I majored in Applied Math and Economics in college because, as Christopher (Myers, my husband) notes, history, literature, and other such subjects were not my strong points. While I was an okay math student, I was nowhere near the same level as my brilliant friends, and I had to learn to add value to our regular study group, and quickly. So I baked a batch of Toll House chocolate chip cookies—the only thing I ever baked at home growing up. I fed the group, and in turn they helped me grasp the finer points of the Riemann Hypothesis.
Baking cookies on a regular basis was a fun diversion from class, and I baked leftover batter into cookies for our dormitory's student-run grill. Pretty soon I was known as the chocolate chip cookie girl. I had to double, triple, then quadruple my batch sizes in order to feed both my hungry study group and the grill customers.
Maybe it was a tip-off at that point that I was meant for the kitchen, but after graduation I got a "respectable" job as a management consultant. I continued to bake at home, though, and I started a small side business called "Joanne's Kitchen," making cookies and cakes for friends. After two years of wearing a suit and heels to work during the day and a kitchen apron on the weekends I decided to make the jump and get a job in a professional kitchen. With uncharacteristic bravado, I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies, attached one to each departure memo I stuffed in the mailboxes of my co-workers and wrote, "One day these cookies will be famous!" in the subject line.
I spent the first year cooking, which is quite different from baking. I found myself whisking vinaigrettes, pressing fois gras terrines, chopping up raw beef for steak tartare. While I loved being in a professional kitchen setting, I quickly learned that I much preferred baking. The energy and bustle of restaurant service appealed to my adrenaline-addicted line-cook coworkers, but I felt sorely out of place. I longed to be elbow-deep in sugar and butter and flour ... not onions and bone marrow and olive oil. I rushed through my prep so I could help the pastry cooks next to me roll out tart shells and slice strawberries. Sometimes we even switched outright: Francisco the pastry cook would prepare my soup stock while I baked his crème brulées.
After a year of cooking I got my chef's blessing to move on and get a baking job. Whew! Much better. At Bentonwood Bakery in Newton Center, a suburb of Boston, I felt at home. I learned how to make everything I had been baking on my own, but the right way. I fell in love with the oversized mixer that I could sit in (yes I tried it out!) that helped me make dough for hundreds of pies and batter for dozens of cakes. Peeling case upon case of apples might sound tedious to you, but I thoroughly enjoyed trying to peel each apple faster and cleaner and better. Plus my insatiable sweet tooth was much happier being surrounded by fig tarts and chocolate pudding.
My next job was working as the pastry chef at Rialto, the four-star restaurant in Cambridge owned by Jody Adams and Christopher Myers. (Yes, the same Christopher Myers ... I married my boss, but that was many, many years after he was my boss.) Restaurant work was very different from bakery work. I don't think I baked a single cookie for two years; instead I stretched my wings and made desserts like Italian Cassata and Quince Tarte Tatins and Almond Pithiviers for our revolving pastry menu.