James Satterwhite, Executive Pastry Chef of Charlotte Country Club, shares his process for defining goals and focusing on fundamentals in order to move the club’s pastry program forward.
One year ago, as 2019 was coming to an end, I felt like I was finishing up one of the toughest years of my life. My wife had been terribly ill throughout the whole summer and even though she was doing much better, the effects of her illness were still with me. As November turned into December, I began my annual process of defining my personal and professional goals for the upcoming year. It was a much needed step in the right direction. This process starts with reflection and introspection.
I knew that the year prior had not been my best. I felt like I owed my team more. Let me be clear about something: I always feel that I am one mistake away from being dismissed. And while cognitively I know this is not true, it is how I feel. I remember in 2003, at the opening of the Mandarin Oriental in Washington D.C., I wondered if I would ever be able to create another good dessert.
This prevailing feeling of doubt is not new to me. But last year, I felt I had let my team down. My focus was on my wife and her illness. With this behind us, I decided in 2020 I would rededicate myself to the craft of pastry. I believed this was the best approach for myself and my team.
I began studying chefs I admire including Alain Passard, Pierre Herme, Stephane Leroux, Michel Troigros, and other Michelin star chefs. I watched the Kings of Pastry, and was struck by two things in this documentary. First, I was amazing when Jacquy Pfeiffeer was training, how he and his coaches looked at a cream puff like the turning of the world depended upon it being great. Second, I was amazed when Phillippe Rigollot broke his showpiece and all the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) pushed him on, then Sebastien Cannone laid his medal on the table to inspire Rigollot to keep going.
Those are the feelings of dedication and inspiration I want to capture both for myself and as part of the culture of chefs aspiring to be an MOF or to attain a Michelin star.
Another thing that inspires me is how many of the Michelin star chefs at my age of 51 continue to seek new challenges, go in new directions and blaze new trails, even if only for themselves. I’m also inspired by George Nakashima, an architect and furniture maker. I have longed loved his furniture and I read his book, The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker’s Reflections, which takes an introspective look at his craft.
My next task, after introspection, was to define for myself the craft of pastry. What does it mean for me?
After much deliberation and careful though, I defined the craft of pastry as having five key elements including:
- Tradition: The history of the classics, the traditions of the kitchen, and the rich history of the pastry chefs who have built what has come before are all deeply important to the craft of culinary. The traditions of pastry will help guide my journey to master what has come before and provide insight to move the craft forward.
- Ingredients: The craft of pastry depends on chefs evolving knowledge of ingredients and their individual properties, function, and interactions in the formulas we use. We must seek out the best local and artisanal ingredients. We must learn everything about flavor, and the importance of ingredients to create maximum quality.
- Technique: We must be relentless in the pursuit of learning and mastering the techniques of pastry. This is the starting point for creativity.
- Creation: We must seek to continually innovate and create processes, techniques and products that will evolve and add to the cuisine.
- Expression: We must focus on the presentation of desserts, candies, and pastries, seeking and using creative vessels, displays and concepts that highlight pastry for the person who will be enjoying it.
These elements can also apply to other crafts, not just pastry.
The more I thought about these goals and fundamentals, the more I wanted to expand this project beyond myself and include my entire kitchen.
After talking this over with my pastry leaders, we decided that we would spend 2020 working on dedicating ourselves to the craft of pastry as our common goal. I wanted to focus more on our core beliefs and what do we do every day instead of setting tasks as our goals. Focusing on always learning and growing about who you are, and how that is expressed through the craft of pastry, is more important than creating tasks for yourself and the team that masquerade as goals.
Every day each person has the power to focus on their technique. This has always been how I approach my work, but this year I have tried to go higher, be more in the moment, be more critical of myself so that whenever I am in the kitchen, I am focused on the task in front of me, absorbing what I have learned from what I have just made.
I think of the tradition, the technique, the ingredients, the creation and the expression and use the elements to inform where we go and what we do. I have embraced this state of mind and it has been revelatory to my life as a chef.
We were well on our way when I was called into an emergency meeting on a Monday in March to discuss COVID. Our entire world has changed since that day. But as I sit here, assessing our year, I feel strongly that this dedication to the craft, this framing of goals, was the right path to travel down. This mentality kept the pastry team focused and on the path we set down in January and despite all of the roadblocks, we are still dedicated to the craft of pastry.