It’s Never Good Enough
February 23, 2016
I am a not an easy man to work for. (Ask anyone here.) I am frequently pleased but rarely satisfied.
Each morning I walk to the bread rack to look at and feel the breads – to see if they are baked to the color I want, whether they were proofed fully before baking, whether they are heavy or light.
For several days our Palladin’s bread was too dense.
It didn’t have the crisp crust and light, airy interior it is supposed to have. And so I came to work at 3 am the other day to learn what had changed and to make it possible for us to get back the qualities we want in that bread.
One very busy Saturday morning I passed through the bread bakery and saw baguettes that were heavy and soft. (You get accustomed to looking at breads and know if they don’t look right.) I picked one up. It was indeed heavy and soft.
I asked what happened. Nafta had felt rushed when at 10:30 we ran out of the 7 am baguettes. He felt the frustration of customers and baked the second batch before they were ready to be baked.
We talked about it.
Then as fate would have it, I ran into a customer who said to me, “I come here for your baguette because it’s so wonderful.” I saw her carrying a deficient one and I resisted saying what I thought. For this reason:
A decade ago a customer was sitting in a corner of The BreadLine, my restaurant downtown. He motioned me over and said, “You make the best baguette I have ever had.”
“That’s funny,” I said, “I have never made a baguette that satisfied me”
I saw his face drop and I realized what a cruel and insulting thing I had done. Now when a customer pays a compliment I say simply, “Thank you.”
But our customers are really sophisticated and I think you expect us to police our quality. You should expect it.
So every day I taste our soup and a salad or two and other foods as well. (Not good for my figure as you may have noticed.)
Sometimes I say to Robert that the fried chickpeas don’t have enough cumin or the soup needs a little salt.
That’s my job here.
I am certainly not the only person here who pays attention to what we do – far from it. Eun Yim, our manager, certainly does. She is particularly sensitive; it seems to me, about English muffins too small or bagels with that tight navel opening that I dislike
I think our staff contains a lot of critics and we want that to be the case. We want to be proud of what we do and I believe – I hope we all take every opportunity to accentuate the positive: Our baguette is the best I have made in my baking career and our croissant is perfect every day. But I remain, I guess, generally critical.
I have no right to have such confident in my judgments. I became a baker at the age of 52 and before that had been just an eater. When I was a child my grandmother used to say that I had a stomach but no palate. I hope I became discerning as an eater and certainly I always had strong opinions about food that I felt free to express. But I wasn’t a professional. (One doesn’t have to be a professional to be opinionated about food.)
When I opened Marvelous Market in 1990, I knew nothing about bread other than how to replicate some of the breads I had seen in other bakeries. We offered very little food and no pastry at all. And seven years later I audaciously opened The BreadLine, a restaurant, never having been the chef of a restaurant.
Now after 26 years of making foods that others like to eat, I may have some claim to knowledge; but I am still a novice compared to many of my colleagues whose careers began practically in childhood. I just hope I have learned enough to earn the right to my naturally opinionated personality.
When I am trying to develop a food, bread, or dessert I nearly always have in my mind what I want, how I want something to look and taste and feel. It starts with an idea that I work on in my head before using my hands.
Driving to the bakery or reading the newspaper, I get an idea. We had received colorful carrots from the Mennonite cooperative in Pennsylvania. Roasting the carrots would make them really sweet. Pomegranates are still available and I thought about adding arils for color, texture, and flavor. Wheat berries for texture. Radicchio for a seasonal bitterness. Radicchio with wheat berries. Two wintery ingredients. Different textures. Very different flavors. Then I thought about tahini for a nutty flavor.
Great ideas, perhaps, but the salad didn’t taste good and was utterly ugly. That was a really bad idea. It doesn’t matter; I’ll think about it and another idea will come.
I am not autonomous here, however, and I certainly don’t do all the development. When we were tasting new coffees to replace what we had, I expected certain flavors of chocolate and a certain bitterness and sweetness. We tasted coffees but it was Eun who chose La Colombe.
In the pastry kitchen Cecile Mouthen is on a spree right now. She is creating new muffins and cookies and greater varieties of all sorts of desserts. Just yesterday she presented for sampling a baklava pie and a coffee cake – a cake made with coffee.
Much of what we all do is monitor and correct. Eun and Jesse tasted the carrot cake and thought it was gummy inside. I agreed and so did Cecile. She thought she knew why and made changes in the size of the carrot pieces inside.
A soup had too much cumin. The rye bread was flat. We make imperfect foods every day.
Sometimes we have recipe drift; a recipe becomes so familiar and made so frequently that the paper disappears and that doesn’t matter because everyone knows how to make it anyway. Except one day we notice that it’s become something other than the original recipe.
Sometimes we get a better idea. Less rice and more peas in the chicken salad. We are lucky; we we can make changes right away in our food. A multi-store bakery wouldn’t be able to do that.
We want to be proud of what we do and one of the pleasures of making foods is that we always have a chance to make them perfect the next time we make them.
One of the frustrations of making foods is that they are never perfect. This is my third bakery and although I know we are making very good foods here I am never satisfied. It’s a curse. It prevents my enjoying as much as others do what we make here. It makes me restless.
I have a secret list of improvements, changes to make in foods customers already like. I have recipe fragments for spring vegetables. I look at cookbooks and favorite blogs and websites. Others do the same thing.
If consistency is the hobgoblin, invention is the angel.
I made a list of new foods for spring. We’re going to discuss it. Other will have other ideas.
Where are the customers in all this? Well, for one thing customers make suggestions. Customers remember foods I made 25 years ago and ask that we make them again. Most important, customers criticize. (Perhaps not as much as we would like.)
But if the customers like and buy our foods shouldn’t that be sufficient, indeed shouldn’t that be conclusive?
I just don’t think so. We are unable to stop tampering.
A hint for a rye bread that rises well: use a rye starter, but add white and whole wheat flours at the beginning of the mixing process; then add the rye flour at the end, when the gluten is developed.
I really enjoyed reading this post Mark. You have put to words so precisely how we feel here at our bakery even after 34 years at it. Oh, especially the part about having to learn to be polite about accepting compliments for things we ourselves are not happy with. People often ask if we are bored after all these years and no we are not, because we are still restlessly “tampering” away, as you put it, after all the years as our own tastes evolve and shift and our standards always rise a notch or two beyond our abilities. At times i think this inescapable mindset of ours is a curse – making satisfaction and happiness and a sense of closure on a half a life’s work forever elusive. Luckily there are many other times when we realize it is more deeply satisfying to always have another mile or two to climb… or at least stretch towards…
Anyway, just wanted to say your writings here are much appreciated.
I love your blogs and your constant striving to be the best at whatever you attempt. We all benefit from your new recipe musings. Your love of excellence is most definitely reflected/modeled by your staff, lovely people.
Wish I lived 4 blocks away instead of 4 hours! Your food is DELISH ❤️