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Not a Badass, a Baker

The whims, obsessions, appetites and passions of the most honest man in the kitchen.

 

Thursday morning, 3 a.m.: The alarm clock sounds and the Baker rises. He’s showered and dressed by 3:40, out the door of his Capitol Hill apartment by 10 minutes to 4. He walks the few blocks to his workplace at the corner of Olive and Howell briskly but without hurry. The Baker walks this way almost everywhere. He doesn’t own a car, doesn’t want to.

Absent the daytime warmth of Indian summer, the dark night air is sharp and cold, the city streets mostly vacant. Not counting the woman tossing newspapers out of the passenger-side window of her Toyota sedan, the reasons for a normal person to be functioning at this hour are dubious—usually desolation or desperation. The Baker is at ease in this temporal netherworld. Not comfortable in it—nothing outside a bed is comfortable at this hour—but present in its remove. He knows exactly what he’s doing here.

Shortly after 4 a.m., the Baker, Neil Robertson, 47 years old, slim and fastidious in sleek, clear-plastic-framed glasses, close-cropped hair and trim salt-and-pepper beard, opens the door to Crumble & Flake. He steps inside his bakery—a spartan space with grey concrete floors, sparkling white walls, and big, front-facing windows—and turns on the lights. He is alone in his world, exactly how he likes to be. As not-night yields to actual morning, Robertson puts into motion the alchemical forces of chemistry and combustion that will produce today’s goods.

First are the croissants, the barometer of quality pastry. The three-day process begins with a live sourdough yeast starter that Robertson keeps bubbling in a plastic bucket like a cauldron of molten bread; it imparts a tasty tang to the finished product. The starter is mixed into dough, layered with butter, and stretched and shaped by hand. The raw croissants overnight in a refrigerator, chilling to slow yeast growth and robustify flavor. Now Robertson warms them in an 80-degree proofing oven to trigger the rising, and then finally bakes them in a tall commercial convectional oven.

He uses the same dough for his cinnamon rolls, resulting in a toothsomely brittle bun lighter and more satisfying then the usual gummy gut bomb. They too go in the proofer. He prepares scones of various types. Savory tapenade rolls. His famous kouign-amann. He brushes egg wash over smoked paprika croissants. He pulls cream puffs out of the oven, the first item to emerge fully baked. These will later be filled to order with various flavors of pastry cream.

The outside world remains dormant. Inside the shop, the refrigerator emits a drowsy whirr and the soft scent of baking is as faint and insistent as a memory. Amidst his preparations, Robertson keeps the kitchen immaculate—a hushed, sleek, industrial-culinary hermitage. He moves purposefully around the large center workstation, changing course only at the beeping insistence of a digital timer signaling the end of an oven cycle. Robertson pivots to the oven, silences the timer, removes a tray of scones to a cooling rack, and replaces it with croissants. To maximize production capacity, the oven must be kept full constantly. This challenge pleases him.

Dawn and consensus reality arrive around 6:30 with Alison and Amanda, the counter workers who sell Robertson’s creations. The young women turn on a small boombox on the floor to KEXP, fire up the restaurant-style coffee maker, and start lining the counter-mounted display cases with items Robertson has pulled from the oven. He breaks his steady pace for a moment and takes a tense breath, then is summoned by beeping back to the oven. Out come croissants.

At 7 a.m., the sky outside the front window is chilly blue. The display cases are filled with delicious color and temptation. Amanda unchains the front door, props it open, and flips the sign in the window to OPEN. Not a minute later a customer enters Crumble & Flake.

***

There’s a European proverb that goes something like “The baker is the only honest man in the kitchen.” It applies professionally—bakers can’t hide flaws under sauce or searing—as well as personally. Bakers are, generally speaking, of a kind.

“Very few friends, very little social life,” is how Robertson says he copes with the unconventional hours that his profession demands. “I’ve always been a loner.”

Neil Robertson is certainly an original. He was a graphic designer for almost two decades before switching careers 10 years ago. He studied pastry production in Chicago, baked professionally in Las Vegas at the Bellagio and then back in Seattle at Canlis. He opened Crumble & Flake eight months ago to immediate acclaim and long lines of people hoping for a taste of his pastry.

But he’s also an archetype: sober, meticulous, obsessed with perfection. (He spent seven years developing his chocolate chip cookie recipe.) He describes himself not as an artist but a craftsman, less interested in self-expression than consistency. Contrast that with the rock star pretension of the restaurant chef, tattooed and willful and possessing big ideas about Food with a capital F.

“I’m not a badass. I’ll never be a badass. I’m a baker,” Robertson says. “I don’t aspire to fame or, you know, big awards. If I can look at my case and all the baking is done and say to myself, ‘Yeah, I made that. I’m proud of that. Dammit, it’s good stuff’—that gives me deep, deep satisfaction.”

Across the city at Café Besalu, James Miller exhibits some of the same characteristics—the innate perfectionism, the quiet pride. (Probably coincidence, but he also sports snazzy, plastic-framed glasses and short hair.)

“Bakers are the humble side of the kitchen,” Miller says. “Cooks are like the lead singer, bakers are more like the rhythm section.” As for the off-hours, “If you’re immersed in what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what the clock says.”

Consensus is that, in Seattle, Besalu bakes the croissant to beat. The place has been a fixture in Ballard for 12 years, as much a fast-paced production facility as a destination for a leisurely latte or lunch. Miller says that some of his customers have stopped at the shop every single day since it opened. He’s happy to have children come in and see bread made by hand that doesn’t come from a supermarket.

At 1:30 on a recent mid-week afternoon, a few 20-somethings huddle at a table within Besalu’s saffron-colored walls playing Boggle. At another table, a woman props her sock feet on a chair while painting a watercolor. Behind the counter, a young server takes coffee orders before pastry requests. A handful of baking assistants scurry around ovens and mixers. Miller is taking a break from measuring dough on a worn steel balance to chat with a guy in a North Face fleece. The place is brisk and relaxed simultaneously.

“Just like any artist would have an idea in their mind of what they want, I have an idea in mind of what I want to eat when I eat a croissant,” Miller tells me later. “It’s hard to explain. When I watch children here that are five years old eating a croissant, getting in there, tearing it apart, almost with these rituals, eating the inside first or the outside first, really enjoying it, I want to tell the adults, ‘That’s how you should do it.’”

Miller relates one customer’s experience: “He ate the croissant and said, ‘Now I know what Godzilla feels like when he eats a building. I could feel each floor collapsing in my mouth.’ That’s pretty good.”

Eating a Besalu croissant is an experience of sensual science. Its striated curvature appears surprisingly structured, architectural—a tiny, squishy Sydney Opera House. Its consistency occupies an ambiguous interim state of matter between solid and gas. Its flakes are long and fluttery like some kind of silicate mineral. Salt and sweet cream butter lean on either side of the tongue; the tongue is not quite sure how to behave in this ethereal, flavorful encounter. The croissant emits a nostalgic smell of butter and bread. Also qualities more ineffable, like comfort and sophistication and expertise.

“To me, sincerity is one of the things you can spot a mile away at a bakery when you walk in, and that’s what you look for,” Miller says.

***

Baking is a practice of repetition rather than innovation. Repetition establishes form, form breeds familiarity, familiarity endows iconic status—the pita pocket, the sourdough roll, the wedding cake, the baguette, national icon of France. A chocolate chip cookie is a chocolate chip cookie is a chocolate chip cookie.

Then again, not really. Any child can recognize a superior cookie. Great distinction lies in tiny refinements: oven times and temperatures, ingredient sources and ratios, atmospheric conditions. The expert baker is necessarily empiric in his practice (“empiric” being a nice way of saying “anal retentive”). He keeps track of variables, adjusts measurements like a technician.

In practice, bread baking is different from pastry and yeast-free baking. It requires a different type of oven and attracts a different type of personality. “Pastry people tend to be a little more precise and bread people tend to be more hands-on,” Robertson says. He’s an avowed pastry person.

Columbia City Bakery owner Evan Andres is a bread person; he’s baked nothing but bread every day for seven years. Pastry doesn’t interest him. “It’s not alive,” Andres says. “Working with the yeast, something living, is what attracts me. I start the process and it’s my responsibility to see it through. I’m waiting for the yeast to tell me what to do next. I’m trying to follow the cues and stay awake enough to pay attention.”

Over the course of two conversations, Andres tells me he doesn’t think much about why he does what he does, about the meaning of baking. Now he’s grateful for the opportunity to do so.

“Any kind of food thing is personal,” he says, and like Miller and Robertson, points out that he can speak only for himself. “I thought it was a quest for perfection, then I realized that was unattainable, or you only have it for one loaf for one day. There’s much more to it than a loaf of bread. There’s a certain wanting to solve a problem and you only wanna solve it once and move on, but the problem comes back around. You almost can’t leave it alone because you’ve created a problem only you can solve, but one day’s solution isn’t the next day’s solution, or what worked a year ago doesn’t work now. Then you get the burnout, the constant question of Why am I still doing this? It’s more about learning how to steer it in the right direction and hope for the best.”

Baking as life lesson?

“Someone once said that bread is a metaphor for life,” Andres says. “The more I stay in it, the more I see what they’re talking about.”

***

Every three years, the baking world converges on Paris for a three-day, gluten-fueled orgy of competitive baking. Since 1992, the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, or World Cup of Baking, has hosted some 80,000 baked-goods fans and 12 national baking teams, each representing its homeland in a prestigious, four-tiered battle royale. An international jury of seven industry professionals judges each three-person team, previously screened through two years of regional competitions, on its baguette, Viennoiseries (sweet, yeast-leavened breakfast breads in the Viennese tradition, like croissants), “savory presentation” (i.e. sandwich) and “artistic piece” (an elaborate, bread-based, baked sculpture not meant for consumption). The last Coupe du Monde was held in March of this year. Japan took home the gold.

At the 2005 Coupe, a 32-year-old Arkansas-born, Seattle-dwelling high school dropout led the American team to its second consecutive victory. A year later, William Leaman, the Best Baker in the World, launched his own operation a few blocks from the West Seattle home he shares with his wife and two kids.

When Bakery Nouveau first opened, Leaman made little fanfare about his victory—he wanted his baking to speak for itself, sans French accolade. Today, the fire-hydrant-sized Coupe sits atop a pastry case inside the bakery.

If Seattle has an alpha baker, Leaman is it, and Bakery Nouveau might be the most impressive culinary producer of any type in the entire Northwest.

They make a slew of different breads, different selections every day. Dozens of pastry varieties. Cookies. Sandwiches. Seattle’s most extravagant wedding cakes. Chocolates (only in season; temperatures must drop enough to prevent melt). Soon they’ll make sausage, pâté and confit. All small-batch, produced at a level of quality and consistency that can rightfully be called world class. Leaman employs 35 people, but he developed every aspect of the operation, a polymath-ubergeek-mad scientist-varsity captain. Bakery Nouveau’s success has allowed Leaman to expand the venture to suit all his obsessions, the latest of which is butter.

Neil Robertson is particular about his ingredients, sourcing his high-fat, low-moisture butter from Oregon and flour from a small wheat farming aggregate in Eastern Washington. Evan Andres less so—he uses conventional ingredients from commercial providers. (“Everyone can open the same bag of flour,” he says, “but what do you do with it?”) But neither have the resources or desire to distil their craft to its most granular level. Leaman does.

“I’ll show you my butter,” he says to me. After weeks of phone tag, I’ve managed to corner him at the bakery. “This other stuff from France is 2011 world-champion butter. It’s excellent. But when I show you the butter I’m making, it’s two different products.”

Leaman has already detailed the molecular particulars of the flour he buys from Camas Country Mill outside Eugene, Ore., because they use a milling machine made in Denmark that emits no heat as it rolls wheat berries into flour. No heat means no damage to the wheat starch, he explains, which is the natural sugar that feed the enzymes of fermentation. “For me it’s a balance of the flavor of the fermentation and the flavor of the flour you’re using,” he says.

Sure, makes sense. Now show me the butter.

From the back of the bakery, Leaman brings to the table two paper-wrapped slabs the size of coffee table books. The French is standard butter color, a pale yellow-white. His stuff, mixed on the premises using nonfat cream from grass-fed Jersey cows from Pure Éire Dairy in Othello, Wash, is the color of sunshine. Unlike sweet cream butter, the common type found in the U.S., it’s made of fermented cream and is cultured like cheese.

Akin to Camas Country Mill, Pure Éire uses a French-made DeLaval system that processes milk with minimal heat output. “It pasteurizes but it doesn’t homogenize, which totally destroys flavor,” Leaman says, slivering his butter onto a nub of baguette. “You tell me.”

The flavor is musky and bright—and immediately addictive.

“My goal is to make my own butter,” Leaman says, effusive. “No other bakery that I know of is crazy enough to do that.”

***

Thursday afternoon, 3 p.m.: All that remains in the display case are crumbs and flakes. It’s a rare day—rather than sell out early and close up shop, Robertson stays open past his stated hours until finally selling the day’s last item. The peanut butter cookies—intensely salty and peanutty—were slow movers today. Alison and Amanda wipe down the windows and cases and counters at the front of the shop while Robertson and his assistant, who arrived at 8 this morning, sweep up and wash dishes.

Robertson has been baking 11 hours straight. One more and he’ll be finished rolling out tomorrow’s croissants. He’ll put them in the refrigerator to chill, do a final sweep of the shop, lock up, and head out into the twilit evening. He’ll walk home, have a small dinner—he’s not much of an eater—and be in bed by 7. Lately he’s been sleeping very soundly.

Pictured above: Top, Neil Robertson at Crumble & Flake; middle, the pastry case at Bakery Nouveau. Photos by Nate Watters.

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