It is true—be careful what you ask for. But, ask away…
In the winter of 1975 I had graduated from college with a degree in English, a wife, and two children, and was on my knees selling shoes to fussy old women and bratty kids. “Please, God—give me something else to do?”
Then, one Sunday morning while reading the Birmingham News I came across an article about a soon-to-open authentic French Bakery in Memphis Tennessee. It was owned by a French man, and would be headed by two accomplished French trained Chefs. All methods and recipes would be French. Even the brick baking oven had been shipped over from Paris.
The article said they were looking for help. I thought to myself ‘What a cool job. I could do that. After all, I had worked on and off during high school in wholesale bakeries—loading ovens, bagging thousands of loaves of bread, dumping doughs into large troughs, frying donuts—I even drove bread delivery trucks. I knew all about bakeries.’ With that, I qualified myself as a scratch French baker!
So with very little thought, my wife and I packed up our things, grabbed the kids, and headed to Memphis. We quickly found a tiny apartment, and that next morning I walked into “La Baguette”—French Bakery and Patisserie on Poplar Avenue, Memphis, TN looking for a position.
“Sorry, but all our positions have been filled.”
So, here I am, in Memphis with my family, and no job prospects.
I would not be deterred. I am not sure why, but I believed there would be a place for me in this bakery. I also knew how to find work—you ask a lot.
I canvassed the town for baker jobs, and found one in a Belgian Café named Fabian’s. It was named after the owner— a short, round man with thin hair and a graying mustache that drew attention to his thick lips, curled upward perpetually in a sneer.
I started immediately in the far back, in a space no bigger than a tiny bedroom. Crammed in this room was a mixer, a proof box, a dough sheeter, and a short work bench. My job was to make bagels, cakes, sandwich buns, and beignets.
That same year Holiday Inn Hotels, founded in Memphis, celebrated 20 years of business. Somehow, Fabian secured the job bid to provide hundreds of cakes and petits fours for their grand celebration, and I was charged with getting the cakes made, decorated, and delivered on time.
Fabian’s was an example of how not to run a café. The sanitation was deplorable (except of course the bakery area). The kitchen staff chewed tobacco and spit in garbage cans all day long as they prepared food.
One day, while I was busy making bagels in the back, I heard a scream come from the main seating area. I ran out to find all the customers rushing out the front door.
A customer had cut into her open-face hamburger and found living maggots squirming around. I had to get that La Baguette job now!
Twice a week I went back to “La Baguette” hoping there had been an opening—it is common for a new restaurant or bakery to have high turnover the first few months, so I continued to believe I would find a spot.
After three months at Fabian’s, La Baguette had an opening for a pastry chef assistant. I had already presented myself as an experienced scratch baker. Based on my word alone, they hired me.
The head pastry chef was Flora. He was a Spaniard from the Basque region, and was formally trained by the famous French pastry Chef Gaston Lenotre.
Flora was ruddy, stocky, and brimming with the exuberant passion the Basques are commonly known for. He had greased-back hair, thinning at the top, and wore sleeveless t-shirts while working in the back. He would always put on his chef coat and hat when going out front to meet customers. He spoke French adequately, but virtually no English.
The bread Chef was Guy (pronounced Gee) Picaud, a tiny Frenchman—also with a large personality. Guy was almost always in a good mood, and loved to kid around. But, if his baguettes did not come out right, which was rare, well—stay out of his way!
Both men were exquisite bakers—with large ego’s.
Within four hours of my first day, Flora came up to me and indignantly gestured in sign language as he spoke in his poor French with a sprinkling of English words “You have never really baked before, have you?”
I pretended I didn’t understand him, but when he pointed me to the sink piled high with dishes— that I understood. And that is what I did for the next full week.
I soon discovered then that Flora’s temper was to my advantage. No one with any skills could work for him for more than a few weeks. One day his current apprentice talked back, and Flora chased the apprentice out of the kitchen with a rolling pin in his hand all the way into the street. I got his job.
I also learned early, that if I played The European apprentice game—tried hard to learn, didn’t argue, played the submissive role to the Alpha Males—that I had an opportunity to learn a skill that no other American could get in the mid 70’s—an authentic apprenticeship under a master French pastry chef. Best of all, instead of paying for it, I would be paid instead.
Oh, the pay. It was meager—just over minimum wage. To this day, I don’t understand how my wife allowed me to pack our kids all up to an unknown city, without clear job prospects, and land a job that paid so little. Some would say I was under-achieving, not utilizing my degree, and essentially going backwards.
Maybe so—maybe not.
My apprenticeship was fast and furious. There was no time for explanation and discussion. Watch, do, screw up, get hollered at, repeat.
Flora and Guy had set up a European style apprentice system, completely ignoring US fair labor laws.
For every mistake I made, I put a dollar in a jar. If I dropped the rolling pin, I paid a dollar. If I burned a tray of cookies, a dollar. If I over proofed the croissants, a dollar. If I sang out of tune with the radio–which was often enough– a dollar.
Our work day began at 3:00 am. Flora would start his day with a half cup of coffee, and topped it off with several shots of cognac. We worked non-stop at a brisk pace until 1:00 pm, six days a week. If I was out of Flora’s sight for more than a minute, he would bark “Bob! Bob!”. I could not go to the bathroom without hearing my name called out.
The penalty money pilfered from me went towards the beer Flora and Guy began drinking at 9:00 am, when the day’s baking was done and we prepped for tomorrow. Then, at 1:00, they would walk around the corner to Ruby Tuesdays and start to really drink.
I began to learn a little French over the next two years—phrases common to baking. Flora learned a little English. But till the end of my little experiment the communication between us remained more body language than verbal
One day we had an order for several genoise –sponge cakes with melted butter incorporated into the batter, soaked with a liquor syrup, and iced with buttercream icing.
Flora’s broken English instructions, as I understood them, were to soak four of the cakes in Cognac, two in Kirsch, and then back to Cognac for the remaining.
What I did not know, is that the French word for “ all the rest”, is “TOUT”, which sounds just like “TWO”.
When Flora saw that I had returned to the Cognac syrup after soaking just “TWO” in Kirsch, his face turned bright red, the veins on the surface of his skull popped out like blue rivers, and he flung all the cakes I had soaked onto the floor. He began jumping up and down on them like Rumpelstiltskin. The sight of this—a grown man with tremendous skills, acting like a child—well, I could not help myself. I broke out in laughter. This was not the reaction he expected.
He screamed and shouted and threw anything that was close at me— a spatula, an orange, a pan. I went from amused to frightened.
He was only four feet to my right, and I had a knife in my hand. I looked up at him, shaking a little myself, held up the knife and motioned him to come my way. With that, he stopped throwing stuff at me, stomped out the front, and I didn’t see him the rest of the day.
Guy witnessed the whole thing, and he said, “I don’t think he will yell at you like that again!”
Guy was right.
After that day, Flora and I gradually grew to become fast friends. He never threw anything at me again. He stopped fining me. He even stopped yelling at me ( He took his frustrations out on our new dishwasher). He covered for my mistakes. I once forgot to put salt in the croissant. Without salt, they bake a yellowish, dull gold rather than the shimmering bronze. Flora smiled, and sent them out to the front anyway.
Christmas season in a French pastry shop is a grueling time. Specialty orders of bushe de noel (Sponge cakes shaped into the form of yule logs), croque en bush (pate choux pastry balls piled into a cone and bound with threads of caramel) came streaming in—on top of heightened store traffic.
The week of Christmas, I worked over 80 hours. I worked 20 straight hours on the 23rd of December, and that evening, I called and said I could not come in Christmas Eve. I had nothing left. Flora kindly said that was OK, and wished me and my family a Merry Christmas.
Flora’s passionate Basque temperament eventually did him in. It may work in Europe, but it did not work in Memphis, TN. He fought with the owners constantly, and finally, they had enough and sent him back to Spain.
I felt badly for him. I had grown to like him, and grew to tolerate his outbursts, though I did not like it when he occasionally crossed the line into abuse.
More than anything else, I was grateful to him for the lessons and skills he taught me in fourteen months.
He did not have to show me everything. Chefs are notorious for holding back a secret ingredient or technique that makes all the difference. Flora was trained by Lenotre, who wrote countless recipe books. Flora showed me things he learned from Lenotre that were left out in his books—known to only those he trained.
By default, I was given Flora’s job and promoted to head pastry chef, with two assistants under my direction. For the next year, I decorated cakes for Memphis celebrities and officials. I decorated the wedding cake for Bill Harrah of Harrah’s casino and his new bride, Bobby Gentry, who sang “The Ode to Billy Joe”.
I understand the Harrah-Gentry marriage lasted less than a year. I wonder what Bobby did with the top layer of her cake that is typically saved?
My season at La Baguette was a life experiment I loved. It was a time to learn a skill not many in America at that time had, and to work at it day in and day out—a skill that for a time drew accolades from family, friends, and strangers.
But, I had to face the fact that this was not my true vocation. I had played the imposter, and it worked. But, I was still an imposter. This job really belonged to someone else. I had to get out of the way. This was an adventure along my way—but now, there were other adventures to be had.
Today, I think back on that twenty-two-year-old, his wife and two children, with compassion and a little pity. He was taking a big chance at something he really wanted to do, dragging along his young family— and in the process learned so much more about himself.
Epilogue: For a while after I returned to Alabama from Memphis, I took pleasure in creating these French pastries for family and friends. But, a new career and several more children has made French pastry baking a luxury I had less and less time for. My skills I learned have gotten rusty.
My kids often ask me to put the apron back on. I suspect one day I will.