Life in a Restaurant, Week 10: Chronicles of Caramel Making


"I think love is caramel. Sweet and fragrant; always welcome. It is the gentle golden colour of a setting harvest sun; the warmth of a squeezed embrace; the easy melting of two souls into one and a taste that lingers even when everything else has melted away. Once tasted it is never forgotten."

-Jenny colgan 


If there was an assignment in college that I was really, truly, struggling with, or a midterm that I knew from within the bowels of my intestines I fantastically failed, the first thing that I would do is ask other classmates to see how they did.  I never did it because I was genuinely concerned about their performance in class, but because secretly, I’d hope that they would all reply by also saying “It was impossible”, or “I barely got through half of it!”  Knowing that we were all struggling together, peers failing life on the same proverbial struggle bus, was an incredibly reassuring piece of knowledge that made me feel like I wasn’t a total idiot.

I’m at the two month mark of my one year odyssey here- by industry standards, I’m sure I’d be considered a long term member of the back of the house.  Yet, there’s always going to be a part of me that views myself as the inexperienced kid who showed up on his first day in a DayGlo orange shirt, oblivious of everything around him, and still failing in comparison to everyone I work with.  Some days I can work the line and hammer out tickets as they come in, checking my frayed watch to make sure all my ticket times are acceptable and to my self imposed standards.  Other days, I become the only person in the class who thought last night's take home quiz was woefully hard.  

The text as of late has been how to not fuck up caramel. It's pretty rudimentary: you put sugar and a splash of water in a pan and watch it boil.  For the past month I’ve been botching every single batch: I either end up with a mess of wet, mahogany sand, or will return the next day to see that the entire deli has completely separated into concrete and water.  Every time I peer into the boiling pot, beads of nervous sweat accumulating on my forehead, I imagine each little pebble of crystallized sugar taunting me with my ineptitude, as they join hands in non-peaceful protest and grow in size.  Despite knowing the battle has been lost, I still dump in the heavy cream and try beating them into submission, but as I taste a spoonful of the finished caramel and feel microscopic granules rubbing against the roof of my mouth, I wave my white kitchen towel and admit defeat.

As I crystallized yet another pot of caramel last night for a morning catering event, the chef reassuringly joked that she would do it for me. Eager to step away from the sack of granulated sugar, I went to clean the walk in (read: sit in cold, frustrated silence).  I walk back into the kitchen, only to see her brow furrowed in mild perturbation: she too, was staring back at a saucepan of sandy rocks.

"You know what. We'll do it tomorrow," she laughed.


One part of being a line cook is being incredibly efficient.  Get your work done, but make sure you're not clocking too many hours in- after all, overhead is what contributes to such incredibly low profit margins in all restaurants.  Yet, at 9:00AM on an August Saturday, the chef and I were standing in our flip flops, shorts, and tank tops, miserably failing at caramel production.  While we were getting ahead on prep for the night, our first pot boiled over and caught fire.  We stand there after shutting off the heat and watch the flames slowly subside into black carbon - partly because its a spectacle, but also because we were finding this assignment so difficult that one of our trials had literally, gone up in flames.  

The third attempt involved using a ridiculously oversized pot, over the french top.  We left out any liquid, using the dry caramel method, hoping that the even heat of the french top would magically cure our problems like holy water.  In our lack of patience however, we dumped in too much sugar, causing the bottom to burn and smoke while still leaving a hilltop of white sugar still raw.  Precarious stirring, and a lowering of heat eventually led to amber fluid.  We packed the caramel into delis, praying that by the time Bigwood needed to fire desserts at the event, he wouldn't encounter a separated mess.

He returned later that night, while we were cleaning the kitchen after an excellent service.  

"They loved the dessert.  They fucking ate it all up."

As to whether that meant the caramel turned out smooth or not remains to be seen.  At that point, I was just happy knowing other people struggle at making caramel too.