Savory or Sweet

The cook and the baker are different animals - even when their creations work together to make a great meal

October 17, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun reporter

The cook and the baker do not inhabit the same part of the day, let alone the same part of the restaurant kitchen.

It makes sense that they don't inhabit the same brain, either.

One works alone, in the morning, creating and leaving behind masterpieces of confection for the delight of customers who haven't even made their reservations yet.

The other works with line cooks and sous-chefs and servers in the steamy pressure cooker of dinnertime.

"Left brain, right brain. Male, female. Dog, cat. All those things and more," said Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Just as the baseball player who can field and hit is precious, the kitchen stars have their strengths and they play to them. (If they don't, there can be trouble: The judges on this season's Top Chef sent a contestant packing when she played out of position and delivered a lackluster pineapple upside-down cake.)

"There is a dominant hand," said Ryan. "The number of chefs who are great pastry chefs is very limited."

That this should be so is no mystery to those who practice each craft.

"When it comes to cooking, you can make soup according to what you have on hand or what you are feeling," said Donna Crivello, founder and owner of six Donna's bistros and a cooking teacher.

"But when it comes to a cake or pastry, you have to have the right ingredients and you have to follow directions. You are the kind of personality who wants it to be the same, time after time."

That is the crux of it - personality. Throw ingredients in a hot wok and yell, "Bam," or thread piping on a cake with a hand as steady as those of a brain surgeon.

One is all spontaneity and impulse and sexy free will. The other is restraint and precision and delicate perfection.

A restaurant kitchen might not be room enough for such divergent personalities. To find them inside the same chef's coat seems impossible.

"What I love about this," said Mark Bittman, cookbook author and New York Times columnist, "is that you can go to a restaurant and the food can be terrible and the desserts are great. Or the food can be of one genre and the desserts can be another.

"I've asked head chefs what's going on with the pastry chef and they just shrug their shoulders. It is not entirely clear he is giving orders to the pastry chef."

Sure, you can do both, and plenty of home cooks do. Any chef can make a poundcake or a batch of cookies, says Chris Kimball, founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine and host of the television show America's Test Kitchen, who says his baking shows garner the highest ratings.

"Everyone cooks, but not everyone bakes. You are probably going to excel at one or the other because you not only have to put the time in. You have to love it like a religion."

Kimball is a baker. "Bakers have a large percentage of their childhood intact," he said. Wonder is the essential element, he says; the magic that turns a pile of white dust and a couple of eggs into something entirely new - a loaf of bread, an apple pie, a layer cake. "Stir-fry looks pretty much the same at the beginning and at the end," he said.

English and art majors make great cooks, but if you want dessert, ask an engineer, say the kitchen wags.

Or a lawyer.

Warren Brown, host of the Food Network show Sugar Rush and owner of Washington's CakeLove bakery, which will open a shop in Canton soon, left the law for the kitchen, but he brought with him a devotion to process.

"In both, you have to recognize the procedure and honor that. You have to recognize there are nuances in both the law and your ingredients. And you can trace both back to where they came from."

Brown is insatiably curious about ingredients, their impact on each other and their response to heat. That makes him a good baker, but it makes him pretty good with a grill, too.

"I like playing with the charcoal and the wood, playing with the temperature. It's a guy thing."

If there is one misconception about cooks and bakers it is that one can play with his food while the other cannot. The professionals disagree. Though the baker must be precise in his measuring, he has freedom in his choice of flavors.

"You can be just as loosey-goosey about baking as you can with cooking," said Maria Springer of Baltimore, who has taught cooking classes in her home for 16 years. She finds that her students divide themselves into the two camps.

"Baking is more creative in a visual sense, that's true," she said. "But there is a challenge in cooking to bring out certain flavors."

Author Bittman, who wrote the foreword to the reissue of Beard on Food, is heavily biased toward cooking. "James Beard had a theory that each meal could have only one great thing, but I don't think that one great thing can be dessert," he said.

If the worlds of the savory cook and the pastry chef intersect, it might be on the bread board. Though there is chemistry in bread making just as there is in baking, the world of ingredients has exploded far beyond white flour, warm water and yeast.

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