Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Being a novice...

... or now I can definitely justify this trip as part of my sabbatical.

I had an epiphany today about my experience at Elbow Chocolates and in particular with molding.  To set the stage, I molded again today --- I did the full set of fleur de sel molds (in my first molding experience I did less than half the total number of molds we needed to do) and for more than half I did everything by myself with no supervision (Nikki, of course, checked my work when I was done).  Then I had to clean up (which took a sadly long time). 

In planning this experience, I've been reluctant to tell people at Colorado College, (or other mathematical types), since it was not clear to me this was really an "acceptable" sabbatical trip.  I'm not doing anything related to my job.  Or so I thought.  When I am teaching, nearly every day, I am engaged with people whose experience in my course is just what I experienced today:  you have some general idea, someone is helping you who sincerely wants you to be successful, but is also an authority figure and expert, and you know everyone is depending on you.  Finally, you are hoping to accomplish what you need to in time to do something else that day.  In my case today, the authority figure is Nikki, and everyone is the rest of the production team who needs those molds so they can fill them.  Also, the more molding I get done, the faster we can turn over the molds and the less molding they have to do and the sooner we move on to the next task.  Finally, I was planning to go to the Boulevard Brewery tour today at 3, but I got done cleaning after 3:30.  So no tour for me.

For my students, the authority figure is me, the everyone who depends on them varies in this scenario --- it could be friends who are waiting on them, parents, their own career aspirations, or a sense that others may judge them, among many other possibilities.  And, of course, they want to be outside having fun in Colorado, or may have jobs, and so the sooner they get their work done for my course, the sooner they can get on with other activities.

Of course, I know all this intellectually.  The justification for this trip in terms of my sabbatical, is that it is really healthy for me and, as such, great for my students for me to be actively experiencing something that I really care about as the novice.  This job makes me feel like they feel in my class.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Painting by myself

Today was the first day I did something by myself that was not cutting ganache!  We needed lots of painting and molding done and there was no way I could mold by myself (others have said that it took many months before they felt comfortable with that), so painting it was.  All by myself --- o.k. the first time the paint sprayer stopped working for me, I failed to troubleshoot by myself.  However, I prepped everything for the second mold (got the cocoa butter to the right temp, fully set up the sprayer, etc) by myself and when I had to troubleshoot the sprayer the second time, I successfully fixed it on my own.

When the new fall flavors come out on October 1, if anyone wants advice about what is good, let me know.  Same for the holiday collection.  I have some strong opinions and I think I've tried them all now --- both before they are fully finished and after.

I took an extra shift on Sunday since it is my last week to practice.  So tonight I'm taking myself out to dinner on my only night where I don't have to get up crazy early the next morning.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Capping and Molding

Yesterday I said something about molding this week --- turns out today was the day.  I can barely type, my arms and hands are so stiff from capping (puts the bottoms on the caramels) and molding (making the tops of the caramels).   I'll have to work on ways to hilariously describe the disaster that was me attempting to mold.  Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes.  The good news:

1. My last mold was not only good, the general manager called them, "delicate and consistent, just what we are looking for."  Yeah!  That was 1 of 8, and my last one.  At least I got it at the end --- after I had 2 full molds donated to the white chocolate scrap pile. 

2.  I capped 4 different molds today, in both dark and white chocolate, and feel confident I could largely do that unsupervised in the future.  I love independence.

3.  I am possibly going to be on TV capping chocolates.  I'll post a link if it happens.  They at least shot footage.  "Second week and [I'm] famous." (The production manager).

4. I completed a piece today that I had a hand in nearly every part of its production --- first one.  It was peanut praline.  I painted it, I helped finish the filling, I filled it, along with Timmy, and then I capped it.  The part I did not do (between painting and filling) was mold it (didn't know how to mold yet when that needed to be done).  I'm pretty excited about having been at all those stages on a single piece.  

Now my arms need a rest before tomorrow. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Photos will have to wait and still the bottom of the totem pole

I was excited to post photos today.  I took some of the sweet blue Schwinn and of the exterior of the shop, including the slightly creepy alley I enter each morning at 5:55am.  However, I seem to have left my camera cable at home.  So sad.

Today we were supposed to get "the new guy" but I guess he called the boss yesterday to say he had found something else.  So I'm still the bottom of the totem pole.  On the upside, I also discovered that I am faster than someone in the shop at cutting ganache!  Yippee!  I am also getting better at filling caramels and was told today that I will find myself molding this week for sure.  Molding brings a whole new opportunity for mistakes. 

If you haven't yet, check out

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Motivations

In an effort to catch up, I'll post 2 again today, but then slow down soon.  This one addresses questions Tom has been feeding me.

Some of you might be wondering how all this came about.  First, my Uncle Pete knows people who know people and that helped me make the connection to Chris.  Second, it helps that they need an extra body right now as they are ramping up for a new flavor release (not sure I'm allowed to say when).  Finally, it really helps that Chris is really nice and was willing to let me do this adventure. 

As for why I wanted to do this, I will give you a short chocolate history.  I have always had a sweet tooth, but even as a youngster I had a special spot for dark chocolate.  Maybe because my mom had one and so a piece of Hersey’s Special Dark was a special treat.  When I was a teenager we went to San Francisco and visited the Ghirardelli chocolate factory.  This was back when you could not get these chocolates in every grocery store.  I think this was my first chocolate with no corn syrup in it and I was hooked.  Not long after this I was introduced to European chocolates and learned that the dark chocolate marzipan Ritter Sport was my new favorite.  Over time, I realized that I really love plain dark chocolate and if I’m going to use calories (I don’t have so many to spare anymore), I want to use them on that. 

While living in Minnesota (so about 8 years ago now), I decided I wanted to try to make my own truffles and really start exploring the physical chemistry side of cooking.  I went shopping for books to help me and found lots and lots of books, but only one, at the time, that seemed to discuss the chemistry of the process as well as the love in a way that I thought would work for me.  I have made some good truffles and some mediocre ones --- but only one or two batches have had the flavor and texture that I really hoped for.   Of course more practice will help, but I also felt like there was a lot more to learn.

During this time my uncle who introduced us first to Ghirardelli, then Scharfenberger, brought Christopher Elbow chocolates for all of us at Christmas.  My desire to learn and my uncle’s connections to these amazing chocolates made it seem like there might be an opportunity for me to learn from a master.  So here I am. 

Making Mistakes

If I were to describe my relationship with mistakes, it is one where I know intellectually that we all make them, but that does not stop me from being deeply frustrated with myself when I make them.  This is the perfect job for me to work on breaking through that.  Mistakes are a part of daily life at this shop.  They all have a story.  On Friday at lunch (we had a special celebrate-this-months-birthdays lunch) I got to hear the burn stories.  Like when someone caught their chefs jacket on the wisk in the bowl of 112 degree Celsius caramel and it spilled down their arm (they are o.k.).  Or someone else who got themselves with the heat gun (used to clean chocolate off stuff, it is easier to do with heat than water!).

On Wednesday I was feeding the enrober with toffee when they had someone else take their first attempt at bringing the toffee out the other side.  As Tom often says, “there were a lot of moving parts.”  She made pretty much every mistake you could and I know that if I get the chance to do it, I will do all the same things.  There really are too many moving parts. 

 I’ve made some myself. I had a row of ganache that weren’t square and I had some go flying off the end of the cutter on me.  Painting brought a whole new level of awkwardness and sense of incompetence to my experience (painted again today, with mostly good results, and some mistakes) I was trying to do the white lines/streaks for the fleur de sel caramel.  I think my last 3 or 4 molds I finally got the wrist action to get lines, but they were often on the plastic between the molds rather than in the molds where they should have been.  Artisan chocolates, hand painted, have some variation.  That line from someone made me feel better.  Spraying the molds with the background paint seemed easier.  I seemed to get the thickness and rhythm of that --- but I’ve only done single colors so far.  Today I added capping (the caramels) and filling (the caramels) to my list of things tried.  I definitely need practice.

Somehow, it just seems o.k. and normal to make these mistakes.  I’m really enjoying this world where precision and excellence are the expectation, but mistakes are normal and something you learn from and move on.  I’m sure most people live in this world, but for me it is refreshing, healthy, a good lesson, and even fun. 

There is a new full time employee starting tomorrow, so I’ll no longer be the bottom of the totem pole and there will be another person around making new mistakes. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wednesday - Friday

The next three days were pretty uneventful.  I got better at riding my bike to work, so I can get up later in the morning (4:40 tomorrow!).  I also got better at removing the ganache from its frame, scraping the frame, and cutting the chocolate.  We also had fewer to do some days.  This meant that I started being done with the cutting chore by noon or even 11 one day, which leaves much more time to learn and try other activities. 

On Wednesday I helped enrobe turtles, a few truffles, and toffee.  Enrobing, in this context just refers to the process of coating a truffle (or turtle, or toffee) in its outer coating of chocolate.  At home, this is a frustrating process of dropping them into a vat of chocolate and then trying to get them out with a "good amount" of chocolate.  This is frustrating because the act of putting these objects in the chocolate often changes the chocolates chemistry and because it seems impossible to keep the chocolate at a constant temperature.  At the shop they have machines that help this process, including keeping the chocolate at a steady temperature (although I've seen that be temperamental too) and pouring the chocolate so that there is no dunking going on.  For this reason I'm getting better at asking the "old timers" how they did things before the machines, as that will be my approach --- no fancy machines for me.

Thursday was my first foray into painting molds and Friday brought some helping with cooking caramels and slave duty helping Danielle with the limes (zesting and squeezing).  Someone has to do it. 

Every day has shown me that no matter how easy any job looks when they do it, it is pretty much impossible the first time I try it, but that I will get it, if I keep at it.  Several people have pointed out that everything I'm trying took them months to get even close to as consistent as they are now, as well as months, to get as fast as they are now and I should be happy with my progress.  So I'm going to go with that. 

I'm amazed at how hard the work is and how much fun I'm having anyway.

First full day - Sept. 11

Needless to say, I totally missed that it was September 11.  I was all wrapped up in making the bus.  According to the bus schedule the 5:23 bus would give me a 14 min. window to make my connection to downtown, but the 5:38 bus would get me to my connection 1 minute late and then I would definitely be late for my first day.  So I left extra time and at 5:17 I was less than a block away from the bus stop and I saw a bus go whizzing by.  Turns out that was the 5:23 bus.  Bummer.  I got lucky and the connecting bus was still waiting when the 5:38 bus arrived and I made it.  I'm the type to be really upset about being late on my first day at a job I'm not being paid for.

It took me the whole day to cut my share of the ganache.  Partly because it took me forever to clean the chocolate off of the plastic bars they use to frame it.  That and I was really afraid of the equipment, the chocolate, and quality control.  I did not even stop to eat.  It was a long day.  The great part, is I learned how to do it, I learned clean up procedures and I got to meet most of the production, post production and retail teams.    Michael of Cocoa Bella was visiting so I got to meet him and Chris at the same time --- very briefly.  I was still full of adrenaline and afraid of the chocolate at that point.

Cutting is also a good job because you are near the cooking area and can learn some about the cooking while cutting.  Robyn pointed out to me a few days later that cutting is the standard "newby" job because it is (a) pretty easy to learn (I did not think so my first day, but now totally agree with her) and (b) really really helpful to have someone do it.  The most time consuming part is placing the little squares just far enough apart so they can cure/dry a bit over night but that you can still fit 4  6 X 10 sets of the squares on the sheet pan you have to work with.  The 6 is easy, but the 10 is not so.  And you don't want to damage them at all and they are a bit delicate.   I found out on my second morning that I did a pretty good job, but had a row that was not even close to square.   By this time I'm also already absorbing information about painting, molds, enrobbing, cooking, cutting, and prepping the ganache. 

The really great news for Tuesday, though, was that Paul (a really nice guy in Southern Kansas City) brought and old blue Schwinn to the place I'm staying for me to ride.  I paid him a little money, of course, but having a bike changed my existence.  Suddenly lots of restaurants and the grocery store were very close and the trip to work no longer relied on a bus service that has not been that reliable (I was abandoned at Trader Joe's yesterday).   If I can figure out how to post a picture, I will post the Schwinn soon.

It was really easy to be asleep by 8:30pm. 

My arrival in KC

I'm going to post multiple times over the next few days to get caught up on week 1 in Kansas City.  It seems easier to break up the days and post multiple times, than try to do it all in one post.

I arrived at Christopher Elbow Chocolates at 1819 McGee St. in Kansas City around 3pm.  By that time the first shift of the day had left and just a few folks remained.  The shop is closed on Mondays so I had to go to the alley and that's where the general manager Ethan met me.  I got a tour, got to try some chocolates (at various stages of construction --- more of this coming) and met Timmy and Betsy who were making molds at the time.

Soon after, Robert, whose house I am renting a room in, picked me up and took me to where I am staying.  It is near a couple of nice neighborhoods with good places to eat, so that is working out well for me.

I ventured out on a run, found some breakfast foods at a local shop and later went for dinner with the goal of being asleep by 9pm and earlier, if I could do it.  Why so early, I hear you asking --- I was put on the 6am - 2pm shift.  Yes, I get up at 4:30 am (earlier that first morning as I had to make sure I made various buses) to have enough time to get out of the house, ride my bike downtown and get to work by 6am.  Its a busy shop with a lot of production, so there are 2 shifts, 6am - 2pm and 10am - 6pm, split pretty evenly and then 1/2 work M-F and the other 1/2 T-S.  I'm 6am - 2pm M-F.  So if you call after 8pm right now, I am sure not to answer.