Friday, Oct 16th, 2015
Hello all! My name is Danielle, and I’ve been working in various pastry departments for the past three years. Over a year ago, through a stroke of good luck (and a degree of skill, but timing—as always—was paramount), I found a home in the storied pastry kitchen of Blackbird.
If you work in the industry, you know Blackbird. Opened in 1997, Chef Paul Kahan’s first restaurant has been home to some of Chicago’s most celebrated chefs and harbored countless cooks who have taken their experience at Blackbird and gone on to head restaurants of their own. I knew most of these things about Blackbird before I ever set foot inside, but these were not the reasons Blackbird first piqued my interest. I was far more interested in one specific person working there– a person I initially came to know through this blog, a wide-open window into a kitchen unlike any of the others I’d come to know as the standard.
The Dana Cree I met in person embodied the same voice who spoke warmly and candidly through her blog, readily willing to speak of mistakes made and lessons learned, but calmly capable of throwing down the exact science behind anything from muffins to marshmallows to hydro colloids. She introduced me to her principles of “creative obligation,” through which she requires her cooks to create on their own– learning on the fly about the complexities of manipulating flavors and executing both classic and modern technique.
The kitchen is a second home to three of us cooks, along with one sous chef– and like any home, it has its quirks. After over a decade as a working kitchen, it’s taken on a lot of character, including a toothpaste-green floor and an attic-turned-pantry-turned-access to the rooftop garden. Drafty in the winter, sweltering in the summer– but I embraced it all. This was it. This was the dream. I was now a character in the blog, inhabiting that world that I had previously only watched from afar.
A few months ago marked my completion of a full year at Blackbird. This coincided with another significant event: after three years at her post as head pastry chef at Blackbird and Avec, Dana announced she would be leaving to pursue pastry beyond the realms of restaurant kitchens. Changes of this magnitude are never easy, but I (along with my fellow cooks) decided to stick around and see the transition through. The kitchen at Blackbird has changed drastically since I started, but Dana’s replacement– Nicole Guini, former pastry chef at Spiaggia– has upheld the same philosophies that made the kitchen so appealing to me in the first place, allowing her cooks to carve out their own creative spaces on the menu while guiding them through the process.
However, the most pressing question in any restaurant setting is “what’s next?” This one-year milestone is typically when cooks of any level at any restaurant begin to look beyond their current position and plot the next step. Work their way up to new responsibilities within the same restaurant? Or perhaps go elsewhere, chasing new experiences under different chefs? It’s a question that has started to haunt me lately, from considering what kind of dessert I would like to develop for the lunch prix fixe menu (my newest rung on the ladder of creative obligation) to wondering what will happen once I eventually leave Blackbird. What happens post- dream job?
This dream presented itself to me sweetly– a chance discovery of this blog, a perfectly-timed job opening, and most importantly, a reality that lived up to (even far exceeded) my expectations. I have no immediate plans to leave Blackbird, as it continues to fulfill my creative desires and I still find myself learning something new daily. But when my time is up here, what’s next? My old coworker and friend Harry took off to travel through Asia, staging in kitchens throughout Thailand and Singapore. Our previous sous chef, Krystle, went to North Carolina to help open a new restaurant/bakery. Dana herself is exploring and developing dairy-related products with 1871 Dairy– a perfect extension of her pre-existing passion for milk and cheese.
However, when I start to get lost in ruminating thoughts, it helps to look back on the Danielle of last year: devouring the articles on this blog and imagining a future for myself that maybe, if I was lucky, would involve working in a kitchen like Blackbird. Now another dream is coming full circle: the opportunity to write about pastry on a public platform, as Dana has so graciously opened up The Pastry Department to contributors from all areas of the craft. Dream jobs come in unexpected forms. For the time being, I’ll attempt to forget about what comes next and fully live out the reality of this one.