By Jenny Rice
I felt as if I’d known Table 310 pastry chef Stella Parks for a long time, though we had actually never met. I regularly follow Stella’s columns on her blog (bravetart.com) and at the widely read food site Serious Eats. And, of course, I have tasted many of her desserts at Table 310. In her columns, Stella writes with such style and humor that I find myself—a confirmed non-baker—gobbling up every word.
Although Stella is a Kentucky native, she attended the famous Culinary Institute of America in New York City and then lived in Tokyo for a time. Last year, she was named a Best New Pastry Chef in Food and Wine Magazine which is quite an honor in the culinary world. When we sat down to talk for an interview, I felt like I was meeting a food rock star.
While I love eating Stella’s pastries, I really wanted to talk with her about writing. Although writing and baking might seem to have little in common, even a brief conversation with Stella teaches you how much these activities have in common. She explained to me that the key to baking is organization and preparation, something most people don’t spend much time thinking about. Pastry chefs must be methodical to be successful. For Stella, this organization easily finds its way into her writing habits.
She told me about her method, both as a pastry chef and a writer: “Especially now that I’m telling stories about these desserts, it involves a lot of research. And so, I have to keep my notes in order. I usually start out with an empty document and then I’ll have a list of my references and my sources. Like ‘1909 banana split. 1911 first soda fountain.’ Then I’ll structure the story, the narrative, around those dates.”
As she began talking about her writing process, I found myself picturing the orderly kitchens that most bakers maintain. There is an almost obsessive neatness in those spaces, and Stella explained why organization is so central to baking: “In school they would tell us that your mise–en–place is your mental situation. So, if you’re not prepared to tackle this dessert, everything’s still in the cabinet or scattered across the table, you haven’t wiped down the counter from the previous project, then that’s your state of mind as well.”
As she described this mental mise–en–place, I immediately recognized myself as that exact kind of baker with scattered ingredients and an obvious lack of organization. No surprise that I find baking such a frustrating enterprise. “It’s really important to get everything in order,” she says, “because the process of getting the kitchen cleaned and ready also prepares your mind.” She talks about watching friends and family get halfway through baking projects only to realize that they’re missing key ingredients. But for Stella, mise-en-place is second nature. “That’s definitely translated into my habits for writing, as well,” she says. Maybe this is why Stella’s experience of writing does not resemble my own frustrating (and often unsuccessful) experiences of baking.
Toward the end of our interview, Stella opened her laptop to show me Scrivener, the writing program she loves to use. In fact, she is using Scrivener while writing her new cookbook, which will be published in 2014. “You can compare two documents side by side,” she explains, “which lets you—in recipe writing—make sure your style is matching.. . . It would be really strange if in one cake recipe I said to add the flour all at once, but in another I said to alternate it with liquid ingredients.” Once again, her writing was prepared with an excellent mise-en-place.
I started wondering if she was one of those writers who could write while staying completely offline. I admire people who can sit and write without checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other distractions that computers offer.
“I’ve tried to be that kind of person, but it doesn’t work very well for me,” she admits. And anyway, unplugging is not necessarily a good thing for writers—at least not for Stella. “A lot of times, I poll my readers on Facebook about something. I might be writing about a certain dessert and assuming, Oh, this was everyone’s favorite lunchbox treat. Then I think, Wait, maybe this was just my favorite lunchbox treat. So I’ll go to Facebook and ask, ‘What were your memories of eating this dessert?’And then you can expand, instead of just writing about your experience.”
I guess writing and baking are both more collaborative than they might seem. Thank goodness.
This article also appears on page 4 of the February 7, 2013 print edition of Ace.
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Our days are increasingly measured in emails, Facebook updates, lists, reports, letters, personal journals, blog posts, online chats, notes scribbled to ourselves while we’re sitting in traffic. Even if we don’t think of ourselves as “real” writers, we really are.
The Lexington Wordography is a collective story of how Lexingtonians use words, see words, and dream about changing our lives through words. It’s the story of how we write and what we write every day. Do you love to write? Hate it? Do you write secret poetry while at work or school? Do you text message your friends all day? The Lexington Wordography tells the biography of our writing habits. We are asking individuals around Lexington about their writing habits, their thoughts about language, and their relationship to words. We are sharing some of these profiles with Ace readers.
Some of the profiles feature well-known figures in Lexington. But other profiles feature ordinary Lexington residents who you might not otherwise know. They are office workers, restaurant cooks, unemployed adults looking for a job, new mothers. If you would like to join this collective snapshot and be part of Lexington’s Wordography, please let us know. Send an email to [email protected]. This ongoing project is directed by the Division of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at the University of Kentucky: http://wrd.as.uky.edu