“You didn’t just drop a cake, did you?”

by Drew Holmes

(Originally posted at the Medium page for The Podcasting Store)

This past week Timothy’s Kindergarten class was fully remote due to a positive COVID test. Thankfully, the problem does not seem severe, our family is and remains healthy, and he is back to in person learning. While at first Jamie and I were in a bit of a panic of how we would navigate remote Kindergarten again, we came up with a plan, adapted as needed, and made it through the week. She was amazing, as usual, and the boys and I are lucky to have her.

This made me think of an incident when I was working at Special Events Catering back in high school. This was my first job and, having no real experience or developed skills, I found myself working on the Utility Crew which is just a fancy was of saying “dishwasher”. One of the biggest perks (besides a paycheck that was almost 50% higher than the prevailing minimum wage) was we could bring leftover food home with us. And, on particularly lucky nights, this would include leftover wedding cake. Unfortunately, on this night no one would be taking home cake.

A quick peek behind the curtain at a typical wedding reception: There is a big show of the couple cutting the cake and maybe feeding it to each other. Shortly thereafter (15 minutes or so) an individual slice of cake with a neat scoop of ice cream appears in front of each guest at the table. For a party of 200+ this is a highly choreographed production not only to cut the cake but also get it plated and served. The ice cream is scooped in advance onto a sheet pan and put in the freezer, so when the time comes it can be placed neatly on the slice of cake. Quick, efficient, and easy to execute. Slicing the cake is another matter entirely.

Your typical wedding cake is two or three tiers, not counting the small top layer that tradition dictates the couple keeps frozen until their first anniversary (when they pretend it still tastes good). After the cake cutting spectacle, the whole cake is whisked away to the kitchen where a team of people disassemble it, and a cook cuts the bottom layers. The trick here is to cut the slices big enough to be generous but small enough to serve every guest. Therefore someone with my unique (read: non-existent) set of skills was squarely on ice cream duty. I finished plating my first tray of ice cream scoops and went into the freezer to get the next sheet pan.

As I turned to place the sheet pan on the counter, my elbow hit something soft and knocked in on to the floor. It was the second tier of the wedding cake. On my foot.

Like most people I have heard the stories of driving down a dark road at night and encountering a deer. Frozen to the pavement with fear they are too terrified to even consider moving a muscle, so they just stand there and await their automotive execution. A deer caught in headlights has the reflexes of a ninja compared to my mental state at that moment.

I helplessly looked at my stunned coworkers, unable to form any coherent words or thoughts. One of them helpfully shouted at me “Get rid of it!”, so I did. I thawed enough terror from my body to grab the nearest trash can and shoved that cake into it with the ferocity of a fireman stoking a steam engine. No sooner had I finished my attempt at clearing the crime scene when Joe, the Sous Chef (and my direct boss), strolled back into the kitchen to see how things were going.

I am covered in frosting, the trash can is covered in frosting, the floor is covered in frosting. If cake killing were a capital offense, I would have been looking to cut a deal to avoid the electric chair. Joe surveys the carnage in front of him and with a minor hint of disbelief that he even needs clarification, casually asks, “You didn’t just drop a cake, did you?”

This is where I owe my job, if not my life, to the quick thinking and kindness of my coworkers. Chef Mary calmly says, “No. You think he’s that stupid?” Joe nodded his satisfaction with that answer and carried on about his business. Mary then proceeded to cut the remaining layers of the cake slightly thinner that she would have preferred, and we managed to serve a slice to every guest.

I learned several important lessons that night. The easiest to understand but hardest to put into practice: Don’t Panic. It just wastes time, and you still have the same problem to deal with. This requires a certain degree of detachment from your current predicament, but with practice this can be learned. The net effect of not panicking is that it allows you to creatively solve problems on the fly, since your brain is not occupied with things like screaming or curling up in a ball on the floor. A commercial kitchen is a fantastic place to learn this skill because things like this happen every night.

But the more crucial lesson learned is to have a team of people around you who have your back. If you have never worked in food service, read Tony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. He compares a kitchen staff to a pirate crew, which is pretty accurate considering the number of people with tattoos wielding pointy things. Having an “us against the world” mindset makes for a strong team. Not wondering who has your back frees you up to find ways to support your team and find creative solutions to your shared challenges.

I am proud to be a part of our own little pirate crew, even if half of the members are under the age of six. It is not always smooth sailing, but we have made it through all the ups and downs of this unique school year. I know we will continue to adapt and overcome to every new obstacle that comes our way.

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