Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pastry School

I had always liked baking. I went to this really great pre-school that taught us a lot of amazing things, like we spent each week learning about a new culture, we met people doing some really great things, I got to meet the governor, and I remember doing some really fun art projects with fish. The thing that stuck out was, we learned a lot about food. When we learned about different cultures, we learned about the food they ate. We visited our kitchen where we would get a demonstration and sometimes even work hands on to make the product. My mom said I would come home with these recipes and ask her to help me make a binder for them. I'm sure she did, but I am not sure what happened to it.

As a kid, my next door neighbors would come over and we would spend hours baking together. I wasn't sure what the difference was between tsp and tbsp so I always had overly salty cookies (perhaps why I like salty cookies now...). In high school, I always baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies at the beginning of every break for my family (who does not eat sweets normally) and one at the end of break for my classmates (who suffered from repetitive cafeteria food) when I got back.

Sometime in college, I started fantasizing about opening a bakery. Perhaps because I had spent so many years thinking I was going to be a lawyer, or a psychologist, or something that would make my parents very proud, it never really occurred to me that you can bake for a living. I'm not sure why I didn't think it was feasible as a full time job. I fantasized about having a bakery as a side job. So, I thought my real job would be in PR and I would own this bakery on my days off.

Well, there is one way you can own a bakery as a side job. That is by being an investor and pouring enough money into someone else's business to be able to go in and check on it now and then and pat everyone on the back for the good work. I did not have that kind of money. I don't have that money now. I get excited whenever the lottery is over $150 million because I think that is my only chance of getting money like that. I would be excited to win $600 in the lottery, but that hasn't happened yet.

I went forth with the PR route and sent out dozens of emails before someone finally took me in. One of my internships led to my first real post-college job. After reading "Cheaper by the Dozen" as a kid, I am really into the idea of finding ways to be more efficient. When it comes to Christina time, I am incredibly lazy, but when it comes to work, I sometimes step back and think about a problem for a few minutes to see if there is a better way of tackling it. There usually is. I have taken projects that would normally last 2-3 days down to 20 minutes. But then I would be incredibly bored for the next 3 days while looking for something to do. I would just eat in my cubicle, quietly gain weight and think about what to bake that night. This happened in two jobs over almost 3 years. It wasn't that I was a fantastic worker, it was just that there was such a set way of doing things that no one thought of ways to do it differently. But after a while, I started to feel that I did not belong and perhaps that side job could become a real job.

I couldn't afford pastry school because I couldn't get a loan no matter how many times I applied and I complained about it to everyone for 6 months. I actually applied for a lot of jobs in food with the hope that I could bypass the whole step altogether. I tried to apply to be a server, a cashier, a floor sweeper, a pastry cook, and even a completely free intern and I never heard back from anyone. I applied online to a lot of jobs. I applied in person to some and those were the worst because I would get the most pitying faces from people who knew they wouldn't hire me. I just wanted to get in and try. At this point, I was actually a really good home baker (but terrible cook...and still am). I baked a lot and I tested out recipes. I had taken the 60 hour Intro to Baking class at the Institute of Culinary Education. I had even been to Paris and held my own against professional pastry chefs in the Pierre Herme class. I applied all my ideas about efficiency to baking and with my sister, held a bake sale with literally hundreds of products from cookies, to florentines, to macarons, blondies, and pies. I could bake, and I could write a letter about why I wanted to bake, but no one wanted to take that risk.

I realized that in NY, it would be hard to get a job in food with no school or professional food experience under my belt because there are so many culinary schools and graduates here. So, I decided that I had to go to school. I was aching to get out of my PR career path and get into food. I knew if I was desperate enough to sweep floors, I really wanted to do this.

The funny thing is, I actually got my first job in pastry before going to school. An old roommate of mine had once worked at a cafe and managed to get me an interview to be a server. But once I actually started talking to the manager/pastry chef, I think she realized where I actually belong. She offered me a job as a pastry cook two months later. On the first day, I learned a lot more about how a kitchen runs than I did baking at home. I was just so grateful to get a chance that I worked so hard that I ended up with eczema that lasted for over a year. I went to school anyway because as much as I learned on the job, I felt like I could learn more and after 6 months of trying, I finally got a loan.

I have met a lot of people along the way who have been to school and people who have not gone to pastry/culinary school. A lot of people who have gone to school say it was a waste of money because it is nothing like working, but on the other hand, many people who didn't go to school have a huge chip on their shoulder.

I went to school. I found a loan that I qualified for and I took out one that was almost twice the amount of the loan I had from college. Two years later, I have barely made a dent paying it off and I hope that I don't still have loan debt to pay off by the time my kids go to college, but who knows? I never rose very high on the totem pole at work, so the money I make now is pretty much equivalent to what I made as a lowly PR person, but I work like 20 more hours a week. However, all that aside, I don't regret it at all because I met some really great people along the way. I applied for every scholarship and grant that I could and that introduced me to even more people. I made some good connections at ICE that have been completely invaluable - like being able to work with Pierre Herme at one of his demos and meet Thomas Keller. I think pastry school is just what you make of it - much like any other experience. If you go in hungry, you will learn a lot from it and you can be great. If you think that it will make you the next Food Network star, it won't.

Even though pastry school preps you for the real world, it is just like college - it is nothing like the real world. Doing class for a few hours a day is different from working for 16 hours straight with your only sitting break being when you go to the bathroom. Learning how to make 2 tarts is nothing like having to make dozens of tarts day after day for months, or even years. It really only prepares you by giving you a glimpse of what you may come across in the real world. Pastry people are crazy. We love to do the same repetitive task over and over again, every single day. We are like factory workers, but we love it. I sometimes sleep with a brace at night because my wrist aches so bad, but it doesn't stop me from working.

I don't think you have to go to school to be good. I think you just have to have the right attitude about it. Just because I don't regret school doesn't mean that you have to go. I think there are a lot of really great pastry chefs out there who didn't go to school. They were so hungry that they learned it own their own and I really admire them for that. That hunger and drive is what makes people great, not necessarily education.

And along the way, I have asked a lot of people how they have managed to avoid the hefty tuition bills of going to school. They said that they were just persistent in asking for a job. Sometimes it was at a local cafe where they were regulars and after getting to know the staff better, they just asked. Sometimes, it was by sending a really well crafted letter. Sometimes it was as easy as seeing a "Hiring" sign and going in. I learned from my first pastry boss that someone with a good attitude will be better for you than someone with a lot of experience and a poor attitude. It's true. At Macaron Parlour, we have only ever taken in one intern. I remember the surprise in Simon's voice when I told him that I was letting her come in. I told him that while emailing with her, I saw how smart and thoughtful she was and I could see myself in her words, so I wanted her to come in and see if she liked pastry. She's at school in Paris now. =)

On the other side, now that I have been in this field for enough time and have had to hire/fire people, I do have some thoughts on why no one wanted to hire me back in the day. When you know what you're doing, it's really painful to watch other people fumble around. I have taken many and I still continue to take baking classes that are marketed towards the home baker. A lot of classes are very slow for me, and it is hard to listen to someone say they want to open a bakery when they cannot operate a Kitchenaid or they have only baked with box mixes before. I have spoken to someone who has had some amateur bakers work with her and she said sometimes, they know so little that they slow her down. When you're working and you have a routine, it's hard to take that time out of your own busy schedule for the chance that the person might make it. She said that most people realize that they aren't made for it and leave very quickly. If there are two people with no experience, but one has been to least you know the one who went to school has shown some level of commitment to food and will know the basics.

If you haven't gone to school and are either debating it or trying to skip it altogether, please spend some time in a real kitchen before making any sort of big life commitment. It can be very difficult to get in, but someone will let you, even for just a day or a "trail" as we call it. Be sure to hustle and move fast because kitchens are all about that sense of urgency. If you don't know what's going on, ask. It's always better to ask how to do things properly than get it wrong and if the person training you yells at you or belittles you for not knowing, you don't want to be there anyway. I've worked with a lot of really great people who will always take the time to teach you to do something right. Put thought into what you're doing and appreciate whatever it is that they have you do, even if it's just spraying dozens of muffin tins. Don't complain. One of my first trails, I cut so many fruits that I broke out in hives all over my hands. I said nothing about it until I got home to Simon and he saw my swollen fingers. There really is no glory in food so don't expect to show up and start making cakes and batters immediately. There are lessons to learn every step of the way and a lot of steps to take before you get to the top. It is just unclear to me what the top really is, so I think you'll be learning forever.

We're probably going to be hiring within the next 6 months - after the wedding and the slow season of the summer. Based on the holidays last year, we can't do that mostly alone again. I hope we're able to find a few good thoughtful folk to come join us and learn how to grow a business with us.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Is it February?

Oh man, time flies when there's too much going on!

December is a complete blur to me. With the Union Square Holiday market, all the Christmas orders, all the online sales, and trying to shop for presents for the, I can't believe we survived. We actually made like...over 20,000 macarons in December alone. And, I think we bought some of the best Christmas gifts we have ever gifted. Simon and I were so exhausted that on Christmas day, we both took 3-4 naps. We were really only up for meals, and then it was nap time. It felt amazing to just be couch potatoes.

I thought January would be a whole lot of trying to not move as we let our bodies slowly recover, but it was time to finally start dealing with that know...the Everyone had been hounding me on how I wasn't getting things done on time (who sets those wedding deadlines anyway?) so Simon and I delegated responsibilities and plowed through it in 3 weeks. We're like 90% done with our planning and we've got a handful of stuff to still what we're going to order for room service once we're no longer dieting.

I took a part time job filling in at a friend's restaurant for just January. Simon's sister had a beautiful baby girl. I wrote a list of like 10 new flavors I want to test out and we got through testing about half of them (some are real flops though). For a month that we expected to be very quiet, it really wasn't that quiet at all. I suppose it's like the weekend for people with regular jobs. I always think of the weekend as days off, but a lot of things that you had been pushing off during the week gets accomplished on weekends, like laundry, or grocery shopping, or seeing your family. It's not time off as in, you can just sit and watch TV all day, it's just time you delegate to something else. So, our January got mostly delegated to catching up on our personal lives since June-December was mostly about our pastry lives.

Now that we're hunkering back into Macaron Parlour mode (we just started making heart shaped macarons for V-day!), it's time to reflect on our holiday season. It was very interesting being at Union Square. These markets are really the first time we've done an event for many consecutive days, so we were able to really get to know people and see what it would be like if we ever opened a storefront. We made many new friends and fans, and we loved chatting with people. We were honored to be the first macarons for many and to provide many macaron gift boxes for the holiday season. We were thrilled at how many people purchased macarons and returned only a few minutes later to tell us how much they love our stuff. Moments like that made it worth having 16 hour days that started with early morning deliveries, then working at the booth, then going to the kitchen for production.

We got a lot of really good feedback - a lot of really lovely words and a few comments on how we can improve. For example, the weather was pretty warm for a December, but there was still a day or two where it was colder outside than in our freezers and after being told that the macarons were hard, we advised everyone to warm up their little macaron before eating it for optimal results.

We're constantly a work in progress. We have so many quirks from being such a small business. All of our macarons are piped by hand and even though we have a standard size, sometimes they end up a little smaller, sometimes a little bigger (good news: if we have a small guy, we usually try to give two small macarons for the price of 1). We're a two person company, so there are some things that I'm sure bigger companies can do that we can't. We're still at the point where 95% of the macarons you get from us are piped by Simon or me (the other 5% is for when we are able to recruit some help - either my sisters or some of my former coworkers). I am the only person who manages the ovens when it comes to baking, so I put each tray in and take each tray out. Simon washes all of our dishes. We are the entire business and it is deeply personal to us.

A French guy once said to Simon that we are better than any macaron shop he has ever been to in France, even the most famous names. Simon asked him why. The answer: You'll never go to any of those shops and get a smile like he did at our stand, or see someone as nice or as friendly as Simon is. That really warmed up my heart. I love the idea that even though this guy liked our macarons, the real memory that he drew from the whole experience is the good time he had chatting with us.

We really pride ourselves on having great conversations with our customers. Simon is the best macaron salesperson you could ever come across because he is really funny, he is sharp, and he is super helpful. I'm kind of awkward, but I like giving out free macarons to make up for that fact because I want you to have a good day and I make terrible jokes that no one gets, so I have to distract you from the long awkward pause afterward.

We've been to almost all of the shops that offer macarons in NY and I only remember having a good conversation at one of them. The others have just treated us like a transaction. We believe that when it comes to food, there is something very personal about it! I had a very racist comment said to me at a famous French shop in NY. I was so humiliated, upset, and shocked, and the woman refused to apologize when I called her out on it so I vowed to never go back. There are places that I go to that I know doesn't have the best food, but I just love the staff so much that I keep going. Sometimes, the experience is just as important as the food. I hope people come to us because they like the product, and they keep coming back because they like us, too.

I hope the next time you see us at a market or fair, you come by to say hi. I also hope you're lucky enough to avoid one of my awkward jokes.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Is it V-Day already? This means it's less than 80 days days to our wedding. Wow.

Macarons brought Simon and me together. I'd never think that making macarons would be part of any love story, let alone ours. We were officially together less than 6 weeks by the time I filed the paperwork to start our company. I had attempted to open my own baking business before and failed, and had no indication that this time, it would fare any better.

For Christmas 2009, I was too broke to buy gifts for anyone, so I made Christmas tins filled with cookies, chocolates, macarons, and all sorts of sweets. Around this time, Simon had introduced me to his kitchen and let me use his massive counter to set up my own assembly line. As he sat on the other side, I could hear his feet pitter patter with excitement every time I took something out of the oven. He ended up dipping all of the truffles in chocolate and packaging them. He helped me pack all the boxes and ship them to my friends. When I made a batch of macarons that all turned out bad, Simon made a small baggy to put them in so he could snack on them like popcorn. I told him my macaron theories - what constituted a good macaron and why mine were bad. This was 8 months after the Pierre Herme class and I was still having trouble getting them right. He tried to reassure me that what I thought was bad still tasted good to him. After I finished all my Christmas tins, I retired my macaron making and decided to quit for good. I was tired of trying to make macarons, and always failing and I simply couldn't afford to keep doing that (retail almond flour is like $13 a lb! I was using almost a pound a batch!).

I "unquit" macarons in March 2010. I asked Simon if he wanted to start a company together, and b/c he says yes to everything, he agreed. I decided that we were going to do macarons b/c I had this feeling that we could do something different than what was currently being offered. I was in school at the time and I asked all my pastry instructors, who helped me figure out what I was doing wrong. Simon funded our business with like $500 and that's all we had to start, and we made it work.

Simon & I baked every Wednesday night for the Hester Street Fair on Saturday/Sunday. I still had a desk job and the schedule was brutal. There were days when I would leave work at 5, we'd get to the kitchen at 6 pm, and leave at 6 am...and when I cried about how exhausted I was, knowing that I would be back at work in 3 hours, Simon would plow through it. He would clean up the kitchen, put everything away, and drive us back home.

We fought all the time over our business. When it came to our relationship, everything seemed to be rainbows and shooting stars, but when it came to Macaron Parlour, there were plenty of punches. I would get disappointed with his recipe testing. He would get irritated with how I cleaned the kitchen. I'd ask him about business moves and the bigger picture, and he somehow didn't envision it as I did. He'd hound me on not sending Paypal invoices and I would get annoyed that he didn't learn how to use Paypal himself. When people say that you shouldn't go into business with your close friends, they mean it. We were at each other and I think I probably got in a lot more punches than he did. But at the end, we realized that if we weren't so damn in love with each other, we couldn't have gotten through those first few months. It was more my dream than his, so I drove a lot of the decisions and at some point, he really stepped up and helped me make it happen. He adopted my dream and it became our dream, our business, and our "baby." We realized that we could do so much more together than we ever could have accomplished separately. We balance each other out.

My parents own a business together. Simon's parents owned a business together. I suppose it runs in our blood to be in business with the one you love. It's not easy and I don't really recommend it to anyone. Our relationship is entirely dependent on being able to spend massive amounts of time together and you know what? Simon is the first person I haven't gotten sick of after spending a lot of time with him. I get sick of everyone. When I was in high school, I wanted to live on an island with squirrels because I was so sick of dealing with people's drama and how mean everyone was to each other (I think people in high school are meaner than people in any other age group. And no idea why I liked squirrels so much, except that for some reason, my high school had cool black squirrels.). I couldn't go on trips with friends because I would get so annoyed after day 3 that I would try to do excursions on my own and come up with elaborate excuses on why I had to go alone. I get irritated pretty easily, and had always been used to the independent life, so I never thought I would ever need a business partner, but I needed someone to balance that out. I got lucky that the one person I have never gotten sick of happens to both be my future husband and my business partner. I hope our partnership is much like our parents' and we have a long, happy marriage together, even if we have to yell at each other about work stuff once in a while.

Today we're at the point where when we're in the kitchen, we can work without talking. We can anticipate the other's next move. We don't really argue about what's going on in the kitchen, we haven't been burned in a few months, and we watch movies as we work to pass the time. The other day, I picked a movie that Simon liked so much that when we had a little break, he pulled up a chair next to the laptop and I could hear his feet tap excitedly as he waited for what came next. We had work to do, but I pulled up next to him and we both took a half hour break to finish the movie. One of the reasons why I think we don't claw at each other is b/c we know how to step back and take breaks so we don't let ourselves get too consumed by the present task at hand. Last month, we didn't time our day in the kitchen right so we were stuck with nothing to do while we waited for our macarons to bake, so what did we do? We went on YouTube and practiced Michael Jackson dance moves for an hour. We finished early, in great spirits, and with new moves.

February 13, 2010 is the day Simon asked me to be his girlfriend. Well, actually, it was probably like the 4th time he asked. It was just the first time where I actually agreed to it. He asked over a heart-shaped Papa Johns pizza, the actual pizza is pictured above. That was the first time I ever had a real boyfriend for Valentine's Day. I'm not into the big hype over Valentine's Day, but I think the heart-shaped pizza was a winner in this relationship.

So, I wish everyone a Happy Tuesday. Regardless of your relationship status, it is important to remember to not get so caught up in the flow of everyday life to miss out on taking a break and doing something fun today and every day. Michael Jackson YouTube videos are free to watch & practice with. I hope that you enjoy a macaron today.