When you do something for a long enough time, it’s pretty easy to get complacent. I’ve been cooking professionally for nearly a decade now, Matt since 2004. I know I do it because I can’t possibly do anything else, that it’s everything I have ever wanted in a career and more, but there are definitely days it’s a “job” and I take it for granted. Jesus, the number of times this past January alone where I told Matt we were shutting the whole thing down and I was moving to Canada is probably in the double digits (to be fair, we’ve been short staffed, I had to shovel out our whole building every three freaking days and our kids were sick for the entire month, giving the two of us an average of 4 hours of sleep on any given night).
Last week, I wake up extra early after crashing at 4 am so I can make deliveries on streets that have been covered with snow for what seems like forever. I pull two toddlers out of bed long before they’re ready and force their clothes on them while they scream and pull my hair, begging me to stop. I drop them off at my father’s house, where I get to hear him complain about how he doesn’t like being up in the morning and this is a major inconvenience for him. I drive to the kitchen to pick up the cupcakes, and step out of the car into a puddle. This is when I discover I have holes in both of my shoes. Matt and I load up, we get to the first stop and there’s no place to pull over because every open space at the side of the road has a 15 foot mountain of snow in it. So I have to stop in the middle of the street, and while Matt runs into the shop to make the drop-off, I have to deal with a UPS truck behind me whose driver is threatening to physically harm me and calling me every awful name you can think of. And then my Blackberry goes off. Again. I’ve gotten so behind on emails because of the weather and being understaffed, and for some reason I have picked the most annoying email alert on the planet which sounds like the music from the shower scene in “Psycho”. The very second I hear it, my entire body just clenches up in preparation for the grandest panic attack the world has ever seen. I pick it up out of the center console, open it up, and find this:
"I had one of your cupcakes yesterday (at Mimi’s on Cortelyou Rd.) for the first time and it was the most delicious cupcake I have ever had in my life! It made me so happy!
Thank you! -Amy”
And just like that, everything was ok. Every single thing.
On the drive to the next spot, I thought about the first day of my apprenticeship, at a long-gone bakery & cafe around the corner from the house I grew up in in Bay Ridge. My mother had pulled some strings with the owner, and I was so ecstatic and nervous that I couldn’t rest for whole week before I started. I remember going out and buying tons of vegetables, then putting on my VHS tapes of Jacques Pepin’s Cooking Techniques, and practicing my knife skills for hours in front of the TV. I re-read every cookbook in the house twice, and had my mother quiz me on facts from my dog-eared and excessively highlighted copy of On Food & Cooking. I know it seems ridiculous trying to be hyper-prepared going into an apprenticeship, but until that point I honestly had never wanted something so bad in my entire life. I didn’t have the money to go to a fancy culinary school, and no one would hire me because I didn’t have any experience, so this for me was my big break-this was everything to me.
I remember so distinctly stepping into the kitchen for the very first time, just like stepping into Oz. Everything felt so magical- seeing my first Hobart mixer, bain-marie table, salamander…..things that seem profoundly silly now all these years later. Looking back, that may have been the crappiest kitchen I have ever set foot in, but in my mind it will always have been as beautiful as St. Patrick’s. I walked down the back stairs into the cellar, where I was directed to a rack of linens by the staff bathroom. And this memory is burned into my brain like it was happening this very second- the moment I put on my first chef’s coat. There was nothing fancy about it- standard rental company issue that was partially threadbare and missing a button- but my GOD how it felt to first put it on! I buttoned it up, put my apron on, and looped my side towel on just like Jacques Pepin did in his video. And then I stood there in the bathroom and stared into the mirror for about five minutes. I felt as if I was suiting up to play in the Super Bowl, or getting ready to go into space. I hadn’t cooked a thing yet, but I looked at myself and was filled with pride. I was being given the privilege to learn to be a chef. I was going to cook for people.
I spent the day making vats of cake batter, piping cannolis and learning to make bomboloni. Then towards the end of the day I was up helping in the front of the house, and a gentleman came in for one of those bomboloni I had carefully fried and filled with pastry cream. Immediately I was both gripped with terror and filled with wonder. The terror is something that I still haven’t gotten over- cooking for me has always been a profoundly intimate experience between me and the food, and I am without question the harshest critic of something I put my entire heart and soul into. But the greater emotion at that moment was the wonder: this man was actually paying for food that I had made. He had worked hard all day at some job he hated that made him wear a suit, and he pulled out some of his hard earned cash to spend on my food. As I watched him take his first bite as he closed his eyes and a contented smile spread across his face, I realized that doing this day in and day out is not merely a job, but an absolute honor.
I am still amazed every day by the accolades Matt and I receive- I’m still in a state of disbelief about most of them. Being recognized by the press is absolutely wonderful, but the reason we do this every day is because you allow us the honor of cooking for you. We see your tweets and read your fanmail, and are touched by every single one. And now, almost ten years after I put on my first set of whites, I am still filled with gratitude that I get to do this every day for a living, that people allow me to do it, and that this little company we started is making people happy.
Making cupcakes is not curing cancer or saving the world. In fact, it’s possibly the silliest of all foods (which is a good thing). And we can sit here and debate all day about pie being the new cupcake, or are cupcakes over, or whatever ridiculous cupcake related story people feel like writing about this week because they’re out of original ideas. Food is not supposed to be controversial or divisive- for me growing up it was about bringing people together and showing them how much you love them. And that’s all that cupcakes are meant to do- put a smile on your face for a few minutes out of your day. Just like that letter did for me. The fact that you guys let Matt and I be the ones to make that happen for you- that’s more incredible to me than all the hyperbole I can spout, the adjectives I can string together, the prose I can ever imagine.
We love every single one of you. Thank you for letting us feed you. And thank you, Amy, for getting my head out of the clouds on a horrible, no-good, very bad day and helping me see all the magic right in front of me. It’s kinda awesome how just a quick note can totally change everything. :-)
*NOTE: I figured I needed to add an image to this post to make it look sexy, but couldn’t really think of anything appropriate to the subject matter that wasn’t some ridiculous inspirational crap like a rainbow or a puppy cuddling with a baby hippo. So I decided on a picture of Indiana Jones looking all rugged with his shirt ripped open because let’s face it- who doesn’t want to look at that first thing on a Tuesday morning? Allison Robicelli: having your back since 2008.