A few months ago I moved from the very center of downtown Chicago to a nearby suburb. Overnight, my living space grew by a factor of about 10, including an attached garage that I immediately began to convert into a woodshop. I’ve always loved woodworking, but rarely have I had the time or space to pursue it. That’s changed now, and I’ve been living out a personal dream by spending my time between my woodshop, my kitchen and the design software of my computer. Working from one discipline to the next has flexed long dormant creative muscles, and triggered some personal reflection (I’m not entirely sure why). All of this stirred up juice has motivated me to share my cognitive ramblings with you incredibly lucky people.
It’s funny, but despite the fact that it has consumed most of my adult life, and is certainly what I am most known for, I don’t consider myself any more of a pastry chef than I do a graphic designer, or a wood worker, or artist, or any of the other craft-centered hobbies and pursuits I have (there are tons). Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love pastry, but I’ve learned that what I love most of all is the act of creating through craft: “An activity involving skill in making things by hand.”
I’ve always loved craft, long before I could recognize it for what it is or understand the reasoning behind it. I remember weaving friendship bracelets during a visit to my grandparents when I was around nine years old. I have no idea what inspired me to do this, but at the time it wasn’t at all about making a bracelet, or making something for a friend, or really about the product at all. I would complete a bracelet, appreciate it for its form and function, analyze and critique it for its faults, and then move on to make a better one, the first bracelet completely forgotten. It was the pursuit of a technical yet artistic challenge to create something functional that drew me in. That pursuit has fed my brain for as long as I can remember, and it is exactly why I love pastry and baking.
A common question asked during an interview is how I got into pastry, or what it is that I love about it. My answer is always that pastry requires a balance of left and right-brained thinking. It is emotional and artistic, and at the same time technical and regimented. To make beautiful pastry you have to work across a wide creative spectrum, tapping all corners of your brain to solve the puzzle that each recipe presents. I see this as the essence of all craft; it is the same type of thinking needed to create a bookcase, or a quilt, or a hand blown chandelier, and it is a skill that all great craftspeople excel at.
In speaking of excellence, I’ve known people that have an overall talent for craft, no matter what it might be. They are just as skilled with a chisel in their hand as they are with a whisk. Similarly, I believe someone can excel at one specific craft alone. That’s a little odd when you think about it, because the majority of skills needed to work any craft are universal. You must focus on the singular task at hand, you must have dexterity, you must be organized, you must be patient, you must be precise. Why wouldn’t those abilities transfer from one material to another? To clarify, I consider those skills to be “necessary” in order to perform a craft at a very high level – what some might call mastery. For sure, you can knit a scarf using none of the previously mentioned skills, I just have doubts it will be a very nice scarf.
Since the very first human crafted the very first thing, the benchmark of skilled craftsmanship has been the item itself. Whatever it may be, a chair, a éclair, a friendship bracelet, the crafted product is the physical evidence of the application of skill. There is a purity to that, because it means nothing can be hidden, the object is used as intended and its clear whether it is a success or a failure. A chair is comfortable to sit in or it isn’t. An éclair is either baked properly or it isn’t, and those aren’t things you can hide.
This is changing. Platforms like instagram are creating a different narrative, where true skill isn’t necessarily as important as the image of skill. As I’ve mentioned in the past, a cake can be beautifully decorated and shot in perfect light, but across social media there’s no ability to find out what it tastes like. The craftsmanship of the image is being confused for the craftsmanship of the cake.
Even worse, the term “craft” itself has been bastardized as a word and a concept, thanks in large part to our insatiable need to package everything around us, market it to the lowest common denominator, and sell it to death. Not long ago, label something as crafted was truly special, a promise of authenticity reserved for products made with time, and care, and a unique, personal touch; an alternative to the chasms of mass-produced goods that swallow us whole every day. Not surprisingly, it has been picked up by big business and used ad nauseam, like a top-40 hit on the radio, until it no longer means much of anything to anyone, except a feeble way to manipulate us into another purchase. When Target or Starbucks starts using the word “hand crafted,” you know a shark has been jumped.
If this all sounds rather sad and bleak, that’s because in some ways, it is. We have taken artisan craft and thrown it into the sausage grinder along with every other tactic and buzzword used in day-to-day marketing, and that’s a dangerous thing. Once the interpretation of a word changes, its meaning does, and any culture surrounding the word inevitably changes with it.
I say this is dangerous because we desperately need craft, all the more so as a nation of Americans that have shifted so far from the economic identity of what built our nation in the first place. Now I’m not an economist, nor a political analyst, and I understand that technology and globalization has forever altered the nature of goods and capitalism as a whole (and I haven’t forgotten that this is a blog about pastry), but my point is that craft is deeply important to our cultural health in many facets, and losing it or delegitimizing it has impact that is farther reaching than you may think.
Ahem. We’ve digressed slightly. I’m putting away my soapbox for another day, and I’ll try to steer the ship towards calmer waters before we’re done here. If I’m passionate about this, it’s because of how deeply I connect with the action of crafting something. To me it is a form of Buddhist practice. To see how I connect those dots it’s important to understand that at its core, Buddhism is not a spiritual practice but a philosophical one (where’d I put that soapbox?…might as well take on philosophy and religion while I’m at it….).
The earliest teachings of the Buddha described a philosophy on how to live your life, regardless of spiritual identity, in a way that seeks to alleviate unnecessary suffering. In that practice, it requires a singular focus on the here and now. You can’t change the past or predict the future – trying to do either will only create suffering – and so moment to moment is all we truly have to experience. That type of focus, of living directly in the moment is, in my mind, a central tenant of craft. No matter how many years I’ve spent as a professional pastry chef, when I let my mind wander too far or too often I make mistakes. To make great pastry demands my singular attention, and in that I apply a zen-like mindset. It is Buddhist in practice because you cannot fear or anticipate what may happen, and you cannot dwell on what has happened – good or bad – you must focus on the task in front of you alone. I believe all great artisans do the same.
To me this process and practice goes beyond just a pursuit I enjoy, it represents some of my deepest personal dogma that gives my life meaning. I have never endeavored to do anything at less than 100% effort, and my parents will attest to this being the case pretty much from day one. This application of effort is not in order to please others, or impress them, or to prove something to myself, and I don’t give my very best for attention or recognition. It is simply to live life to its fullest; to take advantage of this wonderful gift we have as human beings. We’ve been endowed with the intellect and means to create for the sake of creation, to understand and analyze, to improve and grow, to question and discover. Craft challenge us to do all of these things, it is an expression of our humanity. It must be cherished and preserved as part of our way of life.
Go out and create. Make something. Do so with purpose and with joy. Do not fear failure and do not linger in success. Be in the moment. Give yourself over to your pursuits, and you will live a full life.
Cheers – Chef Scott