Baking Bootcamp at Simple Kneads Bakery

One of the most hidden gems in our downtown is a small artisan bakery on the 200 block of South Elm Street. Almost every Friday, I treat myself to a walk down the street for a baguette at Simple Kneads. Very much like this blog, Simple Kneads isn’t all about the food – it is about the experience. The bakery  has the unique ability to excite almost all of your senses. Feeling and seeing the warm glow of oven heat radiating against the walls, the smell of freshly baking breads and pastries and the sound of customers sharing  stories of how the bakery brings back the fondest memories. And of course the tastes…

As you can imagine, leaving the bakery  each Friday has left me with a profound sense of curiosity and strong desire to experience what it like to actually bake the bread. I expressed these feelings to both friends and coworkers and they all said the same thing, “Do you know the hours?” I knew that professional baking couldn’t be what they make it in the movies but I had a mission to prove this to myself. It couldn’t be as romantic as it is on the big screen. Life in a bakery couldn’t be a movie styled by Susan Spungen. It wasn’t the classic scenes I hold so dear – Jack Nicolson and Helen Hunt’s last words in As Good as It Gets (“warm rolls“), Tom Hanks’ love letter (email) to Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail describing the way that flour comes out of the New York City streets from bagel shops like clouds in early morning, or Meryl Streep making chocolate croissants for Steve Martin in the after hours scene in It’s Complicated.

 

I brought up the idea of working in Simple Kneads to my friend Haley who works there during the day behind the counter. The title of the email was “Am I crazy?” As a fellow food lover and writer, she responded encouraging me to do it. She assisted me in approaching the bakery owner, Bill, a couple days later and I brought up the idea of allowing me to shadow his team for a night to observe their process. I wanted to lend a hand, get a feel for their work – and mostly, get the urge to bake out of my system. I signed up for a night shift starting at 1am and getting off at 9am. So this past Friday, I took a break from home cooking and joined the baking team at Simple Kneads.

The baking team is made up of four bakers – each with his own shift, duties and baking schedule. Randy is the master of all pastries. On Friday night he made hundreds of breakfast pastries – including a variety of danishes filled with cream cheese and fruit compotes, sweet and savory scones, cinnamon buns, sticky buns, muffins, vegan muffins, and of course, croissants — chocolate croissants.

Mike and Bryan start the night together as a dynamic baking duo. They have a master schedule on the wall of all the bread they need to make throughout the night, rising times, baking times – and ultimately tasking themselves to get it all done in time for Farmer’s Market pick up around 5am. Bill, the bakery owner, arrives at 3am to pitch in and help execute getting everything ready to pick up, deliver and open the store. Together the three of them make hundreds of loaves of hand made breads  using traditional European techniques. Friday they made baguettes, whole wheat, French white, asaigo peppercorn, molasses oat, sourdough, olive and many more.

Between listening to the BBC radio (their chance to pick up news during the night) and switching to Led Zeppelin and The Talking Heads (their “Saturday Morning Mix”) around 3am, they exchange thoughts on good food, music and politics. Every nervous feeling I had about coming to an unknown place to work with strangers in the middle of the night was broken down by their friendliness and passion for their work. They are proud of the products they make and happy to share their stories. We chatted about everything from their wives, their sleeping schedules and their feelings on peanut allergies. I asked them how much bread they ate considering how much time they spend making it – they all admitted they eat the bread daily. And included me in the late night ritual of snagging a favorite loaf just out of the oven and smearing it with room temperature European butter for a “midnight snack.”

To food lovers, Bill, Randy, Bryan and Mike just may be the unsung heroes of the world. Between high moon and sunrise while most of the world is fast asleep, they sneak in to make some of the most charished treats and exit before any customers arrive. They head off to make their wives breakfast, or to the farmers market or even to their next gig before the stories are shared and compliments are given.

So, unexpectedly, I’m concluding this post with a confession. I was wrong!  Bakeries, or at least this one, are as romantic as the movies make them! I had the most incredible time on Friday night. Rarely did I feel tired – just energized by their teamwork, passion and kindness. My only regret was not buying a couple loaves to go. I was craving toast when I woke up from my nap.

My gratitude to all the folks at Simple Kneads for satisfying my craving, including me in their process and sharing their enthusiasm. I’ll share my photos this week.

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