We were driving into the rising moon.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Less than four years earlier, I had separated from active duty in the Coast Guard and convinced Anna that Tucson, Arizona would be a great place for our new beginning. We were married in June at a church in Atlanta, and spent the next ten days basking in the sun on a beach in Costa del Sol, Spain.
The day after we returned from our honeymoon, we packed up the Honda Accord and headed west on Interstate 10. Sunrise became the wind in our sails, and sunset the pot of gold that was surely waiting for us at the end of our rainbow. It was my favorite drive, this time in the company of my favorite person.
A couple of life-changing events were to unfold upon our settling in Tucson. One, we went shopping for new furniture and came home with a puppy. Some people are fond of their “Paw Pal”, or “Fur Baby” . . . Shana was simply a member of the family, and we loved her dearly.
Then a few weeks later, I was on my own for lunch and stopped into a little Italian cafe not far from our home. The place was clean and bright, not too busy. I ordered a Meatball sub. One bite sent me spiraling back to fond memories of the pizza places I would frequent around Connecticut while attending the Coast Guard Academy.
Anna and I had dinner there two nights later and quickly proclaimed it “Our Spot”. Within days I noticed an Italian restaurant for sale in the area. Could it be? I called the number and confirmed that it was indeed the little Italian cafe we had discovered. One thing led to another, and about two months later we were the proud owners of an 80 seat Italian restaurant. Our “Spot” had become “Our” spot.
We had a great, incredibly exhausting three year run with the restaurant, but simply did not survive a severe down-turn in the economy. The prudent decision was to close and move on.
Now here I was, leading a two-vehicle caravan heading the opposite direction on Interstate 10. We had decided to leave Tucson and return to Atlanta. Shana was my co-pilot. As much as I wanted to share in her excitement for this extended car ride, I could only stare into the desert moon, searching for a pathway to a brighter tomorrow.
Somewhere in that moonlight, I became living proof that you learn as much from your setbacks as you do from your successes. The key is to always follow your True North, and never, as in “ever”, lose confidence in yourself.
I began to explore the reason why I wanted to own a restaurant in the first place. The answer was no secret: Service is in my soul. Mine is a basic, inherent desire to make people feel cared for, free to be themselves, and just forget about things for a while. Life is hectic enough. Everyone needs a reprise now and then.
While owning a restaurant was a very logical extension of that desire, it was not a practical one for us. Fine tuning my self-assessment, I began to reflect on what I had enjoyed most from the experience, aspects of my day-to-day routine that provided me the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. That answer proved to be baking and pastry.
It was all divine innocence. In the days leading up to acquiring our space, I was experimenting with the idea of baking our own Italian bread. You could have laid the foundation for a new home with the first few samples. Once we were in the commercial kitchen, the pizza oven became my salvation. The technique was to replicate baking bread in a stone hearth oven. We would soon feature rustic, two-pound loaves of hearty Italian bread, crunchy on the outside, tender and moist on the inside.
Our guests fell in love with our Italian bread. People would stop by during the day and ask if they could buy a loaf or two. “Of course,” was my immediate response, and I would sell it to them. Then during dinner service, my staff would come back to the kitchen and ask in a frantic manner “Tim, what happened to all of the bread?”
“I sold it” would be my sheepish reply, eyes directed at anything other than the frustrated, heat-seeking glare of those before me. I would always have loaves of French bread from a local bakery on hand as back up. Intended for use as croutons, those loaves would become our house bread that night. Guests would take one look into the basket and immediately ask their server, “Where is the good Italian bread?”
“Tim sold it”. No hesitation, right under the bus.
Growth in the Pastry Arts was first inspired through a Bon Appetite cover recipe. I looked at it and thought “I could make that”. Following a quick trip to the supermarket for ingredients, I had produced my first European-style dessert. The guests again loved it.
Before long I had graduated into ordering commercial grade chocolate. Rich, eleven-pound bars of Callebaut chocolate from Belgium. I swear I ate half of the first bar ordered. There I am chopping away, delirious with joy, chocolate all over my face. “It’s delicious! It’s delicious!” was all I could say. It was 7:00am.
There is a lot of road to cover traveling west to east, and somewhere just shy of Fort Worth I reconnected with my True North: I would pursue a career in Baking and the Pastry Arts. Inspired by this awakening, I let Self-Confidence take the wheel and dedicated the rest of the trip to exploring the expansive realm of possibilities.
Within days of our arrival in Atlanta we visited a popular destination with an extensive dessert case. I calmly asked the manager if I could bring by a sample. “Absolutely”, he replied, barely looking up from his paperwork, “We’re always looking for great products”. I had no idea what I was doing, but I felt we were on to something special.
That night I baked an Oreo Cheesecake and returned to the café the next day with my prize sample in hand. I had developed a technique in which my cheesecakes have a smooth, creamy texture while remaining firm to enhance the flavor. They absolutely loved it! Naturally that sample was provided gratis with a commitment they would be ordering more.
Thus, the genesis of our new beginning. We named our catering business Renaissance Desserts, apropos in that our desserts would represent a graceful revival of classic structure and technique.
Passion would fuel my future.
I had stood before the crossroads, not for the first time, and certainly far from the last.
Today that experience represents so much more than developing a talent for baking and pastry. It represents a graceful revival of belief in the human spirit, a constant reminder of the incredible potential behind discovering something you love and doing it. It can be that simple.
My preference in these situations is to focus on enrichment, to make meaning prior to making money. Trust in yourself, have patience for the process of discovering what matters most to you. When we closed our restaurant, during that long cross-country drive, I had set the intention of following my passion, my True North.
From the humble beginnings of Renaissance Deserts, I would venture into opportunities of increased influence throughout the Atlanta area. This would include an affiliation with two wonderfully talented professionals from France.
Jean Luc was a Pastry Chef, younger and classically trained, very handsome with meticulous grooming standards and professional presence. He could work buttercream like an Impressionist worked oils, a true artist.
Claude had been baking viennoiseries, specialized butter doughs such as croissant, brioche, and puff pastries since he was 12 years old. He was mature, very charming, with a more relaxed approach to life.
They were Masters of their chosen crafts. While through position I was their leader, in reality I had become a student once again, and I loved every minute.
Eventually, my experience would lead to an opportunity to become Pastry Chef of a high-end, exclusive Country Club in Central Florida, and ultimately to an extremely rewarding career in Learning and Development with Marriott International.
Several diverse positions, all moving in the same direction, all working to enable an inherent desire to serve others. My True North.
Self-confidence allows the fluidity necessary to transition between experiences and then comprehend how each has impacted growth.
Which gives me the confidence to state: self-confidence is not a substitute for experience.
By the time I left the Coast Guard, I had been well-educated and well-decorated. My self-confidence was next level, perhaps more appropriately described as “Extreme Self-Confidence”. I felt invincible. What I had overlooked was the fact that the Coast Guard had invested four years in my development at the Academy to prepare me for success. True, everyone still had to perform, some better than others. The foundation, though, had been set methodically and strategically.
Life is too short for regrets. Owning our restaurant was a great opportunity, literally a dream come true. We did the best we could. In hindsight, with more experience, I may or may not have been able to manage my way through.
The reality was that I had joined the service and hospitality industry for all the right reasons . . . I just came in through the wrong door. What had propelled me through life to that point was truly a reflection of my eternal optimism. After we closed the restaurant, I approached every move and new position from an artisan’s perspective, developing a deeper appreciation of baking and pastry from the ground up.
There was a refined purpose and dedicated focus. I sensed my self-confidence gaining a renewed structure. It was liberating.
Some of my moves did not make sense to others, which was okay . . . they all had meaning to me, worked to enhance my perspective, and have contributed a great deal to who I am today.
When that winding path eventually led to Learning and Development, it was a natural, logical – and practical – extension of what I had been doing, and already knew how to do.
One of the more frequent questions I am asked is “Tall Tim, do you still bake?” Absolutely. Remember . . . make meaning first. The reason I started baking has never wavered. I bake with love, to make people feel cared for, to put life on hold for even just a bite or two. Today, that is not the source of my profession, but it is still the spirit.
It can be that simple.
Thank you for spending your Tuesday with Tall Tim Talks!