I only have one opposable thumb as it is. The prospect of losing it is not a particularly enticing one.
And yet, as he ramps up the speed on the 10-gallon Hobart mixer, Hypnotic Donut baker Joshua Griffin observes that if I would indeed like to lose a hand, “try getting it stuck in there.”
I am already three feet away from the mixer. I take another step back. It’s 3:32 in the morning, and my brain and body are functioning at about half capacity – better safe than sorry.
I am here as a temporary employee by the grace of James St. Peter and his wife, Amy. They are the owners of Hypnotic Donuts, which since late January has been operating in new digs in East Dallas. For two days I will be working the morning shift with the bakers and creators of Hypnotic’s inventions, a vivid and varied assortment of fried treats that might give Lewis Carroll a grin. From jalapenos and habaneros to marshmallows and animal crackers, I was prepared to let my innermost child run wild; I would be Charlie in the Chocolate Factory – if only the chocolate factory had been created for breakfast.
But I am not Charlie. I am tired. And my half-dream has just been interrupted by Joshua.
“It’s fascinating to me the way the dough changes form so many times – the way it reacts to the kneading really is interesting to me.”
Uh huh. Fascinating.
The last thing I had expected when I went to work at Hypnotic Donuts, was actual work. There are three other people in the kitchen illustrating just how much of it there is that needs to be done.
To call Joshua a baker is no misnomer. Donuts are fried, yes, but their final destination shouldn’t shadow the process of their creation. These are products of yeast and flour; he holds a 30-pound bag of flour over a scale and precisely measures the day’s allotment to the ounce every morning. The water is measured to an exact temperature before it goes into the mixer, and the yeast is nestled nicely in before the Hobart gets revved up. On the other end of the kitchen, James Baker – known simply in the kitchen as Baker – fires up the smaller mixer to begin a similar process for the cake donuts.
I look around, and still see no sign of sprinkles.
When the dough is done, I drop the bowl on the Hobart – triple checking to make sure it is completely turned off, of course – and remove the hook. Joshua, a friendly, humorously irreverent individual, begins his morning banter with Baker. The conversation is full of jabs and laughter from each side. They are on their game today, and it’s only 4 a.m.
“How do you guys do this?” I ask. “Do you ever get used to this feeling?”
“I usually go to sleep around six or seven,” answers Baker. “The weird thing is getting off so early. Sometimes you finish a full shift and want to go get a few beers. You head to the bar at 10 in the morning and realize ‘oh, they’re not even going to open for another two hours.'”
Baker’s response is a similar one.
“Yeah, I’ll get home and my old lady will give me this go-to-hell look, because she hasn’t even left for work yet, and I’m already done. But the thing is, we put in a lot of work – it’s just that it’s so early.”
As if to illustrate his point, Trevor Powers is at the counter punching down the dough and shaping it – Joshua is training Trevor today, and watches every step to make sure the doughnuts turn out exactly the same way they did the day before. After the second rise, Trevor rolls it out and begins to cut. For the first time in two hours, I see a semblance of a doughnut. As Joshua moves them to the proofing box to rise a little further, he recalls a story from several weeks back:
James was looking for another baker, and a guy came in who had worked at a chain place. We asked him if he knew how to make donuts. He goes ‘Sure, you just put them in the fryer.’
So we said, ‘Before that – do you know how to actually make the donuts?’ He didn’t. He just said you take them out of the bag and put them in the fryer. They were just using frozen doughnuts. No wonder they taste like shit.
As he closes the proofing box, I do a quick search again. The marshmallows are still noticeably absent.
By the time Amy and James come in, the sun is considering its rise. I am beginning to wonder if I am in the right place. Some doughnuts have at this point been fried and glazed, and while they turn out well, they still look like doughnuts – not the mad-scientist, fried-dough creations for which Hypnotic has become known. The biscuits (baked, not fried) are ready, though I don’t see any chicken anywhere, and I am at the bakers bench, chopping away at some dough and strawberries for some strawberry fritters. I will help to make the fritters for two mornings in a row – which accounts for me missing what happens next, but by the time I turn around, I will see them: the animal crackers.
And the frostings and icings and glazes and sprinkles; the peppers shine green and orange in their capsaicin-laden glory while the bacon awaits its home on a maple topping. Amy has brought out the colors with which to paint the medium I have helped to create. In my head, the needle drops on Katrina and the Waves. I am about to be walking on sunshine, and I prepare for a montage of doughnut-topping glee and laughter.
“Hey, do you want some help with that?” I ask, trying to mask my eagerness.
“Sure.” My heart leaps.
“You can dip these in here,” Amy points to the glazed doughnut and a strawberry icing. “But be careful, these are delicate.”
She’s right. Not only is the doughnut delicate, but the icing is thick. I gingerly dip in the top half and rotate it before removing it and placing it on the rack to be topped. Ashleigh Patterson, another employee who has recently arrived, takes it and begins the process of sprinkling it and topping it with animal crackers. She moves carefully and deliberately; only when I see them applied do I understand the delicacy involved in the process of creating one of these donuts. They’re not just thrown together; they’re created from recipes, and exact recipes at that.
“You have to make sure you don’t get an avalanche,” she says.
We’re not walking on sunshine. We’re walking on pins and needles.
St. Peter’s frequent laughter can be heard from the front of the shop. The doughnuts are assembled and on display, customers are coming in and out, and the kitchen has slowed – for now.
It’s expected that James and Amy would enjoy working at Hypnotic, but what’s more surprising are the attitudes of their employees. Even at 3 a.m. Baker and Joshua are excited to be there, and by 3:15 they’re already rolling with their repartee. There’s a conversational comfort level among everyone there; like you’re in a club, albeit an unpretentious one.
“I feel like I’m lucky to be here, especially at the very beginning,” Josh says matter-of-factly. “James is a great guy, and it’s a lot of fun to work for him.”
It strikes me that it is in fact work that Joshua – and Baker and Powers and Patterson and everyone else – accomplish. To the casual customer, the display case at Hypnotic gives no indication that the dough went through two rises and a proof – not to mention a Hobart that could take a hand off – or that the toppings were meticulously assembled. The chicken biscuits will be hand-breaded and fried to order on biscuits baked that morning, and the grab and go’s – little breakfast sausages wrapped in the doughnut dough and then baked – were carefully wrapped by a moonlighting food writer.
As I leave after the second day, carrying an Evil Elvis (peanut butter, bacon, bananas and honey), I am struck by how enjoyable the time was – they do have fun – if also so much different from what I had had thought it would be. Again, it’s just that I didn’t expect working at Hypnotic to be so much work.
But as I take a bite of my pay, I wonder if these would be nearly as rewarding if they had been easy. One of the bananas falls off as I walk out the door, and I look down and chuckle, now wondering how difficult eating this thing would be if I didn’t have any thumbs.