have starter, will travel
"Pick off the meat, throw out the eyes, come get me when you're done." I peered into the steaming stockpot and poked at one of the heads bobbing on the surface. The pig's head slowly turned, and a clouded eye emerged from the the sweet smelling broth, its empty gaze finding mine. Its ear was hanging by a shred. The skin around its mouth was frayed enough to expose a grim, toothy grin. I smiled back.
Alone in the prep kitchen, with six pigs' heads to pick, what stars had aligned to bring me here? How lucky am I? With zero professional experience and no formal training, I was there to try out for a kitchen apprenticeship. With virgin fingers – the nerves not yet numbed by repeated burns – I gingerly filled a deep steel pan with the steaming hot pickings. When the skulls were clean, I went back to the main kitchen to get the Chef.
"No eyes in here?" He fished around and found two. "You got the brains?" He tugged on a bone at the base of the skull and scooped the brains into the pan. He tasted the meat and added a handful of salt, a few pinches of orange zest, and a generous splash of Vin Santo. He tasted it again. More salt. More wine. As he ladled the mix into a heavy linen stocking, he explained that once refrigerated, the natural gelatin released during cooking binds the mixture into sausage form. "Sopresatta." I was in awe; people actually get paid to do this. When the day was over I thanked him and left. There were a few other people trying out, so I was to call back in a few weeks.
That was almost two years ago. I moved to San Francisco and commuted to Eccolo in Berkeley to take my place on the fry station – and do whatever else was needed. Perhaps foolishly, I did not commit to a full year, and when my three-month apprenticeship ended, they turned me loose. I worked on the line in two other kitchens in the city and volunteered in many more. It hasn't all been Sopressata, believe me. Cooking professionally is a grind. You work your ass off, get yelled at, and at the end of the shift you get a beer and a meager paycheck. But you're learning. And you are surrounded by people who are also underpaid, but they are learning too. So you all keep at it.
The two-to-midnight schedule afforded me time to surf in the morning. I stayed sane by paddling out in whatever Ocean Beach offered (mostly cold, shifty slop). On my days off I taught after-school cooking classes at a local middle school. Though I can't claim any of my students eat healthier food or cook more at home - my stated goals - we managed make some delicious food. That pasta in the picture still has two more passes to go. It reached about 50 feet.
Little by little, the romance of cooking gives way to reality. You do the same thing night after night: tickets come in, the food goes out. You jump in your seat when you hear the whine of a ticket machine at other restaurants. Every chef I met was either unhappy or unhealthy, or both. Is this a life?
When mulling over difficult questions, the best place to go in San Francisco is a bakery on the corner of 18th and Guerrero. For five bucks you get the best croissant and a well-made capuccino (a rare thing, anywhere). The inside of their croissant is satiny and chewy, and the outside as like tissue paper painted with butter, rolled up, and baked into caramel. Once you have a Tartine croissant - baked dark in the brick oven - the rest look like microwave imitations. Midway through the second one, it occurred to me that I might want to learn how to make these things before I leave town.
Why not offer to be a kitchen-bitch at the bakery? I stayed at Tartine for almost a year. First I volunteered, and when their tart-shell lady left a month later, I took her job. Not the most interesting work, but now I can make tart shells with the best of them. Sometimes I came in at 4am to help out on the croissant shift, but by that time it was the bread that captivated me. Tartine makes the best bread I have ever tasted. Period. Hands down. The best.
I had good rapport with Chad the bread baker (he owns the bakery with his wife, Liz) and after a few months he let me come in on Fridays to learn his French country bread. He's a soft-spoken guy who is regarded as one of the best artisan bakers in the country. In the twelve years that he's been baking, I'm the third person he'd taken on.
Three basic ingredients (flour, water, and salt), combined with adept handiwork, and a scholarly understanding of natural fermentation render a loaf of bread like the one in the picture above. Crisp crust gives way to an open irregular crumb structure on the inside that seems to melt in your mouth. Unlike the kind of cooking I was doing before which requires speed, mechanical skill and good short-term memory, traditional bread baking is a slow process that engages the intellect as well as the the senses. You're working with a wild yeast culture that has moods and is sensitive to the weather. Use it too early and the bread won't rise. Too late and it tastes sour. Catch it when it's just right, it leavens your loaves and leaves behind a whisper of fermentation. I was obsessed with bread.
I convinced Chad that he had the ultimate surfing schedule. By the end of my stay I was living above the bakery, teaching him how to surf in the morning and baking bread with him and his assistant, Shiho, afternoons and evenings. Bread for surfing. Not a bad trade, right? We are now good friends.
Life got real good in San Francisco. I was working for a happy chef. The challenge of bread consumed me. Even so I had become restless. Which brings me to the here and now. In six hours I fly to Chile with a surfboard, knives, and my wild yeast bread starter. From there I'll find my way north through Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia until September. We'll see. When tramping, plans are apt to change. If I eat something I like, I'll learn how to make it. Open Kitchen will be my record. Welcome.