held steady both the tray and his smile as I pointed a camera lens in his direction. A bastion of servers stood in the wings, all wearing silk ties that popped off their uniforms in bubble-gum pink, key-lime green and Dijon-mustard yellow. An über clean stainless-steel, open kitchen sparkled in the background offset by an army of tall, white chef hats huddling about.

Tonight’s venue was anything but under-staffed. The Chef’s House is a training ground for hospitality workers – servers, bartenders, hosts, cooks and dishwashers all put their lessons into motion here. We were their guinea pigs. And this was an apt pairing when raising awareness and funds for The Peer Project.

As newbie chefs-to-be scrambled to plate over a hundred goat cheese soufflé appetizers, IMG_7731equally young-to-the-trade servers brought plates to our table, while others fumbled and squeezed awkwardly around our shoulders to pour Chef House Label Caves Spring chardonnay into our wine glasses. It was a ballet of sorts. Sometimes the pirouettes were graceful and other times, not. Yet none of this deterred the conversation with the young man at my left from being anything less than riveting.

IMG_7744Charlie Lo had a small case of the jitters. He was about to stand up and give a speech to this hundred-dollar-a-seat-audience and tell us his story. Twelve years ago, a Peer Project mentor coached eight-year-old, fatherless Charlie into believing something radically different than anyone or anything was telling him at the time. He told Charlie to believe in himself, to have dreams and to fight for them. That, despite his learning disability and the uninspired words of his middle school teacher who said he wouldn’t amount to anything. That, despite the support and love of his single mom who was fighting breast cancer and was equally vulnerable, newly immigrated to Toronto and not an English speaker.

Charlie’s the kind of guy who will flash you a smile while saying some of the saddest things. He’s got an adorable mannerism of shrugging and squirming about in his shoulders like he’s trying to get out of a straightjacket, then he tosses back his head in relief and you know he’s traded in all that discomfort for a piece of bliss.

It didn’t hurt that Charlie knew just about everyone in the room. Before and after his heartrending speech, our conversation was interrupted incessantly by bear hugs and handshakes from passers-by,

So I turned to vivacious Laurie on my right and listened how she’d crawled off to Energia Athletics on the Danforth in the middle of the night to cycle through her 3 a.m. volunteer shift at Energia’s annual 24-hour Spin-A-Thon to raise thousands for this very cause. She not only believes in The Peer Project enough to spin through the night, Laurie, a psychologist, refers many of her young clients to this non-profit.

Sadly, the wait-list is long – 400 names long – and thus, the need to fundraise and eat The Best Dinner Ever which had moved into the second and most successful course:IMG_7743 seared fillets of sea bream in a tarragon-citrus broth with a tangle of spring veggies.

Not everyone at our table had dined at The Chef’s House before. I go so far back that I remember its previous incarnation on the other side of the street, Siegfried’s Dining Room, a much less glitzy, almost stogy venue where I enjoyed many an inexpensive, yet delicious repast served by students.

But the problem with students is their timetables, course limitations and school rules – two things that can really get in the way of a long, leisurely meal with endless refills of wine and merriment. Once the raffle tickets had come and gone, IMG_7741with happy winners racing to claim gift baskets spilling over with chocolate, wine and Bread by Mado (yes, this is a plug) the rest of us losers sat miffed, ready to drown our sorrows.

The head instructor delivered the bad news by microphone. Chef’s House was closing shop. According to the institution’s curriculum, it was time for the students to tidy up and go home. Luckily the three-piece jazz trio “The Sixth Street Trio” serenaded us with guitar, bass and saxophone as we trailed out the door, saying farewell to Charlie, The Peer Project and a dinner that was the best for many a philanthropic reason.