Up the Stairs and Around the Corner: A Day in the Blackbird Pastry Kitchen

Friday, Nov 6th, 2015


This post is intended to summarize a typical shift as the morning pastry cook at Blackbird, in the case that more people outside of just my own parents might take interest! There’s a fair amount of battling the elements, routine tasks and running around, but everyone has the same goal in mind: make beautiful, delicious things.

Increasingly these days, when I walk into the kitchen in the morning, I can almost see my breath. I fire up all of the stovetop burners, switch on the oven, install the tiny countertop space heater on my station– preferably at face-level for optimal efficiency– and let myself adjust to the temperature drop. Chicago is known for its volatile weather patterns, and working in the pastry kitchen at Blackbird can sometimes feel like being in the eye of the storm.

Check the prep list. Check the lowboys. Make a split-second plan– do I have time to experiment with mignardises today? Can I make a fancy staff meal, perhaps try to improve my pie-making game or try out a different recipe for a favorite standby (donuts, anyone)? What do I have to hold off making before deliveries come in? How many ice cream bases do I need to spin? Organize the fridge, scrape the ice from the freezer. And the day hasn’t even truly begun yet.

Once my apron is on and I feel a little bit of warmth beginning to stir in the tips of my fingers, I get to work. This past week, leading up to Halloween, our chef encouraged us to play around with Halloween-themed mignardises: our takes on classic candy bars, inserting pumpkin spice flavors, or even just strategic use of orange food coloring. My coworker Jane made “witches’ hats,” plump dollops of piped marshmallow atop small round sable cookies and dipped in dark chocolate. A visiting stage made snowy-colored cinnamon macarons filled with a silky pumpkin butter (thanks to my failed attempt at making a pumpkin pate de fruit that just never quite set up. When in doubt, stick it in a blender!). I, in turn, decided to try my hand at making homemade candy corn. Armed only with a recipe from the Internet, the only options are sigh-of-relief success or abject, messy, embarrassing failure– which can be a bit of a problem when your entire day is measured by the amount of minutes it takes you to complete an item on your prep list. Nevertheless, I press on.

Amazingly, the candy corn comes together without protest and I let myself relax a little as I knead food coloring into the warm fondant and then roll each section out into long, parallel strips. These are the moments I live for in the kitchen: experiments gone right. For a moment, I have time to just enjoy the process at hand, as I sink a knife through the candy to shape them into triangles and marvel at the bizarre science of cooking sugar. After three years of working in pastry, I’ve only scratched the surface of confectionery work. Caramels, marshmallows, meringue, pate de fruit– these are the go-tos. Next, I resolve to finally try making salt-water taffy, a treat I remember from childhood visits to my grandparents on Cape Cod. Someday.

By 10 am, the restaurant is no longer quiet. Lunch starts at 11:30, and is always a whirlwind of a service. Restaurants are constantly in flux, transitioning from the pre-service tension to the slow trickle of tickets to the rhythmic flow of service– then the comedown, and the subsequent anticipation of doing it all over again, sometimes in only a matter of hours. There is always a reason to be moving as fast as you possibly can. Pastry is the somewhat counter-intuitive balancing act between outsmarting time and cultivating patience– measuring the the gram, watching the rise and fall of numbers on a thermometer.

After lunch service, the bulk of my day is done. I spend the remainder of my shift helping the PM team prepare for dinner service: inflating a whipped cheesecake in an ISI canister, paddling velvety caramelized milk into salted butter. Our chef is working on a new donut-based dessert and everyone pauses their tasks to taste: what shape of donut works best? Should it be filled? Are the cranberries necessary? What do we think of the miso ice cream? As much as I relish my hours in the kitchen by myself each morning, these collaborative moments are what I find truly exciting– standing around with my pastry team, each with a spoon in hand, taking careful bites and sharing insights. Write the beginnings of a prep list for the next day, store my kitchen shoes up in the kitchen attic. As I walk out the front door of Blackbird, the dining room lights dim behind me, music starts, and another service begins again.