A baker’s new generation in United States
By Jeffrey Hamelman
This article originally appeared in Issue 27 of the Amicale Calvel newsletter in June 2009.
From Wonder Bread to Team USA
To say the United States baking industry has changed significantly over the past thirty years would be something of an understatement. At the end of World War II, eating habits brought industrial production and standardisation into sharper focus. Canned, powdered and frozen food – close at hand and easy to prepare – along with sandwich bread – pallid, insipid, pre-sliced – captured the hearts of the American public. The oppressive standardisation of these new foods triggered the disappearance of large numbers of regional specialities and small-scale products. Although in some places (mainly immigrant districts in cities) it was still possible to source tasty bread, Wonder Bread (the brand people remember as the worst example of this sad phenomenon) was in the ascendancy everywhere else.
In 1976, when the USA was celebrating its 200th anniversary of independence, you would be justified in believing that the quality of bread was deplorable and that few citizens apparently saw anything wrong with it. Who would have thought that, just 20 years later, TEAM USA would emerge as Bakery World Cup winners in the “Baguette and Speciality Bread” category? So what exactly has changed over the past two decades and how is it that America has developed at such a speed to become a country of bakers with a global reputation?
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of great transition in the United States. Young people from the “hippie” generation began the revolution by espousing back-to-the-land ideals and a renewed interest in healthy, quality food. They also began to re-embrace food products abandoned over the course of previous decades. With air travel relatively inexpensive at that time, young people set out to backpack across Europe by train and by hitch-hiking. The types of bread they discovered en route were a revelation. They knew it was virtually impossible to find anything similar back home. In the 1970s, the advent of a number of top notch bakeries in New England (North-East USA) and San Francisco Bay sparked the interest not only of regular customers but also an entire generation of future bakers.
Unfortunately, there was one basic problem: there were no bakery schools offering an established training programme, nor a suitable apprentice scheme. However, since there are fewer cultural constraints in the United States than in Europe, a new generation of “artisan” bakers was able to take advantage of the experience, know-how and long tradition of their overseas counterparts. By combining passion and perseverance, and drawing on the finest baking recipes and methods to be found in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, they were able to import Europe’s expert knowledge of quality bread-making.
It should be noted that many of these bakers discovered their new vocation later in life, having previously worked in other, often very different professions. These included journalists, photographers, biologists, lawyers, healthcare and financial professionals etc. What they all have in common is a sense of complete fulfilment they did not experience in their former professions. By way of illustration, here are three examples of top bakers who came to the profession via an atypical path.
Alison Pray is the co-owner of the Standard Baking Company in Portland, Maine, on the Atlantic coast of the USA. After graduating in economics, she worked for several years as a stock exchange brokerage firm representative. It was around the age of thirty, during a four week trip to France, that she was bowled over by her introduction to French baking.
I was stunned by the level of quality and knowledge I came across, even in small bakeries. Moreover, bakers treated their customers with respect and were held in high esteem for the service they provided to the community. This was the best bread I had tasted in my entire life. The impression that stayed with me was the extent to which small bakeries contribute to the life of their neighbourhood and how fabulous it would be to create something similar in my own community.
On her return to the United States, she already knew who she would choose as baker…herself! In order to learn the trade, she got a job in the best Boston bakery she knew and, once her day’s work was over, she spent her free time reading and experimenting. Three years later, she was able to open her own bakery and today, 14 years on, Standard Baking is one of the jewels of American baking.
In a warm, welcoming atmosphere, shoppers come to purchase top-notch bread and pastries. Always looking to enhance her professional skills, over the years Alison has studied under expert bakers in both Europe and the USA. Her efforts have brought her financial success (over a million dollars per year) and led to the creation of 17 full-time and 20 part-time posts. Her philosophy is a simple one.
Although bread-making is a straight-forward process, it is extremely hard to bake to a consistently high standard. What inspires and motivates us is our desire to ensure the next batch will be even better… a viewpoint we could all benefit from.
Editor’s note: In 2016, Alison Pray was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for the title of Outstanding Baker (interview )
John McBryde owns the Prairie Thunder Baking Company in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Of all those who took up baking after a career in another field, John would certainly deserve an award for the diversity of his previous achievements. After graduating in TV/ﬁlm in 1975, he undertook a Masters in Geology in 1976. After completing his studies, he spent 29 years working as a geologist in the oil and gas industry, in particular on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ever since his youth, he has enjoyed baking bread at home… yet apart from a 3-day seminar on how to manage a bakery, he had never received any professional training before opening his bakery a year ago. In this kind of scenario, you may well wonder how he managed to make such a success of his projects. But his intelligence, energy and the satisfaction of a commitment to spend his days preparing simple, yet essential foods helped him overcome any difficulties along the way.
Bread is a staple food, vital to our existence. It is surprising that something so unassuming, produced from such modest ingredients, could turn out so incredibly tasty.
His sharp sense of humour helps lighten the long days at work. When I asked what it was that attracted him to become a baker, his answer was instantaneous.
Well, we put in very few hours, not starting work until the afternoon, and of course we make a fortune!
John realised that choosing to set up shop in Oklahoma City, a very conservative city in the south-east United States, was not necessarily the ideal place to open a top-notch bakery. However, even in the south, there has been a shift in attitudes, with consumers developing more sophisticated tastes. It’s the people who discover fine things that make the best customers: “As a nation, we are starting to set our sights higher and look for something more than a mere commodity in the form of tasteless long-life sandwich bread”. John expects turnover to be around the US$ 400,000 mark in this first year. Though this will only just cover his costs, he can see there is sufficient growth in both in-store sales and wholesale orders to give him the confidence and belief that by choosing to focus on quality, his decision will pay off in the long run.
Editor’s note: For a look inside the bakery, follow the link. On the penultimate image, you’ll catch a glimpse of Jeffrey’s book in pride of place on the worktop!
Christy Timon owns the Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. She first worked in a bakery while studying to be a dance teacher at university in Wisconsin (east-central United States). She then left for Boston to seek work in the dance sector and once again worked in a bakery to make ends meet. However it was on a trip to Alsace that she discovered fine baking and pastry-making, cheeses, wine and a host of other gastronomic delights.
Christy opened her bakery in 1983. Realising after a while that she lacked a certain technical knowledge, she enrolled on courses to learn the art of professional baking, French pastries and patisserie desserts. Clear Flour Bakery has a charming shop-front, overlooking a small side street in a quiet district far removed from the main shopping hubs. The outstanding quality of her baked goods has drawn a loyal customer base that continues to grow. Her product range includes poolish baguettes, 100% rye bread, desserts, tarts and cookies. Everything is completely homemade. Christy has a staff of 24 employees and the house generates sales of around US$ 2,000,000, including 66% in-store sales. She does no advertising whatsoever. When I asked her why she chose to open a bakery, her response was charming and simple.
I love the spirit of discovery that baking awakens in me. I also love the fact that the commitment required is both mental and physical, with my brain and my body focused on the same goal, just like in dance. The sculptural beauty of breads and pastries appeals to me, along with the colours, shapes and movement. But first and foremost, it’s the taste that’s most captivating. This is art you can eat.
Editor’s note: In 2016, the bakery is flourishing: here are some photos of the bakers and their products.
The profession of baker has changed
Whatever careers these bakers have followed previously, each of them has created a bakery in their own image with its own aesthetic and philosophy, aimed at guaranteeing it is the best possible establishment of its kind. They dedicate themselves to their community, while at the same time are always looking to enhance their baking skills. It should be noted they have followed a path less common in Europe than in the United States: they have left behind their social class and the high economic potential of the intellectual professions to devote themselves to manual work. Though they would appear to be migrating down the social ladder, these bakers and others who belong to the same movement see things very differently.
In America and probably in France too, you are still likely to come across poor quality bread much too often. However, we cannot deny that there has been a clear and positive shift in the overall quality of bread. As a result, there has been a change in the general perception of the baker’s profession. All this is due to the efforts and dedication of people like Alison, John and Christy who are exemplary members of one of the most honourable and worthy professions there is.
Thanks to James McGuire for the original idea for this article