I’m not a baker, right? But over the last couple of weeks I've found myself in a position to lend a hand to a local baker. So I’ve been working every once in a while, about a day a week, shifting doughs and shaping up loaves in a local artisan bakery…
The Baker Boys in Hook are making delicious organic bread every day. It goes out to the markets and it goes to local restaurants and pubs.
When my career started as a chef it was so exciting because every day I was learning so much! I would take a job for a year or even shorter sometimes (oftentimes!) to learn as much as possible. As soon as the learning stopped I'd be gone, moving on to the next job to learn something new. It was such an exciting feeling to get that experience, learning huge amounts every day. New techniques, new ingredients, new dishes, and when you are working in it day after day the amount of knowledge you take on is unbelievable. For many reasons I've been out of the restaurant game for a while, and so I haven't had that feeling for a while either. We’ll get into that another time...
When I started working at the bakery I got the excitement back that I haven’t felt for such a long time. So much knowledge in just one day and so many questions to ask. I even got some dough on the go as soon as I got home.
Although I am still dealing with food, it’s a completely different way of working. As a chef you have a deadline. In fact, you’ve got deadlines all day! Service is your deadline whether you're in events or restaurants or hotels. It might happen once a day, twice or even three times. And then you have micro deadlines... the time when something needs to be removed from the oven, when a sauce requires passing or skimming, or when a piece of fish needs to be flipped in a pan and transferred to the oven. See what I mean? Constantly under pressure from the clock, whether you feel it or not.
Bakery work is really methodical which is similar to being a chef, although I suppose that depends on the individual. I like to work in a methodical way, and it’s very repetitive which is similar as well because the practice is so valuable. The difference, I think, is the pace. In a professional kitchen as a chef you are always going fast. Moving fast, working hard, being efficient and that is reflected in the way you set up your section; where you place your chopping board, using a plastic box for your rubbish to minimize trips to the bin, everything is set up for maximum efficiency. To minimize unnecessary movement. Making sure you get that food done and out, and it’s fast and it’s quick. The quicker you do something the quicker you move onto the next thing. The more organised you are, the more efficiently you'll be cooking food for customers. Minutes and seconds count.
This is a massive contrast to the day of a baker. As a baker, your dough is the thing that dictates the time in the day. You only work as fast as your dough works and that’s the fascinating thing about it. You’re still working hard and you’re still being methodical and efficient, but the pace is completely different. You're not trying to squeeze in as much as possible in the smallest amount of time, you're working on a bigger scale. Working in hours, not minutes and seconds. Your methodical approach takes you through the steps required to make the bread but only as fast as the dough allows you to. There's a lot of work to do but the day is gentle. We are working with the clock not against it.
There are only two of us. Paul the baker, and me. I’ve been there maybe three or four times now and got a real feel for the place. There’s a sourdough starter bubbling away in one corner and a fermented dough made the previous day to kick start today’s dough. We use great big mixers for the dough then divide and shape everything by hand. We stand opposite sides of the table, one dividing the dough and the other shaping into balls and lining them up along the table. After another short rest (for the dough, not for us) we shape them one by one into their final loaf shape and let them rest again in baskets or on the shelf before they are baked. Loading the oven is a key moment of potential beginner disaster, so Paul does that bit. An oven will take 36 loaves if loaded just right. On my last visit he showed me the best way to unload the oven with a massive peel about six feet long! This giant wooden shovel can hold six loaves at a time but it’s heavy! So I unload in fours to be safe and transfer them onto a long wooden table.
He said he didn’t hear anything hit the ground, so I did a good job.
How satisfying... the loaves are out and what you would expect to happen happens; amazing smells of fresh bread fill the air, the loaves “sing” their crackly song as they cool, and we line them all up nice which is always very pleasing. But, there is something bigger at play here.
Paul has been a baker all his life. We stood and we handcrafted these loaves one by one. We looked over them and cared for them while the dough did its work, and now we stand amongst the result so proud. Sounds corny I know, but it’s such a great feeling.
Back on Friday and I absolutely can’t wait!