I think most of you may be familiar with Tetris.
We all sat for hours, pre-smartphone, playing on a Game Boy or on the computer. As the game tiles cascade down the screen, calmly, then frantically, rotate each one to make it fit into the digital terrain below before it lands. Complete a row and it disappears off the bottom, but an ever-mounting pile of shapes continues to accumulate. Sometimes you do somersaults, furiously working the arrow keys, sometimes a tile just gets stuck in the wrong spot and you have to work around it. Or maybe you keep getting the same shape 5-6 times in a row, you tread water to stay alive while waiting for one particular piece that will solve it all, then are rewarded when it finally drops into place and a huge waterfall of tiles disappears. Victory! This is how I felt this afternoon.
This weekend we attended the Atlantic Bakery Expo where I took seminars on various topics in the world of baking. There were a ton of vendors pushing their products to wholesale, retail and aspiring bakers. I got the opportunity to walk again through the halls where 24 years ago, as a young eager baker, I hoped to take on the world and be extraordinary. I remember talking to seasoned bakers and company representatives telling me I was so young and I had the world in front of me and I would be able to make it whatever I wanted.
After I graduated from high school all shiny and new with my baking certificate, 6 weeks intensive at the Culinary Institute for baking and a love for all things baking, I went to my first job interview as a baker. Photos of my work, references on my experience and articles from my achievements in hand, the manager asked me if I knew how to pan out. I admit I had only about 2 ½ years of training so ‘panning out’ had me a little baffled. The head of the bakery said my job would be to take the frozen baked goods and put them on a pan to go into the oven. This was my first opportunity to see how little the world valued skilled scratch bakers.
At the baking expo this weekend, I spoke with a variety of salesmen- yes mostly men- who were hawking their products of mixes and bases. The gist of it is that you purchase a bag of a bread base and then add your own touches to it. So the same mix would make Italian bread, sundried tomato focaccia or a rosemary garlic bread. I would need to only add yeast and water in most instances. They even said if you don’t want to do scratch baking, there are scoop options where you get a vat and just scoop it out onto a pan.
I was 18 again sitting across from a baking manager at Foodtown telling me there really is nothing to this baking thing as long as I could put things on a pan. It almost felt like the one-size-fits-all Walmart-ing of baking. Here-- buy this mix and you add a little water and Boom! You are a scratch baker.
Those moments were a little disappointing, but then other moments of sheer joy made up for it all. I met several people from smaller companies making products with 3-4 ingredients, all natural, clean labels (apples, sugar, cinnamon, citric acid(lemon)). I spent a lot of time making connections with these people because they were not just sales people but lovers of real food.
During the afternoon I was working on my sourdough loaves when I remembered Tina Rexing of T-Rex Cookies in Minnesota, who spoke in one of the seminars at the expo. Our stories are remarkably similar as she started baking at a young age, then found work in the world doing a variety of things, but came back to baking after getting fed up with it all. Now she is a very successful business owner but she started on a very small scale. During her talk she said you have to find YOUR things and make sure you market YOUR thing.
I was thinking about this and that is when I felt like all the Tetris pieces I was balancing, heavy and awkward above my head, just tumbled down around me and I was starting with a whole new board.
At the very end of the expo I ran into the president of the NJ Retail Bakers Association and he said something to me- ‘Start small, get a 10x10 commercial space, put a tiny oven, mixer and table in there and just bake. If you make a great product they will find you.’
So with these words of wisdom, The Cook & The Carpenter LLC was born. I will be on the lookout for a tiny commercial space to rent and create some of my favorite baked goods and hopefully soon will be a household name, like Tetris.
The thing with Tetris- it’s life.
Moments will happen where things will pile up and then you may get a piece that will clear the board but pieces keep coming because that is life. Just when one thing is solved another thing will come up and it is just about keeping the tiles manageable while enjoying the game.