By Megan Bushlow
The cake itself is made with a few basic flavors: cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla. Heavy cream and flour make an appearance, of course, but only to control the texture (of which they do a fine job). The cream cheese provides the core flavor of the dessert as well as the basic consistency; the sugar enters the fold to make the dish decidedly sweet, pulling away from the tart nature often found in cheese; and the vanilla is a crucial addition that goes unsunderably bound with the sugar, as it provides the sweetness direction and difference from other things plainly "sweet".
But the key is the lime juice.
It started out by accident: I wanted to follow a recipe from start to finish, but I misread the teaspoon measurement as tablespoons, and lo and behold, it became my greatest mistake and independent culinary achievement. While the basic cheesecake flavor brings people in the first time, the burst of citrus that comes from the lime (in conjunction with the sweetened vanilla to cut the sour) keeps the fork coming back to the plate time and again.
Even though I know how they got my email address, I'm still surprised they contacted me:
I'm a recruiter with Epic (a healthcare software company in Wisconsin).
They wanted me to come to their booth at the Engineering School's job fair to start talking about the application process for a full-time job after college.
I already had my own opinions on how awful and trashy job fairs were: kids would skip class and show up in poorly fitting suits to be one of a thousand nearly identical students giving nearly identical résumés to people who will not remember them. I thought myself too good to go to it, and considering I already had a job lined up — the US Navy — I was under no pressure to attend or make a good impression, but I figured I might as well show up and, hell, even wear a suit.
A banana suit.
I walked out of the bathroom of the Bob and Betty Beyster Building, one of the Computer Science buildings. I was wearing a banana suit, with a couple copies of my résumé in hand. Combined with my '70s-porno mustache, it was clear that I meant business: at this point, I was committed to the gag; there was no going back from here. I just needed to find Epic, charm their people, and get out of this overheating banana suit.
Finding Epic, however, was easier said than done. I didn't know at the time that there were three buildings doing the job fair, so I spent most of my time tooling around the Beyster Building looking for someone who wasn't there. In my confusion and frustration, I stopped at a company called Chartboost where there was a man with a mustache equally as trashy as mine. No one was in line there.
We stood there and looked at each other for a stretched moment.
"Nice 'stache," he said to me.
"Yours ain't bad, either."
We talked for a short minute, even about ROTC.
"So something you should know is that I am currently doing Naval ROTC," I had to let him know that I was not as much of a free agent as I made myself out to be. "Which means at the moment, I have a job offer from the US Navy."
"That's pretty cool, and I think that helps you stand out from the crowd. You bring a different set of skills to the table than other Computer Science students."
My face lit up. My ROTC enrollment was a boon here, not a bane: "Thank you, that's how I like to imagine myself. I can drop the ROTC program and reject their job offer at any point between now and next March, but I wanted to let you know that there is currently competition."
When people would ask me what I was doing at school my junior year, I would tell them that I was making cheesecake. This was for good reason, of course: I was not having an easy time with this type of cake. Cakes would crack, there'd be too much batter and I'd have to make three cakes, or I would adjust the cooking time to complete disaster.
Bzzzz. Bzzzz. My phone vibrated in my pocket as I was making the graham-cracker crust: take about two plastic-wrapped packs of cinnamon-flavored graham crackers from a box and turn them into crumbs. I had put them in a metal bowl and was crushing them with my knuckles over the course of 15-20 minutes. If blood, sweat, and tears were the secrets to success, I was going to succeed, god dammit.
Bzzzz. Bzzzz. I pulled my phone out with my clean, left hand. My right hand was already bleeding from the edges of the crackers cutting my skin.
"Hi, this is Ryan Newman from Chartboost. Is this Ari Brown?"
I kept crushing the graham crackers. They needed to be as fine as possible before I set them to cook in a pan.
"Yes, this is he. How can I help you?"
It was November now, but they had only just gotten to my résumé in the stack they had accrued from their job fairs across the country. They liked what they saw, and they felt that the next step was for me to take an online coding quiz within the next few weeks.
I ended up passing the test with flying colors, and even Skyped one of their employees. The employee happened to be from France, so a small chunk of the interview was conducted in French.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with Arnaud this week. He really enjoyed the conversation. As a next step, we'd love to have you come out to SF to meet the team, so if you could let me know when you can make the trip, we can work on getting that scheduled and coordinated.
I had never before been to San Francisco, the Mecca of startups and software development. My cousin Aaron lived out there, too. I could pay him a visit in the same weekend.
I recently was able to temporarily make the change from blender to KitchenAid mixer. The results were striking, as my batter went from a veritable liquid to something closer to the consistency of peanut butter. While I was unsure of what it would do at first, it turned out that the mixer version cooked much better; it didn't have that rubber-like consistency. While the blender worked well enough, the KitchenAid worked like Helen of Troy looked.
About a month and a half passed before I flew to San Francisco around January 17, 2014. I went straight from ROTC and changed out of uniform in record time.
Bzzzz. Bzzzz. I was supposed to get a ride to the airport from a friend of mine. It was 6:20PM. My flight departed at 7:30PM. The airport was only about 30 minutes away, but that's usually when traffic is on our side.
"Felice, what's up?"
"Ari, I'm so so sorry."
I looked outside the window of my room: it was dark, cold, and sleeting. Wait, snowing. Okay, back to sleeting.
"I can't get the car unstuck. It's frozen in place."
I don't want to say that I panicked, because I didn't.
"Don't worry Felice, I'll take care of it from here. Thank you very much for offering to take me, though."
I called three different cab companies. No one would take me.
I don't want to say that I panicked, but I panicked.
I made one final phone call.
"Gina, Gina, Gina, I just want to say that you're the best."
She laughed; this was not the first time I had started a phone call to her with praise.
"What do you want this time?"
"Nothing, can't I just call to hear your beautiful voice?"
"Okay then, bye—"
"I need a ride to the airport."
"The truth comes out." Whether she would take me was up in the air. "When do you need to be there by?"
It was 6:40PM now.
"Flight leaves at 7:30PM."
"I'll be right over."
It was 75°F and sunny in San Francisco, not a snowflake in sight. I have always been one to travel lightly, so I had but the suit I was wearing — red corduroy pants, blue blazer, white shirt, blue tie to match — and shorts and a t-shirt in a backpack with extra socks and underwear.
The interview itself was enjoyable: I got to talk about two of my favorite things: myself and computer programming.
I figured it went well enough: I was invited out to the bar with them all after work. The interview spanned from 2:00PM to 6:00PM, after which we headed out to get drinks. I went to buy a drink, but Sachin, the guy who first met me at the job fair, bought it for me.
It's always difficult to get a hard-and-fast measure of how you did in an interview because they're so subjective and the end result is a decision that is made after weeks of discussing what role the candidate would play in the company and his likelihood to accept the offer.
At the end of the long list of interviews, Ryan held a closing interview with me.
"Now normally, I'm prepared to offer a list of reasons why you should work for us instead of Facebook or Google, but you're considering two, uh, very different choices. I have nothing to compete with, uh..."
"Nuclear submarines." I filled in the job I was being assigned by the Navy.
"Right, so, I'm not really sure what to say." Ryan flipped through his folder, rearranging papers and making sure their corners lined up. "How do you feel about the decision right now? What are you leaning towards?"
Well, Ryan, if I drop the Navy — which I won't — I'll owe Uncle Sam $200,000, so the pay here had better be pretty damn good.
"Well, Ryan, it's a pretty tough split. You guys offer a seductive life here, programming with a diverse and incredibly smart and talented crowd, in the center of San Francisco."
I want to get this job, Ryan, but I'm going to have to reject it.
"I think I'm leaning towards Chartboost. This looks like a fantastic place to work. Can I ask, roughly, what the pay is like here?"
$200,000 in debt could disappear in maybe ten years. I could be debt-free in San Francisco by the time I'm 32, making over six figures.
The final step with cheesecake is to bake it. You must always have faith that your cheesecake will cook, because even though it may seem like it won't, it always will. Bake it at 350°F for 55-65 minutes, but when it's done, make sure to cool it slowly, lest cracks develop across the surface.
I was waiting in the kitchen for the oven to be turned off; it still had about seven minutes left.
Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Who calls someone at noon on a Tuesday?
"Hey Ari, this is Ryan from Chartboost."
I was excited to hear his voice; it had been a while since I'd heard back from the company, and thinking that I had interviewed so well, I was expecting to be offered a job.
"Ari, unfortunately, we're no longer interested in continuing talks with you about employment at Chartboost."
"Thank you for the phone call, I appreciate it. May I ask why you're no longer interested?"
"No. All I'm allowed to say is that other candidates fared better."
The key to cheesecake is letting it sit in the turned-off oven with the door slightly ajar immediately after cooking. After about 30 minutes of that, feel free to leave the door completely open for another 30 minutes: the goal here is to bring the cake to room temperature slowly. Once the cake has congealed at room temperature, then it may be placed in the fridge for up to two weeks. The lime juice is a great trick that no one else does, and it is certainly what keeps people coming back for more, but if you want more people to eat the cake, you're going to have to do what the rest of the known world does and let it cool.
Sometimes, you just have to follow your orders.