Before I change topics today I thought I’d try to bring a little closure to some of the broader points I’ve been making about home baking over the last week. One of the things I like about a blog so much is that like most other types of long-form writing, it’s as revealing to the author as it is to the audience. By which I mean I frequently notice myself making points I didn’t necessarily set out to make, and see ideas rising virtually by themselves.
Looking over what I’ve been posting the last week, that so-far unarticulated point is this: that home baking, just like home cooking, is a specialty — one that doesn’t require any less skill than so-called “professional” baking. Just skill of a different, more broad-based kind.
I think most people who’ve watched cooking shows have seen celebrity bakers and pastry chefs use the word “home baker” and interpreted that as code for “schmuck who knows a lot less about baking than I do”. What those words really mean is: “bakers who work on a smaller scale and are called upon to produce a much wider variety of products”.
For indeed professional bake shops, just like all commercial food operations, are segmented into areas of specialty. The bread people working there bake bread, the cake people bake cakes, the cookie people make cookies. This only makes sense from the standpoint of efficiency. But what it means in the end is that there are very few people in the bakery (if any at all) who are skilled in every area of operations. Most of the time professional kitchen staff only have a handful of tasks to perform in a given day, tasks which may or may not translate to a home kitchen. So at the end of the day a “professional” at work in his or her home kitchen may not be any better — and in fact may be quite a bit worse — than a good home cook.
Don’t believe me? Trust me friend, I’ve seen this principle in action. The wife and I were once invited to a cocktail party at the home of one of Chicago’s now-celebrity chefs. To say the food was awful was an understatement. There were sausages there that made us fear for our lives and families.
I say this not to demean professional chefs, but only to underscore the point that the home kitchen and the commercial kitchen are distinct environments that require distinct skills. Most professionals chefs would give their monogrammed toques to be able to produce, on a commercial scale, food with the flavor and soul of a good home-cooked meal. The fact that so few of them are able to is testament to just how few really talented commercial chefs there are in the world.
Remember that the next time you get intimidated watching some highly paid hot shot whip up a “restaurant quality” dish for the cameras. What you’re witnessing is the world of cuisine turned on its head. Not so very long ago it was the commercial food world that was desperate to prove to home cooks that it was possible to enjoy homemade quality in a restaurant. The fact that we are now spending so much time trying to imitate them is a reversal that would have shocked our predecessors only a few decades ago.
What we see on television and food magazines is mostly a lot of flash and razzle-dazzle. And there’s no reason not to enjoy it — so long as we don’t forget that heart and soul of cooking and baking is and always has been the home.