There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are cut out for food service, and those who aren’t. I tried to be in the first category, but I know that I really belong in the second. I started as a pastry chef, working in bakeries, pastry shops, restaurants, and hotels. Wherever I was, I always ended up working with chocolate.
It was only a matter of time before I worked for some of the country’s top chocolatiers. I started in a teeny, tiny, family-run business where everything was done by hand. At the other end of the spectrum, I worked in a high-volume, high-end setup where, at the height of Christmas craziness, we produced 80,000 chocolates per week.
The family-run chocolate shop
The shop was owned and operated by an eccentric German family. Everything in the shop was handmade from family recipes that dated back three generations, written in faded ink on yellowed paper that was spattered with ancient stains.
In the basement, there was a bakery where I learned to make 25 litre batches of dense German nut tortes, roll out 6 feet of puff pastry by hand, and make soup vats full of caramel.
Caramel is also known as liquid napalm, as the two-inch scar on my right thumb will attest. If you are unfortunate enough to have it contact your skin, this is what will happen: your neurons will register that a liquid at 165 degrees Celsius has just hit your skin. A half-second later, your brain will realize that in the time it took the first neurons to fire, said liquid has burned its way through the top five layers of your skin and is making its way through your flesh, on its way to the bone.
The basement bakery was hot, and dusty with flour. I preferred working upstairs in the 6-foot square space that I shared with two co-workers, where we stirred endless vats of chocolate. Gym? Who needed a gym? I had the world’s best biceps, trained from hours on end of stirring stirring stirring.
We whispered sweet nothings to the chocolate. We coaxed it until it formed precious Form V crystals, the required crystal formation for perfectly tempered chocolate. Then we would transform the chocolate into heart-shaped boxes, Easter bunnies clutching baskets of flowers, and happy face lollipops.
We dipped truffles by hand. I can still hear the tap tap tap of the dipping forks on the edge of the bowl. My favourite days were when we made molded chocolate confections: domes full of pistachio marzipan, square buttons full of coffee ganache, faceted jewels full of mint ganache…
In my last week there, I made a piano out of chocolate.
The high-volume chocolate shop
The high-volume shop glittered with machines. The enrobing machine, with its long conveyor belt, brought to mind the chocolate episode of I Love Lucy. My co-workers were, quite honestly, the most efficient people I have ever worked with. Ever.
Here, we didn’t have to coax the chocolate into beta crystals. Two tempering machines kept dark and milk chocolate circulating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
We worked clean and we worked fast. We were a well-oiled machine. We made bonbons, we cut them, we enrobed them, we decorated them. And, the next time we did it, we worked cleaner and faster. Lather, rinse, repeat.
We spent most of our time on the enrober, which coated the bonbons in a thin shell of tempered chocolate. There was a small platform where we’d set the naked bonbons, and then they’d take a chocolate bath in the enrober. They emerged on the other end and we would finish them with custom decorations.
My favourite task was to set the bonbons. The machine beeped at set intervals, and I raced myself to see how many bonbons I could place on the belt before the beep sounded. I raced around to the other end of the enrober to pick up the finished bonbons, then back to the other end to set some more. Meanwhile, two co-workers stood calmly in the middle, decorating the enrobed bonbons with what can only be described as zen calm.
It was a game I played, willing myself to beat my old record.
Each bonbon got its own delicate decoration, none of which were simple. Many of them needed a cocoa butter transfer, which had to be applied in the 20-second window after the chocolate emerged from the enrober, before the chocolate set. Some bonbons were christened with a nut, placed at a very precise angle. Others got a sprinkle of sea salt, a drizzle of white chocolate. My least favourite decoration required a single leaf of edible gold. Gold leaf likes to stick to itself and to the container that it’s in. It’s like ketchup: you get none, or you get the entire bottle.
We also made molded chocolate caramels. Lots of them.
My kitchen, today
In the end, I found out that I’m just not cut out for food service. I’m not knocking it, just saying that it doesn’t work for me. The 16-hour days, the (ahem) less-than-ideal pay…it just doesn’t make sense.
Working in someone else’s chocolate shop, you have to make whatever is in their product line. Customers expect those products every time that they visit the shop. Consequently, being a chocolatier is one of the most routine jobs that I could have chosen. It also happens to be one of the most technical, which is why I was drawn to it—but I’m easily bored, so routine doesn’t sit well with me.
I don’t make money playing around in my kitchen, but I can be creative with what I make, and make money elsewhere. If it’s delicious, then my friends and family get to benefit from my brilliance. And if it isn’t…well, I’ll probably eat it anyway.