Author: Clement, Bethany Jean
Date published: August 17, 2011
My fi rst job ever was at a French bakery called La Boulangerie. It was owned by a diminutive but elegant European couple; he played the bassoon, professionally somehow, even though Americans barely knew what the bassoon was. I inherited the job from my friend Gerrit, who was going away to college, and I worked all day Saturdays behind the counter, all through senior year of high school. Work started at the ungodly hour of 7:00 a.m., and I didn't like coffee. When Gerrit trained me that fi rst Saturday, he demonstrated the espresso machine by making me a mocha with approximately three inches of chocolate syrup-my gateway drug.
Within a few weeks, my coworker and I were having espresso-shot-drinking contests. By the time we closed up at the end of the day, we were pretty much mopping the ceiling to the Benny Hill theme song. The coffee also helped if I was hungover from a keg party in the Arboretum, as did a little lie-down in the back on the cool tile fl oor. I loved making coffee drinks-the buzz of the machine, the hiss of the steam-and did it exactingly: Don't run the shots too long, don't scald the milk. At the beginning, I'd surreptitiously dip my fi nger in to make sure the milk was hot enough. I'm sorry if I made you a drink there that had my fi nger in it; later, I realized you could just feel the side of the little stainless steel pitcher.
The true greatness of the Boulangerie was the paradise of pastry. I was always so hungry-so, so hungry. An abiding hunger lived inside me. It was smash-downable with a dose of food, but then it would come roaring back just a few hours later, with the voice of a Muppet monster: HONNN-GRY! FOOOOOOOOD! I was two-dimensionally thin, to the extent that my parents worried I was anorexic, and I could eat and eat and barely make a dent in the Boulangerie's trays full of golden croissants, the pillows of brioche, the sugar-crisped palmiers, and the little shell-shaped madeleines.
The taste of all the burnished baked goods is like a muscle memory; I can run my mind over them and compare every baked good ever to their perfection. (La Boulangerie is still open in Wallingford, but the European couple haven't owned it in a long time.) A proper ham and cheese croissant, made with Gruyère, heated up (convection or regular oven, NEVER microwave) remains my primary love, still. Occasionally, someone would special-order a Brie en brioche or a honey-almond tart, then (unthinkably) never show up to retrieve it: heaven. At the end of the day, anything left over was ours-bagsful of baguette and raisinstudded escargot and pithivier.
Sometimes, people would call and say they'd found a rubber band in their croissant or-one time, truly-a Band-Aid in their baguette. "That is terrible," we would say mournfully. "But you must mean La Petite Boulangerie. They're a Pepsi-Cola chain. This is La Boulangerie-we are a familyowned, authentic French bakery." Your spine straightened refl exively as you said this, and you gazed nobly into the middle distance. This was the feeling of justifi ed pride.
I inherited my college, in a way, from Gerrit, too-one day he was home visiting from school, and I ran into him on the sidewalk. "How's Swarthmore?" I said. "It's cool," said he. "Should I go there?" I said. "Sure," he answered. I went sight unseen and loved pretty much every minute of it, except my employment at the Ingleneuk Tea House in town. It was a stodgy restaurant in a Victorian house; its claim to fame was that James Michener had worked there when he was a student, which seemed like a poor one. They took me on as a waitress, despite the fact that I had a terrible memory and couldn't carry things. I worked for one shift, during most of which I hid from my trainer, folding and refolding white cloth napkins, terrifi ed to go out on the fl oor. The shift meal was substandard turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy, with canned cranberry sauce. I hope I called to say I wasn't coming back; I don't remember at all. The Ingleneuk later burned down.
A few years later, I was back in Seattle with the world's most expensive bachelor's degree in English literature, unemployed. I happened to go to the Roanoke one afternoon for a beer, and I got to talking to a friend of a friend, who turned out to be one of the owners, and by the time I left I had a job as a cook in the Roanoke's tiny kitchen. I had no experience. This is the kind of thing that happens at the Roanoke.
It was just simple stuff: sandwiches, nachos. I'm sure the nice owner-man thought: Any fool can do this job. I did eventually attain competence, if that may be measured by people no longer sending their food back because the cheese wasn't melted. But I never quite got the extremely basic triangulation of making each and every thing as delicious as possible for other people just as you would for yourself at home. Also, if I got more than one order, I felt like I was falling behind, all alone, doomed; I just didn't have anywhere near the nerve for working in a kitchen. If you ate something I made there, I apologize: Even pub food deserves better, and I never really got better enough.
I did learn the best way to cut an avocado, and how to pull a tap beer with a snap, and to never, ever take a drink from a man before it was completely, incontrovertibly empty-I almost lost a hand a couple times that way at the Roanoke. The jolly bartender Tom would go out back to "play ping-pong," leaving me behind the bar, and the guys who drank there in 0he afternoons teased me, and I was shy, which made it even better sport. Once when I was back in the kitchen fi ve minutes before the end of my shift, the phone rang-an order for 20 hot sandwiches, to go. "Tommmmmm!" I wailed, sticking my head out. All the guys all along the bar laughed uproariously, especially the one still on the other end of the line. I loved the sight of the lady who cooked nights, coming to be my savior-she was older, with long blond hair, and clearly knew what she was doing, and still she was kind.
I didn't work all that long at the Roanoke- we called it the Chia Pet, because of its exterior coat of ivy-but I got to go to the annual Christmas party, which was at a real restaurant (now closed) and had an open full bar. A lot of the liquor had been infi ltrated by fruit fl ies, which were infused in the bottom of a lot of the shots; everybody drank the bugs, and no one cared. I don't think I've ever seen a group of people more drunk, or more fun. I love to go to the Roanoke still; it's dim and friendly and worn, like a tree house with drinks and pinball, and the food is actually good, with actually melted cheese.
My last food job was in San Francisco. It was at a cafe that paid under the table; I lived in a room that was meant to be a closet, so I'd be able to get by. The cafe is gone, and for the life of me, I can't remember the name. I worked with the immigrant brother of the immigrant owner, who treated his brother more like a dog. But the owner wasn't around much, and the brother and I got along. He was taking ESL classes, and when we weren't busy, I helped him with his reading.
But there was the matter of the ravioli. I didn't even know we served ravioli until someone ordered it. I asked the brother about the ravioli. "Ah!" he said, and started burrowing in the glass-doored refrigerator. He went so far back that he all but disappeared. Eventually he emerged with a metal hotel pan with dripping, opaque plastic wrap over it. He unwrapped it to reveal a school of gray ravioli suspended in fetid water. "We can't serve that!" I whispered. "Oh, no, no, no, it's okay," he said, and fetched a colander and dumped the ravioli into it in the sink. He started running cold water over the ravioli, rinsing away the visible gray skin on each one. "NO!" I said, louder. "It's okay! It's okay!" he said. "NO IT IS NOT OKAY! WE CAN'T SERVE THAT!" I said, loud enough for customers out at the tables to hear. We went back and forth for a bit, but I put my foot down, and I made him throw it away in front of me.
A little while after that, a regular at the cafe was talking about his new internet company, and it turned out there was a job for an English literature major there. I called the owner to tell him I had to quit, that I was getting my shifts covered-he interrupted me with a stream of invective I've not heard the likes of before or since. "I GIVE YOU THIS FUCKING JOB AND THIS IS WHAT YOU DO TO ME!" He went on and on, cursing fabulously and liberally. It was insane, but he was a grown-up, and I was shaking with an animal fear. Finally, he paused in his rage, and suddenly I knew what to do. "NO, FUCK YOU!" I said, and hung up the phone.