On a recent visit to Amy’s Bread in New York City, I watched a couple approach the counter to look over an array of beautifully shaped loaves. Their faces beamed with delight and appreciation as they scrutinized the display. After deciding what kind of bread they would share together that evening, they kissed, as if to seal the moment.
I am often amazed at how the simple act of buying baked goods can elicit such pleasure in people. At the same time, I wondered if the same kind of pleasure goes into the baking of the breads and pastries that we so desire. What is life like for the baker?
For those who might have a romantic notion about the life of a baker, owner Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread put it quite succinctly, “You definitely have to work on your feet. Your clothes, your hair, your skin, will be covered with flour and you’ll acquire a unique ‘oveny’ smell. And if you work here in the summer, you will end up getting hot—very hot. A baker’s job is extremely physical and on any given day may require the regular lifting of 50 pound bags of flour and some 3,500 pounds of raw dough.”
Then there are the hours. Successful bakeries are often producing 24/7 with shifts starting as early as four or five in the morning. In order to meet morning deliveries, overnight crews will start working around the time that most of us are heading off to bed. And because holidays are a prime time for production, bakers often resign themselves to giving up such “luxuries” in order to keep up with seasonal demands.
Mark Tasker, a pastry production manager at Balthazar Bakery, who came to bake by way of the European apprenticeship system, jokes how he didn’t have time to celebrate Easter with his wife and kids. Instead, they celebrated Ukranian Easter, which conveniently fell a week later on the calendar. “Because of the long hours, especially as a manager, you have to adjust and tweak your commute and schedule to make sure you find time away from the bakery.”
In listening to Scherber talk poetically about the process of making bread, you can begin to understand the draw, the charm, and the reasons why bakers love what they do. Scherber reveals the wonder of working with something that is alive. “It is moving along at its own pace and you have to interpret the dough, absorb all the information it is giving you, and use your skills and knowledge to transform it into an exquisite loaf of bread. There is a truly rhythmic and organic nature to bread baking—a sense of flow and energy.”
Renato Kopanski, manager and bread baker at Balthazar, shares a similar thoughtfulness about bread, “You have to live with the bread inside your head. When I come inside the bakery, I live inside the baking,” he says. “To take flour, yeast, and salt, to mix and shape the dough, to make something beautiful out of it that tastes good is magic. Sometimes, I often forget to go home.”
For these bakers, it is the resulting end product which seems to give them some of their greatest satisfaction. After working hours at a stretch—creating and shaping dough—they can come in the next day, see everything that they’ve produced, and feel a great sense of pride. At Amy’s Bread, the production teams will get very excited after a good night of baking, complimenting each other on texture and color. Being able to hear the appreciative reactions of the customers is an even greater reward according to Tasker.
If you are thinking about baking as a career, there is plenty of advice to be had from these professionals. A lot of experience isn’t necessary and often inexperience is preferred in landing a first job. This way, managers feel they can shape someone and establish good habits and techniques from the beginning. A few classes in baking are helpful and a desire to learn is key.
Tasker advises,”get yourself into your local well-established bakery and offer your services for free. That is the only way to understand the production end of things. And from there you can show your interest in learning all aspects of production—from bread to pastry—and eventually find yourself in a career with a lot of potential.”
Kopanski, who worked his way from a small town in Brazil with no electricity to become a sought after and respected baker is a prime example of someone who’s worked their way up the ranks. He says he never gets tired of baking. He loves that he can go anywhere with his skills and that everywhere he goes, there is always something to learn. Musing on the stability of baking for a living, Tasker remembers a quote his mother told him about the life of a baker, “you’ll never be cold, and you’ll never be hungry.”
When I finished my interview with Scherber, she took me to the front of the store and picked out a lovely, crusty loaf of olive bread to take with me. As I walked out, feeling the bread’s texture through the bag and thinking about how it was made, it suddenly felt different, possessed a kind of energy I never sensed before.
When I got home and broke into it for a taste, I understood the bread not as an inanimate object, but rather as a marvelous creation born from human skill and dedications from those of a noble profession. And, of course, it was delicious to boot!
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