I believe I mentioned La Farine Bakery and their infamous Morning Bun in one of my last posts. What I didn’t tell you is that I used to work for La Farine. It was my first job. Yes, even at the tender age of fifteen I had a true appreciation for pastries. My sister worked for the owner – babysitting her kid while she cared for her own toddler. It was quick, words were exchanged and I was hired. I still remember the thrill of using my Social Security card for the first time, and then getting my first paycheck (I still have the stub). My sweet mom would drive me to work at 4:30 in the morning, three days a week. I’d arrive at the bakery around 5am sleepy and a bit cranky, but the moment I opened the front door I awoke to the heat of the ovens and a smell that was enough to make you cry, “Uncle!”
My job was to stock the lovely wood and glass display cases with the most beautiful, delectable delights I had ever seen. I would sprinkle powered sugar on the apple croissants, place pristine fruit and custard tarts on ornate paper doilies, dust the Morning Buns with extra fine sugar before tenderly dumping them into their giant woven basket, and carry expensive cakes to their specific glass cases, all under the watchful eyes of the bakers. After stocking, I set-up our regular customer’s breakfasts, then I would open the doors at 6am sharp. When my regulars were taken care of, I got to work washing the pans which was hard, hot work. The morning bun pans were as big as my upper body and made of sturdy material, so they were very heavy. Plus, if you didn’t wash these right away, the sticky substance that oozed from the buns turned to cement. If this happened, heaven help you. Whenever a new customer walked in the door, the bakers would “Psst” me and I would push back my hair with the back of my hand, now frizzy from all the steam, and pop out with a greeting and a smile.
After a couple of weeks on the job customers wanted to give me tips, but I shyly refused their money since management never mentioned tipping, and there was no container. Besides, putting money in my pocket while working felt like stealing (“Honest as the day is long!”). Then one morning, a regular brought me a homemade tip jar with colorful flowers finely painted on the glass. It was lovely. “You’re such a great girl, you should get a little something extra from us.” She said with her chin out, smiling. She was a beautiful lady and not just because of her gift. She had a refined quality, a gracefulness, like a retired ballerina. She was tall with long slender arms, a neck like a swan and long grey hair that she twisted into two tight buns at the nape of her neck. Her eyes were like two wild sapphires behind soft folds of ivory skin. I thanked her and then asked the owner what she thought about the tip jar. She had never considered the idea of her counter personnel receiving tips, and had no problem with it, as long as I remembered to take my tips at the end of my shift. As if a teenager would forget something like that.
I loved everything about working for La Farine: the French pastries, the breads, the bakers, the customers. It was all very special to me. There was something unique about La Farine then, and the customers too, which made me feel like I was part of an extended family. Even though we were located on busy College Avenue near the Oakland/Berkeley boarder, when you walked in you could just as well be in a quaint patisserie off an obscure street in Paris’ Latin Quarter. I think what may have attributed to this feeling were the old wood and glass display cases, along with a large family-style table – made of oak, which sat in the corner near the windows. It felt homey and welcoming in there. Customers would sit at the table with their daily pastry, coffee or tea, papers and books, and quietly converse with each other.
After about a month, I became quite proficient at my duties and to their surprise, I started asking the bakers questions: “Where did you learn to bake?” “How do you make the infamous Morning Bun?” “How is it the Swiss Twinkie is so crunchy yet it looks just like a small butter croissant?” Many of them only spoke Spanish, and I cursed my stepfather for not teaching me when he spoke it perfectly. Instead of telling me their secrets, the bakers would smile and show and me how everything was made. As I watched them, I had the feeling that what they were doing was art. I’d never been to a museum or an art exhibit before, and I’d only seen Bob Ross paint pictures on TV (The Joy of Painting). Still, as I concentrated on how they would kneed the different doughs, cut up green apple for my favorite croissant, and slice and ice a beautiful dark chocolate cake called the Reien de Saba, the cake that would get me fired, I knew this was an art I wanted to learn….