How I Went From Baker to Cook to ... Mixologist?

Kitchen Diary: Emily in Los Angeles

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What is your medium in the kitchen, the ingredient — or set of ingredients — that makes you feel most alive and nourished and creative?

When my life in the kitchen began, my mediums were flour, butter, and sugar. As the type of person who thrived on precision, I easily fell into baking and learned how to make flaky dough, elaborate cakes, and anything featuring gluten (oh, beloved gluten). I cherished my measuring tools and nearly left college to attend pastry school — a funny thought for someone no longer eats flour, butter, or sugar.

During those years baking was my stress relief and a way to connect with others as I channeled my OCD into cakes and pastries that I could share with roommates, crushes, and co-workers. Meticulous measuring, mixing, and rolling kept me going, providing a sense of purpose and comfort.

Of course, things have a way of evolving, and over time I loosened up, learned to improvise, and traded in my cake pans for sauté pans. My holy trinity of flour, butter, and sugar gave way to olive oil, garlic, and onions. I started to — gasp! — "eyeball it" as my measuring tools sat in the cupboard. Although I don't believe it's always a hard distinction, you might say I was no longer a baker, but a cook. My tastes and dietary needs changed, too, and I found myself more attracted to savory dishes and fresh fruits and vegetables than baked goods and sweets.

For someone who was accustomed to following the instructions in recipes word-for-word, it was terrifying, then liberating, and then simply habitual to step away from the cookbooks and start improvising. Eventually I became a professional recipe developer, which meant I was not only deviating from established recipes but inventing recipes myself. The transformation was complete!

Or was it?

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These days if you asked what my favorite mediums were, I might say something like whiskey, gin, and bitters. Though I certainly haven't abandoned the olive oil, garlic, and onions (one still has to eat dinner), I find myself in the midst of another evolution in which herbalism and mixology are my greatest source of inspiration.

From my bartending internship to the cocktail parties I've been throwing for friends, I'm finding new ways to approach ingredients, explore flavors, and share good things with others. The sadness I felt after undergoing massive dietary changes and giving up my favorite foods has lifted as I've found new mediums with which to create. In some ways mixology feels like a marriage of my lives as a baker and cook — precision meets invention.

Life in the kitchen is a constant evolution, one that always offers new things to learn and explore. What we find most fulfilling can change, yet one thing builds on another, so you never know when a pie-making experience might influence a grilling experiment or a stir-fry flavor might inspire cocktail. For all of my experiences and mediums, I am grateful.

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Kitchen Diary: Emily in Los Angeles

(Image credits: Emily Han)