Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Baby

Business or Pleasure : Pleasure

Eight years ago, in the middle of a Big Mistake of a marriage, my family pleaded with me to find something I really wanted to do, and go back to school to do it. I was spending more time at my parents home, trying to stay away from my own home as much as possible. My mother started taking an amateur cake decorating class at a local craft store. She tried to talk me into signing up with her. It was $25 for the two of us, and a 20% coupon off anything in the store we needed for the class. Because of work, I declined.

Well, she loved this class. Every week, she learned something new. She insisted I read her instruction books, look at the tools, and see if I could do what she was doing. Out of sheer boredom, I went ahead and made my first decorated, layered cake. It was a hot mess; lopsided, colors too bold, icing too thick, and just a sheer disaster.

I'm not one to take failure well. I was determined to make a cake as pretty as the one's in the books. I tried again and again and again. I finally got it.

That got the ball rolling. Through luck of knowing the right people, I got a rare work study opportunity at a Manhattan culinary school. I would work for 1,300 hours, and in return, I would get a $30,000 education for free. Uniform, knives, and various other expensive kitchen tools would be free, as well.

That 1,300 hours was hard. I was still working full time at my day job. I had just been laid off my fashion sales job, the money-maker of my work career thus far. I was in about $50,000 worth of debt- give or take a few thousand. I was working at the family's wholesale drycleaning business, doing the books, payroll, collections, and invoicing. I was barely making enough to pay the rent and none of the credit cards were being paid at all. My worthless husband brought home just enough to cover utilities and some food. My mom was sending me home with groceries from her pantry, even though I tried to pretend I didn't need them.

Life was bad. But, work study was fantastic! I was working in the prep kitchens, tasting, learning, and handling food and ingredients I had never seen or tasted before in my life. I was meeting people from all walks of life. I was around people my age and a little older. I was working with magazine editors; washing up pots and pans with them, and taking out the trash with investment bankers from Wall Street. Yes, some of these people could afford to pay the full tuition many times over, but they loved the backroom education- as someone had put it. You just don't learn about receiving or rejecting orders when you're sitting in a prepped classroom.

My love of all things food blossomed on those nights when it was 12am, and I needed to be up for my day job in 6 hours, and I still had 2 hours worth of cleaning to do in that school. I took home the most expensive cuts of meat, the most rare bottles of wine, and the most beautiful pastries you could ever drool at in some fine Parisian bakeshop window. Tired as all hell, but the luckiest girl in the world.

This food thing was great. I was experimenting with recipes at home with my family. My cakes were getting tastier and prettier. Out of the blue, people started paying me a little money here and there for a cake or a tray of Pad Thai or to cook for someone's birthday.

Not a culinary school grad or some Le Cordon Bleu student; I was just a stagier - a kitchen assistant who mopped floors, hauled up bins of food, and scrubbed pots and pans. This is what I wanted to do. Food. I wanted to live it, breathe it, and earn my fortune with it. This was my baby.

The Birth
The name of my company; Queenie Cakes was almost handed to me. When I first started working at CVS when I turned 17, I kept to myself. I didn't hang out with the gang after work because I wasn't allowed to. I dressed up in tights and skirts and always looked impeccable; even if I was just a cashier at a drug store. Some of the girls started teasing me. They said I was stuck up. They started calling me Miss Queenie, after one of them misheard my mom calling me my nickname- Kareen. They thought she said Queen. That was my first email address: ms_queenie@hotmail.com . I still have that email address. I get coupons there now.

I wasn't much different going from job to job. I had the same air of haughtiness, but once people got to know me; it was clear that I was not stuck up or conceited. I was just quiet and shy. The name stuck though- Miss Queenie.

And now- Chef Queenie. The owner of Queenie Cakes; my baby.

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