Back in the Kitchen


A kumquat-sized burn blooms angrily on my forearm, stinging evidence of a careless bump against an open oven door. This is the first burn I’ve inflicted upon myself recently, though my arms are stippled with the faded ghosts of many more, their intricate map on my skin a dubious badge of honor for a baker.

I’m back in the professional kitchen after a several-year detour in the corporate realm. My career path has ping-ponged back and forth between these worlds for the past two decades. Today, I find myself once again trading in my shiny black pumps for blocky, archsupporting kitchen clogs—shoes so ugly my children refuse to be seen with me when I wear them.

My baker’s arms, now freed and exposed to curious eyes, have spent the past few seasons sheathed in silky, fitted blouses as I crisscrossed the country in a busy marketing position. After countless dinners on the road and numbing hours in front of a computer, an unwanted upholstery of extra flesh softens my frame. But now that I am back in baking mode, I can feel my whisking, lifting, kneading, hauling, peeling, dough-rolling muscles slowly coming out of hibernation. I envision reclaiming a leaner, stronger kitchen physique. This makes me happy.

Admittedly, I’m not feeling very glamorous these days. Why wear makeup or highlight my hair when I now spend my time hovering over simmering pots and scrubbing sticky, Barney-sized bowls? When I do have occasion to dress up in my former corporate clothes, I feel like a Disney princess, striding aloft on my sleek heels, marveling at the snug stomach restraint of shimmery-smooth pantyhose.

This recent transition back to the kitchen is a final one. I’ve yanked my crisp, tailored business suits out of the closet and stuffed them in bags destined for Goodwill. I have turned my back—not without trepidation—on my 401(k), a generous group health insurance plan and a comfortable, roomy office in order to jump off the cliff of small-bakery ownership. Friends and family know better than to question my sanity and instead offer their warm encouragement. I bask in and draw courage from their support.

In between the endless tasks and meetings required to get a retail pie shop off the ground, I find delicious inspiration working part time in the pastry department at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. This pristine kitchen is staffed by a committed, faultlessly kind crew whose reverence for their ingredients is palpable and nourishing. I dream of creating such an environment in my bakery, shuddering as I recall some of the unsavory kitchens in which I have labored in the past.

Not all restaurants resemble a spic-and-span Food Network set, and in some establishments, kitchen workers endure any number of indignities, from dirty, greasy equipment and malodorous, gag-inducing refrigerated walk-ins to screaming chefs and swamplike wet floors that dissolve shoes. I’ve seen scummy, practically unusable staff lockers, electrical cords snaking hazardously across produce sinks, and “extra kitchen space” created in a creepy, freezing outside storage shack where I was required to make ravioli. At one restaurant, I heard the line cooks gleefully comparing the number of DUIs they had each received.

Why would we tolerate these conditions? For some, it’s simply to earn a paycheck. But for most of us dreamers and rebels and lone wolves who cook or bake for others, a busy kitchen is an environment where we can stay engaged, where we can grow and be challenged and feel alive. Rank surroundings and stressed-out chefs aside, we thrive on the energy, the physicality, the creative demands, the seamless teamwork that is often critical to success.

Part of my resolution to finally throw it all in to become a bakery owner was the realization that I would rather be on my feet all day, for the rest of my days, rolling pie dough and zesting citrus and connecting with customers, than endlessly twisting myself into impossible pretzel shapes to get comfortable in an office chair or airplane seat. However, at the core of this decision was a final and profound embracing of a lifelong passion that has often been relegated to hobby status as I worked at “normal” jobs. The art and challenge of crafting pastries, with all its ups and downs, makes me far happier and more fulfilled than anything else I have attempted in my life.

Baking is a rush, but it’s hard on the body. The morning after producing 90 pies without an assistant, I wake up and gingerly move my limbs, probing for aches and pains. When I rise, my lower back is so stiff I wince as I bend to put on my slippers. Muscle fatigue flattens me until I find blissful rejuvenation in a few strong cups of coffee and a groaning, therapeutic stretch.

On the docket for today is a farm visit to discuss the upcoming crop of Royal Blenheim apricots, followed by a lengthy afternoon of recipe testing. The contemplation of each fills me with exhilaration and an uplifting surge of energy. Do I prefer these activities to a day filled with conference calls, drafting email responses and tradeshow planning? Oh, hell yes.

Kira O’Donnell Babich is the owner, with husband Fred Babich, of Real Pie Company, which is scheduled to reopen later this year.