“So, I hear you’re going to get an education.” A friend said to me the other day.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m going to culinary school. I’m really doing it.”
“Nope. Across the country. Portland, Oregon.”
…and then my heart felt like it was melting, and everything sort of hit me. This is actually happening in just a few months, and I’m totally wigged out about it – in all the different ways you can be “wigged.”
Four and half years ago I was hired into beezy’s cafe in Ypsilanti, Michigan as a part-time line cook. I fell in love with the place, Bee Roll and cooking, so I quit my other job, and started working full-time.
A year later, my boss trained me back in the kitchen to do her job once or twice a week, so we could be open on Sundays and she could still have a semblance of a day-off (you never really have a day-off if you own a restaurant.) Then Bee & her husband Jim got pregnant, and I started working in the kitchen full-time. Official unofficial story is that it was my fault Bee became pregnant, via a karaoke rendering of the Ace of Base classic “All That She Wants (Is Another Baby)” I sang to her on her birthday. Two weeks after the song, she told me she was pregnant, and I figured the least I could do was work more in the kitchen.
Two years ago I started making pie for beezy’s and wholesaling to other shops as Riki Tiki Pies. That was the beginning of a new era & obsession in my life, and I went from being a full-time restaurant worker, to a 60-70 hour a week crazy person, who usually had egg yolk on their clothes and flour on their shoes. Delicious.
After my friend asked me about “going to get an education,” it made me want to reflect and share the different ways I’ve been getting an education here in Ypsilanti. Through working at beezy’s and starting up Riki Tiki Pies I’ve had the chance to make delicious food with incredible people. I’ve thought often that I could live here in Ypsi forever.
I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out which path my career is going to take. It could have gone so many different ways, and a lot would be great options (which is an awesome thing to be able to say.) I think I’m making a hard but important choice, and am pretty excited to become a part of a new area in the world. However, there will be much to miss. I’ve lived in this area my whole life, and this will be my first time moving away from friendships, and a job I really care about.
I wanted to write this blog post to share a few highlights of my food education here in Ypsilanti, as well as begin the process of saying goodbye. So, here goes.
1. Never Try to Make Pie Unless You Have a Lot of Fridge Space.
Let me tell you this right now – don’t even bother making a pie unless your fridge is prepared for it. If you’re making just one pie on a cold day, and the heat sucks in your house, you might be fine. But if you’re ever trying to make pie en masse, just accept that you’re going to have to work out of a fridge or a freezer. Butter crust (which is far and away the bulk of what I make) involves a dance of getting the crust up to the perfect pliable temperature, then keeping it cold enough to hold the shape, and then having an oven hot enough to finish the job. It’s a dance of tears.
I learned this the hard way when I first started wholesaling pie. Conveniently, I started wholesaling during one of the hottest & humid summers on record in Michigan. I knew the importance of cooling a crust, but I didn’t know it. I didn’t know how to know when it was time to stop touching a crust. I was also making tiny little free form pies, that become sticky, greasy, flour blankets if you don’t know what you’re doing (I only sort of knew what I was doing.) I mutilated so many pies until I finally came up with the first rule of Riki Tiki Pies:
“Shut up, stop touching it, and put it in the freezer.”
If I ever start making pie again, the dream is to open a pie workshop inside of an igloo. Besides helping to ensure quality crusts, think of what a dope chef’s coat I could have…
2. Kitchen Language
Something I didn’t anticipate when I first started working at beezy’s was how important it was to learn how to talk to my boss & co-workers. Before working at the restaurant, I managed a coffee shop (haha, funny story) which was pretty slow, and talking wasn’t very stressful. I could blather on and on to employees about what needed to happen, we’d poke each other and make jokes, and use goofy terms to skirt around confrontation.
In a busy kitchen, there’s a time for jokes (and if everyone had their way, that would be all the time), and there’s a time for figuring out what the hell needs to happen at that very moment. I can’t say there are “rules” for how to communicate in a kitchen, but there is certainly a way to destroy communication in a kitchen (“bad ideas,” if you will). Some people know it, and some people will get it eventually. Other people will never get it. At this point, I feel like I can tell if a person will get it within 5 minutes of working with them (I’m probably fooling myself.)
When I was a beezy’s baby, I had no idea how to tell my boss that the line was almost out of chicken. Or that I’d accidentally made the egg salad with twice as much paprika. Or that I couldn’t find the mayo. Or that the soup was out. I was talking like a civilian. I was rounding the corner to the kitchen and saying something like, “Heyyyyyy, so I was out by the soup well, and I noticed that…”
By the time the final “y” of “Heyyyyy” had left my mouth, I could see a tiny fire being lit in her brain, her eyes would reset at me, and a timer for a bomb would turn on, and I knew I had a seconds to wrap up before the fire in her brain escaped out her ears. For the first few weeks, I really didn’t get what was going on; I just knew that I was messing it up somehow.
If I were to go ahead and break up the Art of Kitchen Language into 3 parts –
1. The first part is made up of understanding your environment and what “something going wrong” looks like, then from there that dovetails into the second part…
2. …which is pulling the ducks together that make up the path from your brain to your mouth. Then once those ducks are assembled, to communicate quickly. For instance, never start off a sentence with “Heyyyyyyy, sooo…”. After four years of working together, I feel like my coworker Jamie and I can communicate paragraphs worth of information in a few sentences. This was not always the case, but beezy’s breeds that sort of speedy communication . Working with someone in a kitchen causes you to learn how they talk, what they’re going to talk about, and the solution they’re thinking up. You learn which conversations happening on the floor you should pay attention to. You learn whether or not someone is making a weird face and needs to talk about what’s going on. (A popular phrase at beezy’s is “what’s that face on your face?”) Or being able to tell from far across the restaurant that somebody is having a rough day and needs to go run around outside in the sun, or smoke a cigarette, or be sent outside to the walk-in to cool down and have a scream in solitude. I have a lot of nice things to say about Bee, and one of them is that she has a magical talent for telling when somebody needs a cigarette/back scratch/verbal pick-me-up, without needing to ask.
3. And the third part is repoire. Repoire is the most important part, and it will either happen eventually or not at all, and if not at all, you probably won’t be working with that person for a very long time. Repoire is trust that a person is doing the right thing, or that they meant to do the right thing. It’s being able to joke the right way with somebody. It’s when you do something shitty to somebody, and you know at the end of the day they’ll think highly of you again.
Kitchens are made up of many people interacting with many objects. And those objects are interacting with fire, water, sharp objects, gravity & air. There’s a lot happening all the time. Language is the conduit for gluing all those pieces together to become a plate of food that somebody will be eating, over and over and over again. You have to get good at it.
3. Why People Use the Phrase “Spill the Beans”
It was another magical day at beezys, and some kind of felonious bullshit was going down because I remember that it was only myself and Bee working at the shop. Normally we’d have a third person, but they must have gotten swallowed by a whale. We were very low on beans, in fact, we only had maybe a quart of beans left. Bee must have asked me to go to the walk-in to grab the beans, because I was a-rushing to the walk-in to grab the container.
Before I proceed, allow me to mention that I have a terrible case of The Dropsies. I am always dropping things and it’s a real problem. If something is important, or expensive, I’ll probably drop it. I’ve dropped many phones. I recently smashed a bunch of pie plates on the floor of a coffee shop that buys my pie. I am continually maneuvering around life looking like I’m secret pregnant. I think it’s the downside of having a continually multi-tasking brain, which is an asset, but an asset that needs to be tamed. I should probably chill out, drink less coffee, and meditate or some shit, but that probably won’t happen anytime soon.
Back to the beans. I reached for the precious last beans in the restaurant, half grabbed them, turned to rush out of the walk-in, and I dropped the container. Beans went everywhere. They spilled in the walk-in, out of the walk-in, under shelves, and probably into my shoes. Beans beans everywhere, but not any fit to eat. I knew I had to go back onto the floor and tell Bee what happened, and how my mission had accomplished a whole hill of beans.
I went back inside, where Bee was hurriedly making sandwiches, and I announced the problem to her.
“Bee. I spilled the beans.”
She turned to me, looking amused, at what possibly I could have spilled the beans about, and why it would be important at this moment.
Oh! Said my brain. That’s an adage!
“Spilled the beans?” She said.
And I started laughing. She started laughing, too, but still looked confused.
“I mean, haha, I spilled the beans. But, no, like, literally, I spilled the beans. Like, we have zero beans now. Not like…you know…”
I couldn’t really stop myself from giggling at this point, but I kept trying to compose my face to look contrite about the spillage, and then having to face the ensuing problem of being out of beans.
This is one of my favorite moments to remember, because it captures the humor in chaos (as well as being hilariously dumb). Shit goes down everyday in the workplace, and you learn how to deal with it, no matter how surprisingly crappy every new situation seems to be. In time you learn to compartmentalize shit hitting the fan. You can snap into Shit Hitting the Fan Mode, and know that eventually you’ll get through it, because, well, you’ve done it before. Then those situations become funny in a week, in an hour, or at the bar with your coworkers once the day is done.
At the moment when I spilled the beans about spilling the beans, we both knew “oh this is a funny moment for Theresa, because she’s realizing right at this second why this is a figure of speech.” I mean, I really get it now. When you spill beans, they travel everywhere and its hard to locate them all to clean them all up. But also, it sucked because it began the Bean Drought of Some Wednesday in 2010. Oh well. We can laugh about it now…right?
4. Eight Hours of Sleep is a Unicorn
(If you’re my mom, I recommend skipping this one. You won’t like it.)
I never have been a big sleeper, but I’ve done it, and I used to do more of it when I was younger. In college I worked early morning shifts at coffee shops, and would often burn the candle at both ends, but I still recognized sleeping as a thing to do at night. But still, when I found out how little time Bee had to sleep when she first opened beezys, I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard.
Two years later, I was making a rule for myself that I was only allowed to nap in the afternoon if I had gotten less than 4 hours of sleep the night before. Otherwise, I’d stay up too late, and repeat the cycle forever. Six hours of sleep meant that I really had my life together and was looking out for myself.
I’ve gotten a little better at finding sleep in my life since then, but not by much. Once I started making pie at night, I instituted a pretty girthy two-hour siesta in the middle of my day, and that really helps. From two-hour siesta, I’ve evolved into an efficient, 24-hour Consciousness Cycle, which I have broken up into 4 quadrants: 1st Sleep, 1st Wake, 2nd Sleep, 2nd Wake. 2nd Sleep is the real pivot point of the day: it’s when you decide if you’re going to maintain stasis by staying within the model, or skip over it and become a shit show. It’s so easy to want to go from 1st Wake straight into 2nd Wake, even though 1st sleep might have only lasted 3 hours. But don’t be too tempted, because if 2nd sleep is skipped, 2nd Wake can become a very confusing time. Conversely, though, if you skip 2nd Sleep, and do an abbreviated version of 2nd Wake (sometimes referred to by humans as “go to bed early.”), it is, allegedly, possible to restart a Binary Consciousness Cycle, involving only a single set of Waking & Sleeping. Personally, I’ve never felt it possible to transition back to Binary Consciousness, and have come to believe the 8-hour of Sleep lifestyle to be my own personal unicorn.It does suck when you’re hanging out with a bunch of under-slept people, and everyone starts mentioning how little combined sleep everyone in the circle has gotten. It’s good to avoid these conversations, 1) because it becomes the dumbest competition ever and 2) because it’s really depressing, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Well, you can do SOMETHING about it: sleep. Which usually means you can’t see your friends. Which leads me to my next point…
5. Everything is Better with Friends, and Kitchens Breed Friendship
This is probably connected with the importance of language in a kitchen. You really learn how to communicate with your coworkers, and then how to get through tense situations with them. Their weird crap becomes pretty obvious, and you can learn to love them and their weird crap.
Some of my closest friends are my coworkers, which I’m really lucky to have. Beezy’s seems to be really special in the way it creates friendships between people, so I can’t speak too generally for other people’s restaurant experience, but it seems to usually be the case. If not being great friends, kitchen people almost always have affection for their coworkers. I think it’s easy to talk openly with someone when you’re cooking side by side.I probably wouldn’t have gotten through making pie in 2013 if my friend Joe hadn’t started to help me (he’ll probably hate hearing that. Sorry, Joe, but it’s true.)
Of course he was a HUGE help labor wise: it takes hours and hours to make pie. A couple times a week, he’d be there to help me carry all my stuff to the Farmer’s Market, and then show up at night to prep produce & wash dishes. He started to learn how to roll crust and assemble pies, and that’s when he started saying he was going to steal the business from me (he’s a liar.) With his diligent help, we made lots of pie. Lots and lots of pie.
Besides the extra hands, I also needed him to keep my spirits alive. I’m pretty extroverted, and I can get zapped on energy fast if I don’t have anyone to make jokes with. Trust me, I enjoy my quiet reverie in the morning as much as anyone, but I need social pick-me-ups to stop me from getting too weird. If I spend a whole day back in the kitchen at beezys under the hood vent, go home, nap, then come back to beezys at night to make pie alone, I start to forget what I like about everyday life. Having a good buddy that you’ve fought with, called names, accidentally set on fire, and come back to accomplish what needs to get done, then hug it out at the end…well, it can save lives.
6. Buy Good Ingredients. For a Lot of Reasons.
Part of what excited me about making pie is that it’s a straightforward way to feature ingredients grown & produced in the area, and in a product I liked eating and sharing. I remember my first time walking through the farmer’s market, not just as an eater, but with the eyes of a producer – scoping out what they had, what looked delicious, and what I wanted to repackage inside of a buttery crust.
I felt like there were a lot of benefits to me using local ingredients. For one, it’s how I invented most of my recipes. I see now that this was a really smart move, but at the time it almost felt like I was being lazy. I wouldn’t be sure what to make some weeks until I strolled through the market. Then I’d smash some ingredients together in my brain, mentally cost it out, and proceed. After some experimentation, I’d write it down, and sift through which recipes were repeats and which ones were crazy. There’s quite a lot of both.
Looking back at pictures of pies I made, I can see a lot of Southeastern Michigan. There are pies featuring tomatoes from Stef, andouille sausage I got from John with the really long pony tail, and a pie pumpkin I got farm a barter with Vicky Zilke. There are savory pies I came up with because I wanted to eat a lot of the Dyer’s garlic. Besides being memories of farmers & food producers I really like, it is also evidence of a fledgling economy based around health, food security, and high standards for taste.
U.S. Citizens are very carefully managed. We’re a pocket-lining force, and our battlefield is the mall. We’re globally & nationally valued only in our role as consumers. We’re measured in how much money we’re able to make, and then our ability turn around and spend that money. The only power we wield is if we start becoming a demographic that has the capacity to spend more money. At that point, neighborhoods will start to get nice things. We’re told that following trends in the market is a fair way to assess what people want and need, but if you have no money to start with, you’ll never have a voice. And the people with no voice are the people who are disproportionately unhealthy & denied basic needs.
In this model, we’ll ideally make our money by doing something relatively useless and benign, very disconnected from any of our “basic needs,” and then blissfully spend it on something entertaining and expensive. Our government/corporations will ensure that food is as cheap and easy to eat as possible, as to not distract us from our money-spending activities, and also getting us to spend even more money that goes anywhere except to the people accountable to the land. It’s a waltz of consumerism, it lasts 12 months, and some people are quite rich, a few people are quite lucky, and everyone else isn’t quite sure what they’re going to do for the next 12 months.
If you see the failure in this system…how do we take power back?
Farming is power because we die without food. We can’t avoid eating food the way that we can avoid buying new lawn chairs, therefore where and how we buy our food is where we’re placing the value of our lives. Farming is security, because we can have the ability to sustain life. With that security, we have the ability to opt out of a system that’s destroying quality of life for people who already have so little. It gets people talking with each other, living with each other, and figuring out just what it is they need to keep themselves and their family & friends healthy. It allows you to live in an area for a long time, and not ripping through land and resources. It also allows you to give money directly to the people you want to give money to, and that money will go so much further than when it trickles through an industrial food chain.
This power is something I have so much to learn about, and will continue to learn about my whole life. It’s where I see the richness in humans, and the ability to foster greatness for all different kinds of people. I’ve seen such a benefit in my own life by changing how I spend money, and by trying to fill my body with food that comes from and is touched by good places. A lot of times people write-off the importance of sourcing food, because they think it’s hokey hippie shit (I have said those exact words at some point)…but that’s really stupid. It’s not a factor you can avoid; it’s a factor you are ruled by. We’ve been reprogrammed through marketing to think of food as not so much as the building block for culture, but instead as “quick fun.” No one benefits from food always being “quick fun,” except companies content with you eating garbage.
If you’re interested in talking about any of this more,in a less rant-y format, I’d be happy to.
7. “You’re Never Done Learning.”
For some reason I was really traumatized when my dad said that to me when I was nine. I had asked him at what age I’d know just about everything I’d need to know, and that’s how he responded. This was depressing to find out.
Also, since no one is ever done learning, this caused me to start quizzing my dad on EVERYTHING. Like how to spell Jupiter. He totally spelled it wrong one day, and he wouldn’t admit it. This was before we had smart phones, and we had to wait til we got home to look it up in the dictionary like a bunch of barbarians. It also gave us lots of time to argue about how to spell it. I bet him a soft-serve ice cream cone that I was spelling it right, and I totally won. I was a pretty obnoxious kid.
But he was right: neither of us are ever done learning, and now I’m moving on to the next classroom.