All Because A Question

A good piece of chocolate is smooth in texture, with a complex profile that tickles its way across the tongue as the crystal structure melts and the warmth untempers the cacao butter. The nuttiness folds into the floral aromas, and the richness massages the soul.

A good “bye” is smooth, too, and it embodies complexity. Uprooting myself has been a soul massage of its own kind, because multiple emotions awaken. “It’s bittersweet,” Mom said. “It’s like chocolate.” When I leave home, whether physically moving or stepping outside of my comfort zone/home, there’s a simultaneous unwrapping of sadness, excitement, and appreciation. 

Everyone in the States asked, “how long are you going for?” They said it’s not goodbye. “It’s ‘see you later,’ because you’re coming back.” Yes, I’ll be back to visit. But beyond visiting, I’m not sure when. It’s not a matter of being opposed to Boston. (I love Boston.) It’s the principle of my non-singular sense of home. For now, as of Sunday, I live in Berlin, and that’s the only plan for now. Where would I come back to? Am I a boomerang or a frisbee? What are you? 

To clarify my tone, I’m okay with you asking. I needed to clarify my answer. If I were a billboard, I’d read “it never hurts to ask.” Or if you prefer my therapist’s version: you have a right to ask; they have a right to say ‘no.’ So please understand, you should ask. If you ask. I won’t say, “no, I’m not going back,” but I don’t have a plan or end-game. 

I do have a reason. This original ask was a long time in the making. I studied and lived in Denmark six years ago, and upon my stateside return and consequential reverse culture shock, I knew I’d be back in Europe someday. Years ago, I gently scribbled “live abroad again” onto my list of long-term goals. That list is now complete, and it’s time to ask more questions, to challenge myself in new ways, and to listen for the answers that reveal themselves when I see a new world.

So the question it all started with: well, it wasn’t quite a question. (I’m subconsciously averse to asking for things that have the potential to receive a “no” response.) My ask was a offer, instead. After a year of contemplation, in May, I told my boss that I was open to relocating to our Berlin office, if the opportunity felt right or necessary for the company. A month later, the timing was right. Sebastian told me that he thought it made sense for me to move, and my insides suddenly felt the potential of my new reality. I was visiting Berlin at the time. “Oh my god. My next trip may be a one-way ticket.” (Spoiler: it was. I arrived Sunday.)

With the next chapter in sight, I quickly contemplated the adventures I’d yet to experience in Boston, and my pen birthed my “Boston bucket list” onto paper. My teal notebook listed favorite tastes (what I call “flavorites”) to rediscover, mixed with new challenges to reach the summits and the depths of my home.

While I didn’t complete the admittedly ambitious Pemi Loop in the White Mountains, in a portion of the route, I was privileged to experience one of the most visually rich and adrenaline-laden nights of my life. “Do you want to go for a hike, instead of driving home this afternoon?” With a close friend and his bro-tographer (get it? brother who’s a photographer), I stargazed on the Bond Cliffs, and we descended at 2 a.m. to drive and reach work in Boston by 9. If you ask me whether it was worth it, I’ll give two words – “Summit: achieved” – we’ll let this picture speak its thousand:

In the midst of the impending move, I took an August vacation and rediscovered the joy of SCUBA diving while in the Gulf of Eilat, off Israel’s Red Sea coast. Suddenly, my longtime “would be nice” desire to dive in Boston became a priority for my last few months.

I’ve realized in the urgency of moving that there are many things I want to do, and that the doing requires only a little more energy than the wanting.

Do you have a place or an experience at your fingertips that you’ve long contemplated trying? A person you want to get to know? What are you waiting for? It can’t hurt to ask. It never hurts to try.

Come October, with the move closing in, I called a few local dive shops. “Any chance you have openings for diving this weekend?” Neither Neil nor I had recent cold water diving experience, nor had we ever dove in Boston. Like in all life experiences, we started where we could. Within a week of my proposition to Neil, on the afternoon after my Flour “internship,” we explored the brisk, foggy waters off Grave’s Light in Boston Harbor, spotting a sea lion, lobsters, crabs, fish, and corrals of many colors. Depth: dived. (Yes, that’s the past tense verb of SCUBA diving.)

The other pursuits started as questions, too:

From my co-worker, Caitlin: “Can we find time to ride to Walden Pond together before you move?” We regularly discussed my pre-work summer morning rides. Nothing like a crisp fall Friday morning to kick that kickstand. Ride: completed.

To Sebastian: “Do you still want to bike to Maine? October 7th?” And just like that, after a few training rides to test our endurance, we were dining on lobster rolls in Kittery, Maine, with our wheels locked outside to roll us home. Century: cycled.

To the woman who I met at a farm stand two years ago: “Even though you told me to call in August, do you have any openings for cranberry bog tours this Sunday?” “We have one opening, because someone canceled.” Appointment: scheduled.

And to many a friend: “Do you want to wake up at 7:30 on Sunday to drive to Acushnet, Massachusetts (where’s that?) to go on a cranberry bog tour?Bog: toured.

All because a question. 

All this – sorting and packing my belongings into suitcases and boxes, saying goodbye to every friend, exhausting my pursuit of adventure across Boston, cleaning out my desk and briefly pausing work, documenting my existence and asking for permission to exist someplace else with a Visa, beginning the search for a new physical home, stretching the geographic canvas on which my friendships unfurl – because a question.

Thanks to the urgency of moving, I’ve solidified my sense of home in Boston, by making more memories and more friendships. Multiple send-offs across friendships spanning many years have given me cause to experience appreciation unlike anything I’ve experienced before, challenging my emotions further when the time for goodbye came. 

Why am I letting go of something so good?” I asked Kyndal when we said our goodbyes last week. The answer comes in reflecting on what I’ve created. In March 2014, Boston was nothing more than a place that I’d visited, and I knew I liked it. Now, it’s home, and home is especially hard to leave when it’s a space you create. When you move, you willingly remove yourself from your home, your creation. In the physical sense, you decide what material goods matter and which are now someone else’s. The old physical home disappears. As Mom reminded me, “once you leave, coming home won’t be the same again, because home changes.” After this, home becomes a memory.

Today, Berlin is nothing more than a place that I’ve visited, that I know I like.

After this, Berlin’s memories will start to become a home.

All because I believe I can make something even better. 

All “because the best miles are yet to come.” (Shout out to the gas station sign that I spotted on my last ride to Walden Pond.)

All because a question.

Respect to the Fourniers

In my original letter to Flour, it was “Joanne, please.” Today, “it’s Joanne and Tommy, thank you.” If you enjoy reading this, consider extending your thanks by donating to Centro Presente, an organization that Flour supports and which supports the Latin American immigrant community.

For three hours today, I stood in the way, and I’m so grateful that a few people at Flour let me be a bottleneck. The dream team consisted of Sarah, Nicolle, Riley, Kimberly, Kenny, Tess, Joanne, and especially Tommy – Most Valuable Baker – for letting me shuffle around the kitchen while they warned one another about hot pans, opening oven doors, knives on the move, swinging racks, and people stepping into egresses. Bakeries are small spaces – not suited for extra warm bodies, like me – and the science goes beyond the chemistry of the heat-triggered reactions in the oven.

Tommy, the opening baker, arrives well before sunrise, and I showed up at 5 am to meet him. 4 am is widely considered the strangest hour of the day – it’s both too early and too late – but for Tommy, it’s routine. The streets were dark and quiet when I knocked on the bakery door, and Tommy was the only soul I saw. In this awakening via bakery opening, I rediscovered my six-year-old soul on Christmas morning. I unwrapped new knowledge, respect, and admiration for the behind-the-scenes, inside-the-oven, under-the-glaze work that is the recipe of a bakery’s daily opening.

 Behind the scenes at Flour, before opening. Behind the scenes at Flour, before opening.

Like ingredients in baking, every task matters in quality, quantity, and timing. Tommy is responsible for a breadth of work, from the front-of-mind tasks, like “bake the muffins,” to the minutiae, like “collapse and finger-poke the sandwich loaves until they’re exactly 4 inches wide, before baking” or “trim the banana bread ends.” While the world sleeps – let’s be real: most of us can’t make it to work by 8 am – Tommy is thinking and working: pouring and simmering the oil that Kenny will use to fry the donuts, rotating more than two dozen trays through two ovens, proofing (and baking) the various brioche items, and setting the pastry display to be ready in time for opening.

And to master all these tasks, Tommy’s go-to advice: know what’s in your oven. From the moment he unlocks the bakery door, he keeps a mental menu of which trays are where. The brioche needs to be in a hot spot to proof. The muffins must cool before depanning, otherwise they risk crumbling. The sticky sticky buns are still in the oven – and we may need to shuffle or rotate the pans – while we’re starting to arrange the front display. Meanwhile, the oatmeal is simmering, the creme fraiche may need to be fed, and the other bakers – Kimberly on the case, Kenny on the donuts, and Tess on the cookies – will be arriving later. They’ll need this space. At the height of the dough rising, when the ovens are full and the counters are ready to stock, the electronic timer becomes Tommy’s best friend, and he has the buttons memorized: a single device with a timer each for the upper and lower ovens. When the clock hits 0:00 and chirps, he hears his baby calling from across the room.

The short story is that Tommy is part chemist, part mathematician, full-time baker, and part ninja. (Though the real ninja is Riley, the front of house opener with a spirit of sunshine. He stealthily grabbed the blueberry muffin that didn’t make it out of the pan and told me his diet is 70% fueled by Flour. Sign me up!) Tommy’s a refined human timer, an expert taste tester, a very organized task manager, and a gracious host for my absurd dream morning. Oh, and he just graduated, but is back in school to earn his MBA. Someday, he’ll own and operate a bakery of his own that focuses on a few specially refined menu items. And for sugar on top, Tommy was a narrator this morning.

Tommy verbalized almost everything he did, so that I understood what was going on. His job is complicated, and my presence made it doubly so. The video clips that I captured on my iPhone were the only method that I captured his choreography without ruining his dance. I knew exactly when we were ahead or behind schedule, as well as what he was thinking about; it’s always “what’s in the oven?” plus at least the next dozen tasks. Because he’s mastered the routine, he knows exactly what minute each phase of his workflow should be done.

By 5, all muffins should be in the oven, and we have fifteen minutes to get all the scones on their trays (and some of them need egg wash or seasoning before baking). An empty oven is wasted time. Thirty seconds of spare time are worth prepping the glaze station or wiping down the “quick bread” cutting board. At 5:30 (or 4:30 on a non-Sunday), we need to wash, cut, and sugar the brioche au sucre once it’s “supple”. (Bakery basics: brioche is ready for baking when it shakes gently on the pan or when it feels like a human cheek to the touch.)

My job was mostly to stand out of Tommy’s way, which became exponentially more difficult when the rest of the crew arrived. I also excelled as a taste tester. The items that don’t pass the “mom test” go on a “sample tray,” for the Stephen test. I mean… for the employees to sample throughout the day. Fun fact: Joanne Chang still loves the banana bread ends after 10 years of Flour.

Think about the customer. Remember, most importantly, does it pass the “mom test”? What would your mom say? With the family name Fournier, which means “man of the oven” or “baker” in French, I understand now why my mom taught me to notice the details, to enjoy good bread, and not to trust a baker that sells bread with too many holes.

At Flour, average doesn’t pass. Every customer’s experience is their own, and one customer’s bad – or less good – experience means mom is disappointed. We all know what it’s like when mom’s “not mad, just disappointed.” If it’s too small, or overbaked or falls apart, just don’t serve it. So, for Tommy and the rest of the bakers, every item gets checked: a visual check of the appearance, a gentle poke to verify the consistency, and… sometimes a taste test. They know exactly what to look for, and sometimes ask for a second opinion. And then, just like mom, there’s feedback.

Each tray, loaf, or ingredient gets tracked starting with who prepared it, and anything abnormal becomes a note for the manager to relay to the production team or individual. Let me caveat: the baker’s feedback is very different from what a single customer might critique. You and I are simply thinking whether we like it or not: how much do we love the flavor and texture? The baker knows their standards and wants to ensure consistency and quality across the display and over the days. Today’s notes: the banana bread tasted a tidbit sweeter than normal, which may mean the bananas were over-ripened; the pop tarts are a bit small and taller than normal; the experimental savory scones need more refinement before the holiday debut.

Through my special shadow experience at Flour, Tommy gave me new perspective and appreciation for every detail. I realized my favorite might not be the baker’s favorite. Some items are much harder to prepare than others. Even between types of muffins, for example, added ingredients like fruit can make the muffins challenging to depan, and that means time. Minutes matter for the baker to maintain routine and stay on schedule. A bakery’s daily opening is a show-like, finely scheduled production. It’s 7:55 am. We have to be ready for the curtains to open. The sticky sticky buns sit in the pan, hot and gooey after browning in the oven. Tommy puts on three sets of gloves to avoid burning himself and have them ready just in time, for the customers. For you and I. While he doesn’t talk to them often, Tommy thinks about the customer, and so, we plate the sticky buns, and the last thing we do is check the display: what does the pastry counter look like for the tired eyes that will groggily ask for their muffin, their scone, their coffee, and their gluten free bread?

 The display is ready for the first customers.  The display is ready for the first customers.

“We look great this morning,” Tommy says, and I agree, as I continue nibbling at the warm butter breton cake (otherwise known as “kouign amann,” or my new favorite pastry) that was too small to sell.

On the coldest morning of the fall, I feel warmly welcomed. That’s the spirit of a bakery. Tommy was smiling when he opened the door for me at 5 am, and I’m smiling from the inside out. Thank you, Flour.

Stephen “Fournier” Nock

Update: now that I’ve finished my slice of twice-baked brioche, I’m done writing, and ready to head home – for a nap, I think – I stretch my neck across the counter. There’s a taste of pride on my tongue as I watch the woman next to me gently cut her sticky bun, and I know just how many tasks were juggled to make those flavors possible.