Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!
It’s been a minute (and two jobs) since I wrote one of these entries, and it’s something a lot of folks ask me about:
“What’s it like being the morning baker/ ovenmaster in a French bakery?”
Well here we go.
My bike clacks and squeaks as I hop off outside the bakery.
2:25 AM on a foggy, chilly morning. I’m just barely early. It’s a cold morning though, so I might be in good shape.
Kayla’s been in since 2am. She’s on cold pastry, and a needs extra time to assemble her production list for the day. When it comes down to it, I have the easier job- “bake the things properly, get them out on time.” The challenging part of my position starts at around 6- Kelly needs to take what I made yesterday and finish it. She needs to decorate tarts, fill eclairs, finish miniature Saint Honore gateaus- on a stopwatch. Even if I DID like doing that kind of super finicky stuff, I wouldn’t envy her. From her side of the kitchen come a mix of sing-song laughter, swearing, and chatter as she talks herself through her work.
I tend to work a little more quietly, as I set down my bag and grab an apron.
My job is to make brown look as good as possible.
Before I even clock in, I check the proof box. In a glance, I know how my day will work.
The croissants have been in there since yesterday- first chilling gently, then proofing when the cabinet kicks on. Wonders of baking technology, this- a retarding/proofing cabinet on a timer. I’ve arrived just in time to see the box hit its peak temperature, meaning the croissants inside should be ready to go.
They aren’t. A chilly morning has delayed them. A glance and check says it’ll be at least 20 minutes before they are ready. I’d love to say we have this worked out to a science, but the fact is bread is a living thing. The yeast has it’s OWN schedule, and we can only hurry it along so much before something goes wrong.
No big deal- got time to bake the cookies first. The bread team came in at two, and they turn on the oven for me- sometimes.
There’s a plan for these mornings- a routine. With lots of asterisks attached for “play it by ear.”
“Making brown look good” is my favorite part of the job. The differences in shade mean “raw”, “perfect,” and “cosmetically unsellable.” It’s a constant evaluation between time and positioning in the oven, temperature, and the attitude of our wholesale accounts. There’s what “done” is for ME, for the BOSS, and for the CUSTOMER. Two of these are profitable, and I’ve been doing the job for long enough to know which they are.
Baking is alchemy, meaning it’s a chemical process. I just oversee the last third of it- the final product.
Which means that when a batch of croissant dough goes wrong, I can only do so much to fix it- and I’m the first person that has to explain.
“Not folded right.”
“Not rested enough.”
There’s only so much I can do and tell in the 18 minutes it sits in the oven.
The savory croissants and kouign-amann haven’t been proofing right recently, and baking off small. It’ll be a series of conversations between me, the production manager, the dough lamination team, and the wholesale manager fielding the complaints.
That’s the glory and the bane of small businesses- there’s only so many hands a problem can pass through, and no one escapes.
At 6am, the other bakers and front of house start to show up. The morning bake-off is finished just in time… and now the tougher part of the day begins- my role as ovenmaster.
When you have one oven with sixteen shelves and only one temperature at a time, but up to six bakers all with their own production schedules and trying to get it done without running overtime- you need one guy to run the oven like a train schedule. That’s me.
As soon as I have the last load of the morning bake in, a short conversation ensues-
“Right- who’s baking what today?!”
“Matt, I’ve got lemon bars at 350 for twenty minutes, then 300 for forty.”
“Not sure yet.” The conversation tends to happen during her rush time, trying to finish wholesale.
“Heard, gimme a timeline when you can.”
It all gets weighed against my own production and needs. I’d managed to knock out some of my production during the morning bake (when the oven is usually ONLY mine).
Lemon bars first, then my stuff, finish the day at 400 for pate au choux and vol au vent pastry. Smooth and easy.
Evelyn, the front of house manager, comes back with the phone.
“Matt, the owner is coming in soon. He wants you to throw a few brioche in the proofer.”
“Matt, 20 minutes on these when you can.”
I need to know everything that is in that oven at a given time. That means people hand off things for me to bake, or ask for permission before opening the oven. If I have choux pastry in there, or anything sensitive, better they ask than ruin product.
The owner sometimes comes in to experiment and work. He’s a good guy, and I like working for him- we all do. It’s rare to have an owner and boss that can actually throw down in the kitchen.
The only hiccup is a simple one- it’s one more schedule to work around, and a few more timers I need to keep. Ovenmaster is responsible for how long things are in the oven too. I keep time on anything that someone else isn’t, and I usually have to decide when it’s done.
That’s the tricky thing that gets missed when baking is compared to chemistry- there’s a “craft” aspect to it too. Timers are swell, but the BREAD knows when it’s done better than the timer does, and any number of things can change the duration.
Positioning in the oven. How many times the door was opened. The original temperature of the dough. How FULL the oven is. There’s no way to escape the horde of variables that race through a bakers head when they peek through the oven window.
There’s nothing sensitive in the oven- I can throw them in quickly. The next timer goes off in 20 minutes anyway, and I need to work on my choux.
Not a problem. Cheri, the pastry prep baker, has been doing other work while the boss was in the proofer. He’s done, so I can now set it to chill, and she can start on tomorrow’s bake.
10:30 am. The streets are packed with people running late for work, and the front is loaded with brunchers, children too young for school, and ladies who lunch.
“Where can I get a beer at this hour?”
In the last few hours of my day, everything tends to wind down. Kelly and I are done, or close to it. Rich and Cheri are well into their groove, and the prep cooks are coming soon. They’ll be working on the fillings, the salads, sandwiches, and what-have-you, and might need the oven. I hate working late- not just because I’m tired or will get in trouble for overtime, but because it might mess with their work.
“Anyone need me for anything before I go?”
Kayla pipes up. “Matt, brûlée layers tomorrow?”
Brûlée layers- the oven gets tanked to 210 degrees for 40 minutes. Bread will need the oven for an hour tomorrow, and I’ll have my own work to get done.
“Heard. Have the mix ready, and I can give you priority after the morning bake.”
It’s everyone’s oven. I just make sure everyone can use it.
The ride home is steep and tiring. It’s only 11 AM or so. Emily is just waking up, and Cleo is ancy. I drop my bag, kick off my shoes, and knock back a little preworkout powder before sitting down.
“I’ll just close my eyes a bit, then get up and work out…”
Well, there goes that idea.
Currently Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. Why this book isn’t required reading for business degrees along with The Art of War is beyond me.