I spent my Sunday afternoon following Thanksgiving to assist Marilyn, the head pastry chef of Bon Appétit, Wheaton College food service.
The bakery kitchen is located behind the on-campus café, in the middle of the student center. Despite its central location, the bakers and chefs’ busy work throughout the week stays out of the 2,400 undergraduate students’ sight behind the closed doors of the kitchen. It was odd to walk into an empty student center during the holidays and enter into the kitchen to find Marilyn still busy working to keep the place running. It never really crossed my mind before that people stay hungry even after Thanksgiving. We eat all the time. It’s a simple truth that so often we forget, don’t we all?
The first things first, I put on the professional white apron and the black hat on, feeling proud as if I am one of the contestants on Master Chef. I was not sure what Marilyn had in mind to bake. I imagined something fancy with the frostings and decorations. Cake? Pie? Or even cookies sounded exciting to me. However, Marilyn had to prepare something much more simple: pizza dough. I was to help her prepare make 70 pizza doughs for Monday. I have made pizza before, but not for 2,400 people, and definitely not along side with a professional pastry chef who taught at Le Cordon Bleu (#1 national culinary school) for 11 years.
Pizza is the ultimate staple food for any college campus food. She explained to me that Wheaton students eat around 70 to 140 14 inch pizzas a day, depending on each day’s menu. The reason why the amount of pizza that the students consume may double its amount is because college students are relatively discriminating in their taste. Pizza is the simple and consistent menu that is offered in the cafeteria for students if they find other menu of the day to be not so tasteful.
Flour, yeast, water, and salt. Those were the four main ingredients we needed, with a little bit of oil and sugar on the side. I measured out each ingredients on a big electronic scale and a large pitcher. With flour, we didn’t even need to measure it but to dump the entire burlap bag worth of it straight into the mixing bowl (as in, it comes in more like a size of a bathtub for baby triplets). The smoke of white powder flew around the air for a brief while. After the mixer mixed all the ingredients into a goo dough, we molded them into round balls and put them gently onto the pantries.
Speed and accuracy. Marilyn explained to me the two most important things about baking for such huge number of people. Likewise, she was unbelievably fast in molding the doughs. I was not even half as fast as she was. At this point I was glad that Marilyn chose to make pizza dough with me. I couldn’t imagine frosting cakes after cakes with such speed and making sure that each one looks presentable.
“You can make baguette, focaccia, and other bread with this same dough!” Marilyn went on explaining the richness of history and versatility behind a simple dough. Fermentation, Naples, different kinds of flours, the importance of water temperature, and so on, the conversation continued as we molded one dough at a time.
It was on this profound yet simple Sunday afternoon I came to understand Natalie Babbitt’s words better: “Like all magnificent things, it’s very simple.”
Justin Lovett is a 23-years-old rising independent documentarian currently residing in Chicagoland area. His narrative short film “Windmill” has won the Honorable Mention award in Columbus Film Festival and was shown in various international film festivals, including Burbank International Film Festival and Open Frame Film Festival. He is at the moment working on another documentary project with a blind Liberian man who escaped from the civil war and immigrated to the United States in 2002. Apart from his professions, Justin is a simple guy who loves donuts, “time-well-spent,” and filming Instagram videos with his friends in his free time. Follow him on Vimeo, Instagram, and his personal blog.