Thursday, January 22, 2015

Danish pastries and palm trees

Working abroad was on my life bucket list ever since studying abroad in college, an experience that gave me just a little taste of everyday life in another country.  It was a first course that left me hungry for more.  When I had the opportunity to return to Northern Europe to work for a Danish company on an almost year and a half contract, I had to seize it.

Expat life is full of rewards as well as peppered with hurdles, from small to big, and from humorous to frustrating.  There were days I felt enormous pride when I could get through an entire grocery store transaction in Danish without someone realizing I was a big American impostor.  

I practiced this nearly every day, and was usually found out on the rare occasion that a Danish store clerk broke the typical pattern of the exchange and started making random small talk.  Cue my very confused expression and a moment of "what did they say?" terror and it was all over, after which they would always graciously and seamlessly switch to perfect english.  True, there is little risk of real disaster in this situation, as so many Danes speak such impressive english, and are so forgiving with those of us who speak bad Danish.  But living out of a suitcase for over a year and adjusting to a new set of cultural norms can be alienating at times, a feeling perhaps heightened by the very dark and cold Danish winter.  Silly as it may seem, even small successes in your grocery store interactions (or getting through an entire yoga class in Danish) can feel like victories that offer you a sense of belonging.

Beyond my own efforts to live life among the Danes, I was particularly lucky that my employer made a very intentional effort to foster a strong workplace community: there were bike to work contests, wine tastings, beer socials featuring an aggressive amount of potato chips and Carlsberg, and even a few bonding trips to Sweden.  

Despite our access to flashy travel excursions, one of my favorite workplace initiatives was the weekly Wednesday morning breakfast.  Each week, the entire company would gather together to break bread, specifically bread and buttery Danish pastries from Sankt Peders Bageri (one of the oldest bakeries in Denmark.)  

The bread selection was an assortment that always featured rugbrød (dark Danish rye bread), french-style bread with seeds, and various rolls. Liberal amounts of butter, jam, and cheese were available to top off bread slices and rolls, and coffee and tea flowed as the perfect pastry accompaniments.  For me, these moments are at the heart of the experience of living abroad-- the everyday interactions that define living in a community, and the new routines you learn to love.  Wednesday breakfast was a chance to learn which pastries your bosses favor, which of your coworkers like rejeost (spreadable "shrimp cheese"!) on their morning bun, a chance to share bike commuting in the rain woes or flat tire disaster stories.  Plus, what is more charming than waking up for work and knowing that a feast of pastries and freshly baked bread awaits you upon your arrival?  Since I no longer have Wednesday morning breakfasts to look forward to, I can take solace in Culver City's Copenhagen Pastry, a shop in west Los Angeles operated by actual Danes that uses the fitting motto "pastries bring people together."  

Here, you can have your Danish treats, and your palm trees and sunny weather too, without any fears of your pastry orders getting lost in translation.

Friday, January 09, 2015

true tales of a cooking hotline crisis manager

I once worked at a specialty cooking store, where they sold things like truffle salts, caviars, fine cooking oils, artisan cheeses, kitchen equipment, and more.

One of my favorite parts about working there was meeting fellow food lovers, and friendly folks from all walks of the food industry-- everyone from local chefs to food entrepreneurs who told me tales of inventing hot sauce concoctions, building barbecue empires, and launching cottage food operations.  As Julia Child said, "people who love to eat are always the best people."

I tried my best to gain a foundation of knowledge about all the products in the store, because we often received random cooking and baking questions in the rapid fire style of a cooking hotline.  It was at times terrifying, as I hated the feeling that I might disappoint a customer who needed my help.  However, fully mastering the nuances of each ingredient's savory and pastry applications could take three lifetimes (and then there was the cooking equipment to consider.)  To try to conquer the learning curve, I spent a lot of time on food company websites, trying to absorb the back story of what made each product special.  For the record (and just to nerd out about food branding for a moment), the Maldon salt company website is one of the most informative and engaging ones I have ever seen. (Did you know they are a 4th generation family business in Essex, England, a region which has been hand harvesting salt for over 2,000 years?)  I love food products that have a great story to tell.  But for every website like that one, I struggled with the companies that had a minimalist web presence, or those selling obscure imported ingredients that had no English translation (I know a freelance writer that can help you with that.)

I will not lie: not all of this was a selfless pursuit.  I was a glutton for the kind of instant hero status you would get when you helped someone find the missing ingredient they needed for their tasting menu event that night, their culinary school final the next morning, or their restaurant opening.  I loved the rush of tracking down those elusive ingredients.  If we didn't have the item, I would call up the Japanese market, send them to the Persian grocer, or suggest the Mexican meat counter nearby.  I once had a woman request to purchase exactly $48 in dark chocolate for a friend who had received a parking ticket in that amount, for which she wanted to pay her back in sweets instead of cash. All of the store's chocolate was pre-portioned in random weighed amounts, much like the containers you find at supermarket delis.  So I scanned and scanned until I found the exact right pieces to represent the value of her friend's parking citation woes, and this nice woman even wrote me a thank you note for doing so.  If you were ever wondering, these are the glory moments of a culinary retail worker.

Then there are the moments that leave you at a loss: a panicked customer calling in from home to explain, live as it is happening, a candy-making crisis where the sugar isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing and the chocolate step has gone seriously awry.  Or, the woman and her sister making an old 1970's family dinner recipe in honor of their mom, an annual tradition involving aspic and Easter ham.  With Easter fast approaching, they discovered that every single local store did not have the apricot jello they needed, and sadly I had to tell her we had none on our shelves either.  In these moments, often the only thing I could offer were words of encouragement.  If only I had known to refer them to this apricot aspic recipe using a base of orange jello and canned apricots, I could have saved Easter. Maybe one day, I will channel beloved radio host and cooking expert Lynne Rossetto Kasper and instinctively provide a graceful answer to each and every cooking crisis I encounter. (If you have not yet listened to her excellent podcast, you should start now.) Until then, I'll just ask myself: what would L.R.K. do?