I love watching Chopped.
Not that I take some sort of macabre delight in watching chefs stressed to the point of breathlessness, panicked and desperate in their attempt to incorporate both orange gelatin cups and matzo crackers into an appetizer worthy of surviving the “Chopping Block”.
No, the appeal of the James Beard Award winning Food Network program, whose concept is loosely based on the traditional practice of using a Mystery Basket of ingredients to interview potential chefs, is two-fold:
First, embracing opportunities throughout life mirrors the experience of a chef opening their Mystery Basket. You can anticipate, you can prepare, but until the cosmic voice whispers “Open your basket”, you don’t know what you’ll be asked to work with.
The chef who wins Chopped best understands the relationship among ingredients. Awareness of how a protein interacts with a starch, how each may be complemented by the qualities in a vegetable, prepares you for the unknown. They build on basics, then rapidly expand application to suit the specific need.
The ability to quickly visualize solutions from the ingredients at hand translates into creating something amazing.
Second, listening to the backstories of the chefs, you feel the passion and commitment they’ve invested in their craft. Some have attended a Culinary Program, others begin as dishwashers, most run the gamut of options in between. Consistent among all is deep, personal connection to living what they love, which has meant sacrifice for many, a change in lifestyle for others.
Potential fuels their curiosity to learn and improve, applying skills developed today toward creating a better tomorrow.
This is a path I am intimately familiar with. Perhaps that’s my ultimate connection to the show.
A Graceful Revival
What great adventure comes without its share of life-altering options, inviting you to stare inquisitively into their complexity, poetic in both timing and circumstance?
After we closed our restaurant in Tucson, I decided to pursue my recently discovered talents in baking and the Pastry Arts. This epiphany occurred as we were driving back to Atlanta to re-boot our lives. Within days of arriving, we visited a popular Dessert Cafe to strategize over mid-afternoon Lattes.
Their expansive dessert case, situated in the middle of the café, seemed an initial distraction until it became our center of attention. Each pause in conversation or sip of Latte allowed a glance toward the desserts, a colorful array of multi-layered temptation. Anna stated what we both were thinking, “You could make desserts like that.” Kindred spirits.
I calmly approached the manager to ask 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, other than sensing we were on to something special.
Giddy with a familiar excitement, we left the café and continued strategizing on the way home. Most of Anna’s questions were answered with “I don’t know” or “No idea”. Following a quick stop into a local market for ingredients, I baked an Oreo Cheesecake to serve as our calling card for future endeavors.
I returned to the café the next day with my prize sample in hand. They absolutely loved it! Naturally, that initial cheesecake was provided gratis with a commitment they would be ordering more.
We called our new business Renaissance Desserts, apropos in that our desserts would represent a graceful revival of classic structure and technique. A detailed menu would represent the personality of our quietly evolving brand. I began fulfilling orders out of our two-bedroom condo, delivering them personally across the Metro area.
The ideals I was chasing seemed eerily familiar, though I felt more in control of my enthusiasm. Having been seasoned by failure and acutely aware of reality, mine would be a more pragmatic approach to any new venture.
This didn’t stop me from dreaming.
Going All In
There was still a part of me that wanted to go “all in” and learn as much about baking as possible. Culinary School was out of the question. My first step would be to accept a position with a sourdough bread bakery in the Buckhead section of Atlanta.
This, as with so many of life’s discoveries, was liberating. Even today, I will melt every time we walk into a sourdough bakery, the pungent aroma representing nature’s wild alchemy. It was a family owned business, so I never really sensed a long-term future. At the time I wasn’t concerned with the future. I was expanding by leaps and bounds in the moment.
A baker’s day begins early, which in some cases meant starting up the mixer at 2:00am. Following routine eight to nine-hour shifts, I would return home and create my own confectionary alchemy for Renaissance Desserts. It was all exhausting, but it was so much fun.
Eventually, I was introduced to the manager of a commercial baking facility that supported a brand of three local Farmer’s Markets. They were in the process of upgrading to a line of European Pastries and Breads.
Right up my alley, although mine were not the professional talents that would drive product development.
The company had already hired both a Pastry Chef and a Boulanger from France. I would supervise a nine-person team assigned to work the Second Shift, traditionally 3:00pm – 11:00pm. My team consisted of the two gentlemen from France, two assistants from Somalia, three assistants from Vietnam, one from Mexico, and one from Afghanistan.
Truly, the land of opportunity
Our talented professionals from France were both stereotypes of their chosen fields. Jean Luc, the Pastry Chef, was 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, the Boulanger, had been working in viennoiseries, bakeries that specialize in butter doughs such as croissant, brioche, and puff pastries since he was 12 years old. He was older, very charming, with a more relaxed approach to life. We bonded quickly as I helped set up their cable, open bank accounts, all the sundry details of moving to a new city, or country.
Over time, I began to pick their immensely talented brains and skill sets for admittedly personal benefit. Especially Claude. I wanted to master French technique for both Croissant and Brioche. He gladly embraced me as a pupil. Memories of his teaching technique continue to influence my approach to development, beyond baking or food preparation.
To this day, I am forever grateful for my opportunities to work with them, and the other members from that team.
Life, though, had become more exhausting than ever. While the Farmer’s Market had become my “Day Job”, I continued to support both personal and professional clients through Renaissance Desserts. Challenging to schedule, even more challenging to keep pace with, but I was living and loving it.
Applying Lessons from the Road
The next in a sequence of enriching experiences came as the Pastry Chef of a high-end Country Club in Central Florida.
This was a pivotal role for me. I was not just working as a Pastry Chef. I was the Pastry Chef, partnering with the club’s Executive Chef who at the time was a member of the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team. I had close to an unlimited budget, and almost free reign of creativity.
My only challenge in the beginning was underestimating the popularity and response to my product. The Club sponsored a Grand Seafood Buffet on the last Friday of each month. This was a gluttonous, all-you-can-eat affair that as you can imagine was very well attended. I felt adequately prepared for my initial event.
The Chef stood in the walk-in cooler and shook his head “Not going to be enough.” He was right.
I watched in disbelief as club members bee-lined for the dessert station first, grabbing pastries and petit-fours like they were going to The Chair. Not just to stockpile, they were having dessert first, rolling their eyes, and tempting each other with a bite of what they had discovered. I turned to the Chef and asked, “Will it ever be enough?” He just smiled and walked back to the kitchen.
It was pure joy.
Opening our restaurant had been like walking in halfway through a movie and trying to piece together the story. Without understanding the complexities among characters, the true value of the content never comes through.
While my journey after we closed may appear serendipitous, each destination was the result of Applied Intention.
Deciding to pursue baking and pastry was tapping into instinct, a second nature ability paired with an inherent desire to perform. That part was serendipity. But life had taught me talent and optimism is not always enough. Confidence that comes from immersing yourself in all aspects of an endeavor is critical to your success.
My intention moving forward was to begin with the basics, build foundational awareness. Applying lessons I had learned . . . notably the importance of preparation to creating a better tomorrow . . . became a three-word mantra: Live Your Craft.
Renaissance Desserts was a base platform. Each subsequent position would expand on that knowledge, enhancing my skill and potential through exposure . . . from the mixing bowl up. I returned to the basics of baking, watching and listening to artisans execute their craft. Repetition exposed me to success and failure, curiosity prompting an understanding of the complexities contributing to each result. Each result contributed to my deepening acumen and appreciation for the experience.
Becoming a Pastry Chef represented a personal summit, a culmination of moves intended to explore and fulfill my potential.
That would not be the end of the story, and perhaps where serendipity once again played a role. My future as a Learning Professional and Speaker began with an application for a Pastry Chef position. We won’t go into that now . . . it would be like walking into a movie halfway through.
Living Your Craft
This story is based on a progression through Baking and the Pastry Arts. Yours doesn’t have to be.
Live Your Craft applies to whatever dreams you’re pursuing, regardless of your chosen field. There are complexities involved, basics to build from, then expand into an increasing scope of awareness. Simply follow these Tall Tim Tips:
Go “All In”
Work it, you own it. That’s the level of investment you should embrace to truly understand and live your craft. Not everyone will face an opportunity to totally reinvent their reality. You can begin by measuring confidence to grow in your chosen field.
The learning process never stops. Commit and Immerse to drive personal growth. Sales, technology, customer service, etc. . . . each begins with a sound understanding of the basics and then expands from there.
A Lateral Perspective
Consider opportunities that expand your horizon . . . literally look sideways before moving up the ladder. Become an expert in your talent and field, then become aware of how your role impacts, and then is impacted by others. Apply this awareness to strengthen skills and generate improved results.
This may include secondary talents that ground your perspective, allowing additional insight and creativity to flow through. Tapping into this resource is a great confidence booster.
Open Your Basket
Courage is overcoming your fear of the unknown. Be listening when the voice whispers “Open your basket.”
Becoming Pastry Chef of a big, beautiful new hotel was a logical next step for me. When a different position was offered, I didn’t know what I would be asked to do. Experience, though, had taught me to trust in the process and prepared me for the unknown.
Listening to cues aligned me with Learning and Development. I absorbed the basics, then expanded laterally from there. I’m still expanding . . . knowledge and awareness, that is. Please, let’s not be hurtful.
You can do the same. Go ahead . . . open your Mystery Basket. Allow your potential to fuel a curiosity to learn and improve, then apply skills developed today toward creating a better tomorrow. This is a path I am intimately familiar with.
Perhaps that’s our ultimate connection.
Thank you for spending your Tuesdays with Tall Tim Talks!