This man was six foot five. Blue eyes, more threatening than dreamy, with subtle lines that had settled in across his face, a roadmap to and from secret locations. They were marks indicating a lifetime of seriousness, and not to say one without a sense of humor, just evidence of intense focus.
His attention to detail was incomparable and his work ethic dogmatic. You don’t just try to work well with someone like that; you adapt to the pace at which he breathes when he’s in the room. You moderate how you walk when you approach him, and the way you gesture in a conversation. Because he’s aware of everything.
I was used to walking through the pastry department and sticking my eligible GM finger into any proximate batter for a deserving lick of something sweet on my way to the office. I was due my fika in the afternoon! I was owed a sugary reprieve from the hustle of it all. I was the boss! But with Lincoln around, I didn’t dare.
Give a man like that a gun and he’d be a sniper to rival the best. Give this man a measuring cup, and he’s the best pastry chef in the country. I knew the latter well, but I was pretty sure the former was somewhere in there, too.
I'd reach into an open bag of white chocolate pastilles and hide out in dry storage for five minutes of sweet solitude during dinner service (I know I said I didn't dare; I meant I didn't dare get caught in the act).
He arrived around 3am, to tend to croissant dough proofing and other delicacies in the works, making perfect all things delicious, a champion of sweets, and scary as hell.
The man inspired fear and respect, and it was nice to have that around. Especially at this particular project, an endeavor that started to unravel before its time. I’ll blame the most dysfunctional ownership I have ever worked for, but we all played our part. Lincoln just kept calm, stayed the course and worked on.
Sometimes I would pass through his pastry kitchen and he would stop me to taste what he was working on – the greatest achievement in my day. His eyes would penetrate you, waiting for your reaction. Not the opinion you gave verbally or even the expression you made. He was in search of the primal light that would or wouldn’t go off in your eyes based on whether it immediately delighted you. And if it didn’t, he wanted to know why.
Not why, as in, “needs more sugar” or “too much salt,” but why as in: Why do your eyes not flash like your five year old self at the deli with your deceased grandmother when you taste this bagel croissant I made?
I think it must have been our 59th consecutive hour without sleep, laughter, or much food at all, let’s call it some time during opening weekend; he was absurdly pissed off that a broom was visible in the corner of the restaurant (a restaurant which had a two-hour wait, a failing POS system, and a chef who never cursed screaming obscenities as servers fired tickets incorrectly). He wanted me to be concerned about this broom, sitting innocently out of the way, at the ready to sweep up a broken glass or scattered bread, albeit visible to the guests.
I am all for detail orientation, but in this moment I couldn’t help but wonder (be infuriated at) why he was parading about the front of house criticizing anomalies – shouldn’t he could be in the back airbrushing teacakes? Or in a padded cell??
I walked away from him mid-conversation, with the line I can’t even defining the moment before it was a hashtag or cliché.
And then I felt his imaginary bullet pierce me in between the shoulder blades, precisely and intentionally left of center.
But there were times when we sat down and shared a glass, a bite, and our common love for rosé Champagne and the Loire Valley. Once I told him that my grandfather despised croissants. He couldn’t believe it! He had to know why, almost as delighted as he was shocked.
It was simple, really, but I told him:
My grandma’s name was Rose, and Grandpa Lew called her “Ro.” For some reason, she never remembered (or obliged) my grandfather’s baked goods preferences. Every Sunday she came home with a box of pastries, full of croissants and other laminated things. She never had them ready for breakfast, and by the time she'd arrive back, it was more of an afternoon snack.
A few minutes after her arrival, Gramps would open the box and scowl, take a reluctant bite of something shiny, and chards of golden flakes would burst into the air and scatter, sticking to his perfectly-combed mustache. Flakes glued to his fingers and decorating the front of his sweater, he'd just lose it.
“IT’S A FLAKEY DOUGH, RO!!” He would yell, to no one really (my grandmother was probably watching the Chicago Bulls game by this hour, yelling her own frantic frustrations at Michael Jordan for slacking off in some important game). He was so mad at the dough!
Lincoln laughed out loud at my story so unexpectedly, and so genuinely, it makes me laugh now to remember him smiling in that afternoon light, a memory that's warm like the fresh steam from one of his popovers - my grandpa would have loved those.
As the days worn on, we wore thin with them, and the owner’s demands became more outlandish. One day he would walk in with twenty something vintage wire baskets, $300 a piece, for display. The next, he was screaming about being over budget on labor in a place that was open for 16 waking hours.
"We're wasting baked goods!" he'd complain, only to demand moments later that the display remain full at all times as he bare-handed a fistful of scones to hand out to his motorcycle buddies. What a loser.
So we all just sort of deflated. It was the beginning of the end. The air was sucked out of the project – which was ironic because it was the most airy, open space I had ever worked in. A seamless integration between outside and in, an architecturally lovely and highly-dysfunctional space. So Venice.
And with the open space came the flies, relentless and all around us, an un-shooable reminder of the apocalyptic tone hanging in the air.
The flies loved the pastries most and this drove Lincoln mad. The look in his eyes edged closer to assassin with each passing day, increasingly dedicated to a new, sugar-free mission as he swatted and missed, losing bits of sanity with each attempt.
His cooks (no one worked for the owner by this time, they stayed and worked for Lincoln or left) bought him a salt gun, meant as a half-joke, given to a man who doesn’t half anything, unless a recipe calls for it, explicitly.
He took well to firing caps in flies’ asses. It gave him a purpose I think. The toy was effective, but not enough. I think he had a genuine need to see evidence of the kill (another indication that his mission was covert and pastry was the rouse?).
Lincoln swapped out the fragile salt for more sturdy ammunition.
Armed with poppy seeds, he began taking out flies mid-flight, leaving actual blood spatter for proof on the walls next to prep lists and resting bread dough. He kept a tally of lives taken, looking to break records each day.
He had long since broken from reality when the owner demanded he make popsicles. For the record, given Lincoln’s skills and creativity with sugar and butter, that is the pastry equivalent of asking Miles Davis to squeak out happy birthday on a Kazoo some hundreds of times a day.
But the popsicles were of course, the best popsicles you had ever eaten. Flavors that sounded trite like lavender vanilla and bourbon butterscotch tasted like unstained originals in their perfection of balance and flavors.
And, then, on a hot day, 500 popsicles that took days, tons of liquid nitrogen, and the concentration and skill of one man alone, melted during a power outage because the most incompetent company on earth had fucked up the electric bill.
It was the end of the end. We all parted ways and landed at other projects, and I haven’t talked to Lincoln in a long time.
I don’t really eat croissant anymore, and I’ve been craving Kougin Amann for close to three years. Nothing I’ve found in recent years comes close to his perfectly crisp outer edges and soft, buttery layers, that beautiful honeycomb lattice. They're always just full of these gaping, sad holes that collapse into little failures with the first bite. There's no chance I'd go back for a second one.
I imagine he is on to a new project, defying physics and science with sugar and butter, at peace in the kitchen and not sniping anything, croissant remnants flaking in his wake.
Sometimes I’ll drink a glass of something crisp in the afternoon, when the light is just right, and I'll settle for a chocolate chip cookie or a piece of toast. It reminds me of our glasses shared at those hours, a time of day that must have felt like after midnight to him. It makes me miss my grandfather a lot, somehow.
And actually, Lincoln, too. They would have gotten along so well.