Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Stir Until Famous

Recently I had a student in a community culinary program assisting me on a job, and when I asked her what she wanted to do after graduation she said, “Get my own TV show.” If you’ve been in the food business you know that is about as realistic as me saying I am going to retire on lottery winnings.

When I inquired what she planned on doing before she got her own show, she told me that having a show was pretty much all she was interested in. This is not the first time I’ve heard this type of career plan. I actually hear it quite often.

In this age of celebrity chefs, it seems that so many are entering the food business with hopes of becoming famous instead of dreams of becoming the most knowledgeable cooks possible. I hope the desire to absorb endless amounts of culinary knowledge is not being lost to the hunger to be famous.

In the search for fame, it is now commonplace for people who simply enjoy cooking to declare themselves food experts, as opposed to the time-honored method of earning that distinction. It seems to be increasingly easy when any and everything can be promoted online. Maybe the days of reaching career goals by gaining experience and soaking up knowledge are over.

I wonder if this is happening in other fields as well? No matter the field, it seems sad to me. A deliberate decision to attempt a shortcut to a dream is to miss out on all the lessons a journey can offer. Reaching the destination also becomes a lot less sweet.

When I started on my career path 12 years ago, I never considered skipping all the tough work and landing at the finish line. Those of you who have worked in a production kitchen know what I mean. And I must say the dues I’ve paid along the way have been worth every penny. Countless times I’ve worked in front of a stove until the wee hours of the night (when my legs and back were done hours before quitting time). I burned the hairs off my forearms on several occasions until I learned better. I’ve run a steamy Hobart so long that my hair was soaked through as if I’d been swimming. Waiting tables for people who considered me beneath them was yet another payment made into my dues account.

I distinctly remember a morning during culinary school when I walked into the building at 5:30 in the morning in the pouring rain. I had parked many blocks away, it was pitch dark outside, and it was already a very warm Charleston day. I was taking meat-cutting class at the time and was wearing 3 layers on both the top and bottom just to keep my knife hand from shivering in the 40˚ classroom. I recall thinking that I was working towards something much bigger, that I was paying my dues.

I will stick with my philosophy even if hard work is going out of style. If you want to reach your lofty goals, you have to do a lot of jobs that you really don’t want to do. And most importantly, learn from them.

To illustrate the food business, think of it as my favorite dessert, a ten layer caramel cake. There are layers of many levels of professionals and amateurs that make up the business that feeds the world. It takes all levels, from start-up home-based businesses resting on the cake plate to those who have invested years to reach the top layer. There is a place for all the layers and each and every one is necessary to keep the cake from collapsing. Talented and hardworking cooks certainly deserve their own piece of the cake.

At this stage in my career, I have written 3 cookbooks and countless articles, taught hundreds of cooking classes, and appeared regularly on national television. I consider myself truly blessed to make a living doing what I love to do. And I don’t believe I could do my job to the best of my ability without a solid foundation of education and experience.

Appearing on television and in the pages of magazines is simply icing on a really good cake. It’s just not the reason to preheat the oven.

To end on a very sweet note, here’s my grandmother’s recipe for caramel cake.

Tom’s 1-2-3-4 Cake

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

Tom’s Caramel Icing

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Grease and flour 3 (8-inch) light-colored cake pans. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper.

Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer for about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time. Add the vanilla extract.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Add the flour to the butter mixture, alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.

Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the batter using a rubber spatula.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake at 350°F for 23 to 26 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into middle of the cakes comes out clean.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 5 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans and cool completely on cooling racks. Frost with Tom’s Caramel Icing.

Makes 3 (8-inch) cake layers

Tom’s Caramel Icing

2 cups sugar

1 (5-ounce) can evaporated milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup unsalted butter

Combine the sugar and the evaporated milk in a medium heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly until all the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes.

Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat. Boil for 4 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1 1/2 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and carefully stir in the vanilla extract and the butter. Stir constantly until the butter is melted.

Let the icing cool for about 5 minutes before spreading on the cooled cake layers. If the icing begins to look grainy as it cools, whisk a few times. Spoon about 1/3 cup of icing in between the layers and spread the rest over the top and sides of the cake. The icing will set as it cools on the cake.


Copyright © 2010 Rebecca Lang Cooks, LLC


Evan said...

You certainly hit that nail square on the head...wishes aren't reality. I wouldn't even call those dreams because they are so unrealistic.

Rebecca Lang said...

Thanks Evan! I once read how many audition tapes the Food Network gets a month. I don't remember the exact number, but it was an insanely high number.

Denise Wellenstein said...

We see it all the time with photography, too. With digital cameras everywhere, EVERYONE thinks they are a photography expert.

Rebecca Lang said...

I haven't thought of this in terms of photography. I can completely see that being an issue.

T. D. Boss said...

I make TV shows for a living and can tell you that your post rings too true. Sigh.

Rebecca Lang said...

It's refreshing to hear an opinion on the other side of the camera (or control room). We can sigh in unison.

Alison said...

Love your post and the awesome touch of your grandmother's recipe!

Ivy said...

It's a great point you've made here. In this drive-through culture, having earned something by "hard slog" as my dad used to say is out of fashion.
I was recently asked at a food writer's conference how I got into writing for national magazines. One of my editors, also on the panel, answered the question for me and said simply, "She paid her dues." The questioner rolled her eyes as if to say, "but I already did a magazine writing degree, I want to be in magazines NOW."
You wonder if it is like this in other industries? Indeed, just look at the dime-a-dozen reality shows and magazines full of people who are famous for simply having super rich parents. That's the example that is set: instant fame. I'm afraid hard work and determination are lost on a large percentage of the kids in this country. I hope I'm wrong.
Thanks for a great post!

Rebecca Lang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca Lang said...

Thanks so much Ivy! I hope you're wrong too. It looks as if determination and hard work might be a lost concept. It's incredibly sad.

cherie said...

brava! also, ditto (or should that be ditta?).
you succinctly expressed my feelings on this topic, and it's what i try to convey to young people who ask me about whether they should go to culinary school. when i tell them to first get a job in the best restaurant that will hire them, for 6 months, to see whether culinary school would be a good investment, i see the eyes roll back..."six months?! but i want my own restaurant/cooking show sooooon!!!"
it's an instant culture now. all microwave, no braise. pity.

Rebecca Lang said...

Thank you Alison! It's a divine cake. I've eaten this recipe all my life. I could use some of your nachos to go with it!

Rebecca Lang said...

I can't imagine thinking 6 months is a long time (except when I was pregnant). Working in the industry is so smart before choosing to go to school. As you know, to really work in food is far from glamorous. Brava to you for giving realistic and good advice!

Jennie said...

Rebecca -- well said and such an important lesson to remember. I love your cake analogy. And then a recipe from Tom to cap it off? You are a superstar, my dear.

This one in particular is wisdom for the ages:

"A deliberate decision to attempt a shortcut to a dream is to miss out on all the lessons a journey can offer."

Rebecca Lang said...

Jennie - What a compliment! I'm truly honored (and Tom would be proud too).

Anonymous said...

So true! I have a sign in my office that is a quote from Thomas Edison. It goes something like this, "Opportunity is often missed because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." I worked very hard to get where I am at and continue to work hard every day. Life is not easy. It is life!

Rebecca Lang said...

So true. I love Edison's quote. Thank you for sharing.

Rosemary Rultand said...

Beautifully written blog Rebecca. I see the exact thing with students I teach at the culinary school. Some think it will be so easy to get celebrity clients or make gobs of money without working hard. Sad. But the good students get it and somehow see that it takes commitment, passion and loads of time adn work to get where you want to be.

Rebecca Lang said...

Thank you Rosemary! I'm relieve to know that some of the students "get it" and know what it takes.

Suzanne Stanley said...

A must read for any cook, home or professional. We are not just doing this job to become famous or recognized but because we love learning and the process one must go through to gain knowledge and success along the way. We shouldn't measure our succ...ess by whether we have our names in bold blinking lights but rather what did we learn from our failures and successes and how did we put it into practice. Were we able to help others gain knowledge along the way as well?? This is what this industry should be about.......a cooperative effort among all in the industry to elevate each others abilities and be a balance to each other with our strengths and weakness. Rebecca thank you for your willingness to always share your knowledge and being an amazing mentor to me and my journey!!!! My hope is that our paths shall cross again in the kitchen and we can cook together........

Rebecca Lang said...

Thanks Suzanne! I SO don't feel worthy to be called a mentor. You are too kind. Surely, we can cook together again soon. I would love it!

Nealey @ Dixie Caviar said...

Thanks for a great post. As a newbie in the business, I pinch myself that I have a whole (delicious) lifetime to improve my skills and knowledge. I can't wait to see what I'm cooking when I'm fifty!