Almost 15 years ago, at the beginning of my career, I worked at Lulu (SF). Unbeknownst to my very naive self at the time, I would never work at another restaurant that would make all its own table bread. At Verbena (NYC), under the tutelage of Diane Forley, the pastry department was responsible for a number of breads, especially on the weekends when we would produce gorgeous ficelle, brioche and any number of elegant quick breads for the toast cart.
But no other kitchen would be like Lulu. With two stacks of bread ovens, a full time bread baker (who came in at 10 pm and left near 8 am) and custom designed wooden shelves to display and sell the massive pain de campagne (looking much like Poilane‘s signature loaf) Lulu’s bread program was serious.
So serious, an entire walk-in was devoted to the bread’s starter, loaf proofing, and our overstock of dairy. A separate refrigerated room for ingredients lacking in strong scents. Except the time when I backed into whole lambs hanging, waiting for butchering. But that’s another story.
Because the restaurant made so much bread, our starter was kept in a plastic rolling garbage can sized container. Massively huge. Lets call it 50 gallons for the sake of a good guess. Whoever arrived first thing in the morning was required to roll it out of the walk-in, pull a few gallons for that nights bake and feed the monster. The last duty meant we had to lean over the lip, reach into the sticky abyss, and stir the gloopy gurgling mixture with a large wooden spoon.
No matter how much we rolled up the sleeves of our chef’s jackets, some of the starter would creep into our uniform. But this wasn’t the worst of it. Natural starter is stickier than glue. When we were done with our duties, we held out our arms like surgeons and entered the dish room, tackling skin with hot water and the high-pressure sprayer.
Even after countless showers, little teardrops of dried starter stuck to my arm hairs, eventually rendering me as soft and hairless as a Tour De France cyclist.
One day I arrived in the kitchen earlier than anyone. I turned on ovens, flipped light switches and then noticed something very weird. The 2nd walk-in door was slightly ajar. Walk-ins come equipped with self-closing doors and, for safety, door handles on the inside as well as the outside. Doors do not stay open, as they are pressure sealed and close with the fwooop! to prove it.
I was alone in the kitchen.
I stood in front of the door. I held my breath. Listened very closely. Nothing but the whir of the fan.
Then I tried the door. Although it was ajar I had a hard time getting it more open. I tried to peer inside. Nothing. Pulling as hard as I could, the door flew open, throwing me on the ground. Recovering just in time to catch the door before it closed again, I stepped inside.
Someone had not sealed the starter’s lid. Usually we closed the lid and weighted it with a few half gallons of dairy. To keep the bears out.
Starter grew out of the 50-gallon bucket. Crept down the sides. Grew across the floor like lava. Scaled the cold box walls. Spread its wings, traversing 90-degree angles, and defied gravity by covering the ceiling. Starter dripped on my head, plop. Starter was everywhere. Alive, happy, wet, sticky, growing. I looked down. Like the first man on the moon I saw my shoes disappearing into foreign goo. Starter naughtily walked out the door.
The starter was having a party.
And I would spend the next many many hours cleaning up after it.
Lesson number 1:
Never leave a starter unattended. Never assume it sleeps a deep dormant sleep in a cold box. Never question the power of wild yeast you’ve wrangled in, microscopically, from the air. Never forget that day. Never say pshaw to a Californian sourdough.
Part 2: Monday April 23.