A Love Letter to My New Restaurant Family
A reminder of why this industry rules, from a rookie who totally digs it.
November 7, 2017
By Michelle Matvey | Collage ChefsFeed
I caught the food bug as an undergrad.
In Berkeley, California, weekends consisted of walks to effortlessly cool coffee shops and decadent bakeries. There were the occasional pilgrimages to bucket-list dim sum spots in San Francisco, but my favorite evenings were spent sitting down to ambitious meals made by close friends. As our interests and dynamics and sense of selves shifted, so did our relationships with food. The things we ate, meals we shared, and places we stumbled upon were unfailing common ground amidst constant instability.
My roommate began an internship at Chez Panisse. Friends started hosting formal pop-ups with printed menus and table settings. I grew increasingly obsessed with the little-known morning service at nearby Ramen Shop in Oakland (seriously, their Four Barrel espresso drinks and Japanese-inspired pastries are the toast of Rockridge), spending countless Saturday mornings in their wooden booths. Everywhere I turned, there was a conversation happening about the beauty of food.
Graduation came and went. Sufficiently broke and yearning for the experiences of semesters past, I stumbled upon a nearby bakery with pillowy bread, copiously buttered pastries, and exquisite coffee—with a staff opening. In the most logical answer to the needs of both my wallet and my tastebuds, I took the job without quite knowing what I was getting into.
As an outsider, you’re told the food industry is a monolith made of physically taxing labor, long hours, thankless customers, and employees who thrive off of a sort of pseudo-masochistic work environment. But what I’ve seen during my time at Manresa Bread is far richer than that. I work with a wonderfully funky and fascinating group of people who shattered my initial expectations. Madhu, a bright, quirky, and thoughtful character, studied environmental science and dreams of doing conservation work. Jessica is sharp, bubbly, and hands-on. She has been in the food industry for seven years, hopes to return to school for a Masters in entrepreneurship, and one day, helm her own restaurant. Semhar is eloquent and unabashedly open. She'll soon return to Spain to teach English. Lauren, a culinary school graduate, never fails to exude effortless warmth as she weaves between the pastry counter and the barista bar with a broad smile and a quick flip of her boyish coif. These are just a few of the smart, intelligent, hard-working, and generally badass women I’ve encountered in this business.
And yes, by the end of a nine-hour shift (standard, if not short, for this industry), my feet tingle and hands begin to cramp from gripping pastries, boxes, and dishes. The mornings can be painfully early and the weekday afternoons torturously slow. But an undercurrent of bliss runs through this job. The staff grows unanimously giddy over a particularly bright espresso or a perfectly spiced pumpkin cake. I'm grateful to have been welcomed into a community that is as equally enamored with sourdough, butter, and coffee as I am.
I embrace the hours and cramping hands, because it means spending the day in a cultivated space, geeking out about next month’s bread special or the fantastic gnocchi served across the street, armed with a cappuccino so good you could cry. It means interacting with people in all their glorious moods—patrons both rude and kind beyond belief.
At last Sunday’s farmers market, I wove amongst the stalls after my shift, taking in the heaps of produce and specialty goods. Bolstered by my coworker’s encouragement, I slinked up to the booth selling cold-pressed olive oil and, fully prepared to face rejection and deep shame for such a ludicrous suggestion, meekly asked, “Do you guys trade?” The woman manning the cash register smiled and, without the slightest flinch, handed me a bottle of buttery, grassy, late harvest oil, wrapped delicately in crisp white, tissue paper. I am constantly in awe that people can produce so many wonderful things and share them without hesitation, in a nod of mutual gratitude.
My job in the food industry was not what I imagined. Not even close.